Retail and Anthropology

Someone asked me the other day how anthropology fits into retail. Since it was a cocktail party I needed to be brief. And I think that brevity is sometimes our best friend.  In short, we help retailers understand that shopping is about more than simply finding “things”.

Retail is growing increasingly complex. 70% of purchases are done on a whim. Anthropology is an inductive process that’s all about understanding the meaning behind our actions and our ways of interacting with the world. We try to look retail through that lens.  Shopping is entertainment, it’s a teaching moment, it’s a way of establishing social bonds. Anthropology provides a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic, in this case the retail stage. It evaluates what people say, what they do and why they do it. Research has typically looked at individual shopper motivations. But people never really shop alone – they carry their culture and experiences with them. So, if you want to understand how and why people use, say, a clothing retailer you have to start by asking what kind of experience are they subconsciously looking for. What kind of interaction with the staff do they really want and expect?  What kind of image are they trying to project at different points throughout the day and how does that shape their decision to use on retailer over another?

Our work gets to those powerful, underlying drivers that really matter to people. If you understand how elements of behavior and worldview fit together in a system, you can develop complete strategies that convert shoppers into buyers and buyers into advocates. And I think that is the ultimate goal. It isn’t enough to hook people in the store, even if you leave them happy. Anthropological work is designed to engage people in the storyline of the retailer or brand. The goal is to produce a type of conversion that is devotional, almost religious, getting people not only to visit your store repeatedly, but to sing the praises of a brand to everyone they know, creating more devotees.

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