Retail IS Marketing

We’ve been hearing about the eminent death of brick and mortar retail for a very long time. And while the industry continues to be squeezed as more people shift their buying habits online, retail is far from dead. It does, however, need to evolve and think about how it can remain culturally relevant. A lot’s been said about how consumers today don’t settle for just great products. They want their brands to reflect their lifestyle and values. Things like authenticity, ethical behavior, relevance to their identity matter more than ever before. Retail shopping is becoming more complex and is more than a place to make a purchase – the retail experience is a marketing platform. 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. Thinking about the retail experience as a marketing tool will increase loyalty and sales. Treating your retail experience as a marketing tool involves six crucial elements:

  1. Tell a Great Story

The term “lifestyle” is thrown around fairly freely, but for us it’s about storytelling and engaging with people in a conversational way. A retail brand needs to be viewed in the same way a customer might view a friend who’s changing and evolving, but still has a strong sense of DNA. That means having a clear tone, but not being restricted by a rigid set of rules. It also requires that the brand communicate its story in everything it does, from traditional adverting, to how employees interact with guests, to its presence in social media. Every touch point needs to align with the other to create a clear, singular expression of why the brand exists, not just what it sells.

  • Unexpected Topics

Your brand shouldn’t be pigeonholed; it should be seen in a light where there is meaning and narratives are celebrated. A retailer can’t be afraid to venture outside its vertical and engage with people in unanticipated ways. This isn’t to say that the brand should jump into every conversation for the sheer sake of having a voice, but it should think creatively. For example, knowing banks need to attract younger customers, why not have a pop-up retail presence at a music festival? If your brand sells men’s clothing, why not host a happy hour? The point is, being an unexpected part of a conversation makes your brand more relevant in daily life.

  • Guides, Not Clerks

Going forward, in-store staff will have to be more educated and receive more training than retail staffers get today. That will of course lead to a larger training investment by the retailer, but the benefit is that there will be greater incentive to reduce staff turnover, which in turn will improve the shopping experience for consumers by making staff more knowledgeable and able to build lasting relationships with customers.

  • Technology

Technology will continue to change the store experience. Not just technology for the supply chain that gets products into the store faster and more reliably, but technology that consumers can use in the store. The technology that’s coming will recognize the consumer when they come into the store and make recommendations that are relevant and time-saving for them. It will also help retailers to organize and present products in ways that are more relevant to how consumers actually shop. With that in mind, staying ahead of the curve will ensure customers think of your brand first when deciding where to shop.

  • Create a Stage

Shopping is seen by most marketers 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. In fact, entertainment and a memorable in-store experience probably have more to do with a sale than the product or the ease with which people find it. Choice equates with enjoyment, turning shopping from labor to entertainment. The retail environment is an expansive, immersive media platform. 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.

  • Foster Social Roles

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 has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Brands that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space leads to a greater sense of brand affinity, reinforces the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion, and creates a shared cultural connection.

Even as we talk about retail therapy, we often revert in marketing to discussions about seemingly rational behavior. But it isn’t so simple anymore. Shopping is about more than just getting more “stuff”.  Brick and mortar shopping as it is practiced today in particular jumps the line between a transactional and social experience. Shopping is as much about entertainment, establishing cultural roles and teaching cultural norms (or rebelling against them) as it is about anything else. No doubt we’ll see a range of creative ways in the future of dealing with the diversifying modes of shopping. For example, product companies may provide space to relevant service businesses. A luggage or travel store can have space for a Kayak or Expedia kiosk or service desk. The point is that it’s going to take creativity to get maximum leverage out of limited capital. But the payoff is a stronger connection to a brand, increased loyalty, and more dollars spent.


Retail Spatial Design

Spatial design is a relatively new term that emerged about a decade ago and expresses the idea that people, design and environments all connect together is the primary idea behind spatial design. The concept defines the relationship of people to environments through the use and application of design principles and is specifically oriented toward space-location, denoting an active response toward the creation of efficiently operating environments that serve the purposes and needs of people.  Quite a mouth full to be sure, but the underlying idea is relatively simple – environments are complex and elements are interconnected, from furniture, to fixtures, to cultural understandings of space. If you have a retail space, every element works as part of a complex system of meaning.  Design well and you increase loyalty and sales.  Design poorly and people shy away.

Spatial design focuses on the flow of space between interior and exterior environments both in the private and public realm. It also looks at spaces within a larger context (e.g. “safe zones” within a store). The emphasis of the discipline is on the interrelationship between people and space, particularly looking at the notion of place and place identity.

Whereas space refers to the structural, geometrical qualities of a physical environment, place is the notion that includes the dimensions of lived experience, interaction and use of a space by its inhabitants or visitors. We cannot escape spatiality: as spatial beings, we live and meet each other in space. That means we do more than fill a space.  It means all space is defined by social interaction and the cultural interpretations we bring to the environment before we even enter it.  Space never is meaningless.  Our body is the central reference point for perception and culture is the filter through with interpret a space. Movement and perception are tightly coupled and we interpret spatial qualities (or positioning of other objects) in relation to our own body. Spatial qualities therefore have cultural and psychological meaning – space can feel protectively enclosing or claustrophobic, objects and people are near or far, large objects tower over smaller ones. Spatial qualities inform interactions, creating or reinforcing how we interact with others, including sales staff.

So why does any of this matter?  Because a retails space, like any space, is less likely to engage if it is difficult for customers to assign meaning to it.  Creating a sense of place – memory, cultural cues, mythology, meaning – transforms the location into a destination.  That means increased visits over time, greater loyalty, advocacy, and more sales.  Retailers need to consider their environment in broader, strategic ways. How can different notions of place help us to understand collaborative practices within existing environments?  How do we design for supporting collaboration and social interaction within retail spaces?   What meaning does and can the retail brand hold for customers?   That requires thinking, planning and a commitment to research that goes beyond the numbers.

Space and Healthcare

Healthcare and wellness are complex and involve more than a mechanical application of technical skill. Wellness is about engagement. Engagement can be as simple as reading to your child or as complex as being in an adult basketball league – the key is that engagement involves others and mobility through a range of environments. It is bound to human interaction.

In contrast, illness is understood on a personal and singular level – illness is a break with everything good and positive in life. Healthcare today is, rightly or wrongly, conceptually aligned with the negative because, whether literally or representationally, it connotes something is wrong and out of the ordinary. From TV to radio to print, healthcare is presented in a light that fosters a cognitive model of apprehension if not outright dread. Wellness is the steady state, healthcare is the episode. It is inherently frightening. But the spaces in which healthcare takes place can have a remarkable impact on shifting these perceptions.

Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. Hospitals and clinics that are visually and contextually different from the hospital archetype are generally perceived as providing better care. But it isn’t as simple as a new coat of paint and better magazines.

This means that how we interpret space and our physical environment (both public and personal, literal and symbolic) can have an enormous impact on how an interaction and its outcomes are perceived. When patients are encouraged to interact with the space in a non-transactional way, creating new configurations collectively and dynamically, they are more inclined to interpret themselves as part of the storyline. The contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable, positive shared identity.