Bricks, Clicks and the “New” Retail Paradigm

Since the emergence of internet shopping, companies have tended to structure their way of thinking about shopping channels in silos that reflect their operations. Shopping behavior is segmented according to the channel and the shopper is relegated to a specific trajectory. Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc.  Shopping is seen first as a function and secondarily as something that serves emotional and social needs. Even as we talk about retail therapy, we revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior.  But it isn’t so simple anymore. Unfortunately, with the ubiquity of internet access, be it from a fixed location or via a mobile device, the truth is those lines between the off-line and online experience have become so blurred as to be meaningless.  Rather than individual silos, shopping processes function as part of a complex, adaptive system that is increasingly driven by social interaction and socio-cultural needs, not transactional needs.

If a company is to grow its brand (and thereby its bottom line), it is wise to think about how this system emerges and understand how the act of shopping has fundamentally changed at a deep cultural level. What this means for shopper marketing is that the best retail experiences, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales, are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative.

Bricks

Fifty years ago, the retail space was the only real way to interact with customers.  Yes, there was the option of the catalog, but it was, and is, a one-way conversation.  The retail space was more of a transactional space and advertising was simply a list, though cleverly done, of the goods available.  As shopping has become more convenient and the transactional element has been driven into new realms, and the retail spaces and brands that everyone admires have begun to touch shoppers on a more visceral level.

Shopping is about more than getting more stuff.  Brick and mortar shopping as it is practiced today in particular jumps the line between a functional/transactional and social/symbolic experience. Shopping is as much about entertainment, establishing cultural roles and teaching cultural norms (or rebelling against them) as it is about anything else. Often, the decision to enter into one retail space over another is about experiential elements more than it is price or convenience. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate.

Clicks

Digital shopping (online or with a mobile device) is highly personal, portable and an increasingly participatory experience. When it first began, the online shopping experience was largely fixed in one location and the interactions, primarily transactional in nature, were almost exclusively between an individual and what a company chose to present to them.  But this process was quickly modified as people began posting product reviews, blogging about their experiences, etc. Even so, the process of investigating a company was largely between an individual and either an institution or an abstract person in an unknown location.  And then social media was born changing the nature of the web and the shopping landscape forever. The highly individual, highly transactional nature of the online shopping experience became subject to the same social and cultural drivers as the brick and mortar experience.

Shopping ahs become as much about structuring peer groups as the transaction. The shopping and the purchase itself represent the groups we interact with and our places/roles in them. Because social media tools help us craft public identity, so do our purchase choices. With the increased use of mobile devices online shopping, and hence social media interaction at the point of shopping, has moved from the individual sitting at his or her kitchen table to a very public dialog. Peer group members (no, Ginger, we didn’t say “demographic” or “segment”) interact with each other and the retail environment simultaneously, creating a shopping experience that can draw literally thousands of people into the conversation from the point of consideration to the point of purchase.

Blenders

Retailers can blend the physical and social experience of brick and mortar shopping with the participatory (read: social network) experience of digital shopping to achieve a greater percent of brand loyalists (which currently and historically sits at 5%) and higher multi-channel revenue streams.

The first step is to examine in a bit more detail why people participate in digital shopping and what it means for the retail experience in its totality.

