When historians look back on the early years of the 21stcentury they will note a paradigm shift from the closing years of the Information Age to the dawning of a new age, The Age of Emotion. Now, there are those that would argue that in a period defined by prolonged economic ennui ROI is the only thing that really matters and pricing is the only real consideration consumers think about – the rest is fluff. But I disagree. Why? Because we’re not talking about trends here, which are ultimately short lived, but cultural patterns which are sustained and signal a shift in worldview.
On a fundamental level, we are more in tune with our emotional needs than at any time in recent history, or at the very least we have more time to reflect on them. We focus increasingly on satisfying our emotional needs and pop culture both reflects and creates this. It is a cycle. One needs look no further than the multi-billion dollar self-help industry as an example. Talk shows abound focusing on the emotional displays of the masses and the advice given out in front of an audience of millions.
And this growing focus on the emotional has extended into the shopping and retail experience. Increasingly we will see a subtle, yet profound difference in the way people relate to products, services and the world around them. Retailers increasingly focus on the nature of the in-store experience, converting the space from a place to showcase goods, to a location, a destination, a stage on which we perform. And indeed, shopping is as much about performance as it is about consumption. Just as fulfilling emotional needs has become the domain of brand development, it is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of the retail experience, at least for retailers focused on margins rather than volume. Rationality will take a back-seat to passion as we move from the sensible to the sensory. While ROI is the obsession today, Return on Insights and Return on Emotional Satisfaction will be the leading factors in the years to come.
For the developed world and the world’s emerging economies, time and money equate to an increased use of brands and shopping as emotional extensions of ourselves. Status, power, love, etc. are wrapped into the subconscious motivations for choosing one location over another. And while we are still bargain hunters, the hunt is less about price than it is about the experience of the hunt. Again, emotion drives the process, even when we say it doesn’t. “Experience” is emotional shorthand.
Successful companies will learn to pay more attention to how their customers react emotionally and how their brands can fulfill emotional needs. In the Emotion Age, brands will either lead the way to customer satisfaction or be left in the dust.
A couple of years ago I was at the opening day of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando. As one might expect, the buildings, the sets, everything was designed to reflect the sets used in the movies with a level of detail that defies description. But the real genius of the experience doesn’t set in until you actually begin to interact with the various themed spaces. It all begins when you enter the wand shop. After waiting in line for a very, very long time, 15 or so people are ushered into a small mock shop and the scene from the original movie is acted out word for word with a member of the shopping audience. Ollivander’s Wand Shop springs to life. You’re then ushered through a door into the retail space, crowded with delighted fans happily handing over a small fortune to buy the same products they can buy online for a fraction of the price.
The store is indicative of a theater. Not only is the environment an exact duplicate of the movie set, but the interactions themselves draw the buyer directly into the story line. By the time one leaves The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, loaded down with bags of magical souvenirs, they’re already making plans for the next visit. And this is the sort of reaction every retailer wants. Even without the direct associations with the movies the retail space would still conform to some very basic principles. Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological archetypes.
Human actions are dependent upon time, place, and audience. In other words, the self is a sense of who one is, a dramatic effect emerging from the immediate scene being presented. What a person “really is” is not only undiscoverable, but also arbitrary in its nature insofar as it is shaped by context rather than some fixed, innate sense of being. The individual’s identity is performed through role(s), and consensus between the actor and the audience. A person’s identity is constantly remade as the person interacts with others and the stage on which they collectively engage. People are actors who must convey their personal characteristics and their intentions to others through performances. As on the stage, people in their everyday lives manage settings, clothing, words, and nonverbal actions to give a particular impression to others. The more a setting helps facilitate this, the more engrossed in the storyline they become.
So what does it mean in the context of shopping? Customers need experiences, not just things. More people are shopping online for convenience and deals, which means that the in-store experience becomes an incredibly important differentiator. People are more satisfied by unique experiences than they are by commoditized objects.
Shopping is not simply a matter of getting “stuff.” Whether you’re looking for a bank, a shirt, or a bottle of beer it has become more than a function. Shopping becomes entertainment depending upon the function, need, and desire for the object being shopped. For example, shopping for bras can sometimes be a pain in the butt if it is “needed” for a “utilitarian function” (a “work bra”), but it can become entertainment if the bra is “desired” for other cultural functions. People can also use shopping at second hand stores as a form of entertainment if there is a piece of clothing that is “desired” (a cheap pair of designer jeans), yet if one “needs” to shop for work attire at second hand shops because of a limited budget, it can cease to be entertainment and fall into the world of “errand.”
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. According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2011. More stores means more opportunity win or lose customers. In such a highly competitive, highly demanding landscape, there is little margin for error and a short time to market. Increasing sales revolves around more than getting people in the store, it involves getting them to think of the store as a destination and thinking of it as a “Place” rather than a “Space.”
In the past, language emphasized the skill and mastery involved in shopping. There were very real, practical results stemming from skill as a home manager. With time, the primal need to “hunt” has changed. Hunting and production are no longer about survival, but about the challenge and the social capital it brings. Lines between work and leisure are blurred. Language used in advertising and inside the retail space needs to speak to the romanticized view of the hunt as much as it does the material benefits of the products. Rather than speaking about functional benefits, the focus needs to reflect on the social capital gained by the shopper and the storyline of the shopper’s life (or desired, projected life).
Create a Stage:
The store is indicative of a theater. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space 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 retail space 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 facade.