Cognition and Collective Awareness: Creating “Place” in Retail

Humans favor certain environments that satisfy survival needs. Through millions of years of evolution we are hardwired to seek out environments that signal an increases sense of comfort and  a higher probability of survival.  We seek out evidence of:

  • Abundant resources
  • Minimal threat from predators and aggressors
  • Shelter from the outside world

Much of this is subconscious, but it remains deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Consequently, humans have evolved a visual preference for spaces that allow us to see without being seen when we so choose.  From a retail perspective, this means developing enclosed spaces that downplay threat and encourage complete emersion in the experience.

Even as we seek out environments that speak to our needs of comfort and survival, humans are inherent risk takers. Enticement and peril are part of the exploration process and without this deep-seated need to explore and take risks, we wouldn’t be human.  Humans need to seek new information and test their skills.

Consequently, we seek out new experiences that can be differentiated from other experiences.  We categorize these experiences, giving them greater meaning and a higher probability of habitual use.  Categorizing and differentiating suggest:

  • Diverse resources
  • Greater stability

Ultimately, this appears to be a contradiction. But there is the possibility of resolution.  Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone. On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Uncovering those cultural processes and designing a retail experience around them offsets the impact of cognitive responses to an environment.

So what do we do to provide a sense of security while playing to the underlying desire to explore and learn knew things?  We strike a balance.  And we strike that balance by thinking in terms of converting space to place.  Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users. People create memories within places and form personal and collective connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to bring new people to that place. The goal is to endow a venue with symbolic meaning, memory and significance.

The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the setting, or the setting it attempts to project, being written about, being party of stories handed down over time, being portrayed in art or being part of the collective myth.  It can be established through modes of codification aimed at preserving or enhancing places and traditions felt to be of value. All this creates a “database” for framing the socio-physical settings we experience.  By providing customers with symbolic cues in the environment that set it apart from the surrounding area, we cater to the need to delve into the new while subconsciously establishing an element of the known, the safe and the familiar.

 

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One thought on “Cognition and Collective Awareness: Creating “Place” in Retail

  1. Gavin
    Thank you – I have been searching for the science behind this shift (from the control of physical space to the co-creation of social place) – and this article provides it. The best retailers always understood this, but now they have even more opportunity afforded by the integration of physical and digital touchpoints with which to provide the rich context for the consumer’s journey to purchase

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