  • Social network: When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and being an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs. It doesn’t matter if the shopping is in a physical location, in virtual space or a blending of the two.  Shopping has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Retail spaces and social media spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the brand lead to a greater sense of belonging and reinforce the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. For example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store (returning to our bra example) increases the sense of romanticism and allows people to “play” to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking. Add to this the ability to share that experience with others and it becomes more real, more meaningful.  That in turn builds both interest and loyalty amongst your shoppers.
  • Entertainment and gaming: The store is indicative of a stage, a field on which we play games.  The same is true in social media.  People assume roles which they use to create a game-like environment, one-upping others and competing for cultural, psychic and monetary capital. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space and the social media environment should still conform to some very basic principles.  Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological triggers of enjoyment and participation. People create memories within places if storylines develop and form personal connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to buy. A good brand needs to be create a shared identity, connecting the company and the shopper by developing clear imagery and displays that create the sense that there is a narrative behind the façade.
  • Rewards as social influence: Rewards and bonuses are about more than getting goods for cheap.  The underlying motivations are largely drawn from the need to attain a sense of mastery that isn’t too far removed from the pleasure our ancestors derived from the hunt.  Not only do you get the good deal, but your sense of self worth and accomplishment is inflated.  Going beyond the need for mastery is the pride derived from demonstrating to the world that you are skilled.  You gain influence and cultural capital.  Add to the mix the element of social media, mobile social media more precisely, and the validation you receive is immediate and more expansive. The entire world shares in your success and you gain a degree of prestige that is tied to the exact moment of shopping, not as an afterthought. The result is that the brand, the store and the online presence become an integrated experience that is far more powerful for the shopper.

The trick for retailers is determining the proper mix of each of these elements to create the ideal shopping experiences for their brand. In the end, retail shopping is becoming more complex. With the increased use of online shopping and the ease of access to a more and more locations, people are making choices based on underlying desires, not just functional needs. Anything a retailer can do to improve the experience is a key differentiator. Differentiate your store and you increase loyalty and sales.

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Shopping and Interpreting Space

Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. The physical construct envisioned by the architect, the interior designer, the store owner, etc. are all varied to some degree based on how they understand and respond to vague notions like “shopping.”  Add to that the varied, contextually mitigated understandings of the consumer about an activity and space, and designing the elements that are meant to fit into a space becomes highly contentious.  Frequently, retailers and CPG companies build around assumptions that rarely factor in the complex underpinnings of why people shop in a broader cultural context. The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy.  And that leads to lackluster sales.

While there are a host of theories and design doctrines that go into constructing a retail environment, methods for retail space design have largely cantered around atmospherics for the last 30 years. Basically, the model states that pleasant environments result in an approach response,  and unpleasant environments result in avoidance. Simply put, if the environment is pleasant it increases arousal and can lead to a stronger positive consumer response. If the environment is unpleasant, increasing arousal level will produce avoidance. The arousal quality of an environment is dependent on its “information load,” i.e., its degree of  Novelty (unexpected, surprising, new, familiar) and Complexity (number of elements, extent of motion or change).  People seek out novel experiences, but novelty becomes a burden and a threat if there is too much happening for the brain to process. Humans want to explore and be entertained, but not to the point of confusion.

The problem is that while the parameters of avoidance and approach, novelty and complexity, hold true at the cognitive and biological levels, they can’t compensate for cultural motivations. They are simply too simple. A contextual model expands on these principles and asks what cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids?  Are they seeking escape from a busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? The point is that brands and shopping serve a wide range or roles.  More so in an era of increasing internet shopping, increased expendable income and access to goods.  The retail space is more complex than cognition and biological responses to stimuli.

Indeed, cultural norms often dictate our notions of comfort and self-worth, as do the various shopping contexts in which we find ourselves. The good news is that the contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable brand identity. The key is understanding how the product, the retail space and conceptions of self and other work together as a system of meaning. Shopping begins long before the need to purchase an item arises and you get at a deeper understanding of what matters, in context, by exploring the deeper meanings behind the objects and the activities.  Once you understand that selling toilet paper is about concepts of hygiene and purity, that selling heartworm medication is about our deeper fears of pollution and impurity, or that shopping for clothing is frequently about sex, your range of options increase.

What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, shapes on how a promotion, a marketing message or a brand is perceived. Promotions in high-tragic, high-messaging location, for example, are easily passed over unless the offering has a very clear purpose – it can’t simply be clever. As another example, a high-end grocery isn’t just selling food.  For a husband trying to prepare an anniversary dinner for his wife, the store is selling self-assurance, facilitating love and helping lay the groundwork for a pleasant memory.  That means, potentially, decreasing efficiencies and helping navigate the shopper to areas of the store he may not have considered.