This is my second guest blog post in a series on consumerism today. You can read the first post here.
I referenced in my prior post a Deloitte study that suggested that retail stores should be considered like any other marketing medium. This is an idea that has actually been around in retail for quite some time, but the response has been uneven in the business world. While some stores are highly evocative, others are bare bones. A Whole Foods is not a Walmart.
What few studies of consumerism tend to get into are the details of how people actually interact with a retail environment. Consider Ikea. The store essentially contains two main phases that are much more than opportunities to shop. Ikea is actually prompting us to think and act in a specific way: dream, and then act. The first phase of the Ikea experience puts shoppers in an environment that provokes conversation, discussion and debate about how our home space could be altered, picked apart and then pieced back together. Here, you will rarely see individuals. People come to Ikea in household groups: families, spouses or potential spouses. The store places shoppers in a home context and then, in places, isolate out elements—couches, chairs, shelving—before bringing you back to contexts through a choreographed procession. And after you have moved through the top floor dream space, the ground floor is the place where you can actually find your selections. Instead of a home context, it feels more like a warehouse. This is more than merely functional, it also reinforces the concept that Ikea’s prices are as low as possible. You couldn’t buy furniture cheaper unless it fell off the back of a warehouse truck.
As I was sitting on a floor model couch one Saturday afternoon in the Burbank Ikea, watching a family of four take over a kitchen space, point out design details to one another, imagine how they might make omelettes there and where they would prefer to move lights, a Levi-Straussian observation struck me that is probably obvious to any reader of this blog: Retail is good to think with. Our retail environments, even those much less compelling than Ikea, are always somehow guiding or trying to guide us.
Based on my research, however, I have found that most people inside of retail organizations are largely unaware of how this might work. While seemingly sophisticated consultants, like Paco Underhill (the so-called “retail anthropologist” who we talked about in the comments section of my last post), may make suggestions on how to rearrange products and categories to sell more stuff, what is typically lost on retailers is how the entire store comes together as a generator of and site for the reproduction of culture. Underhill’s bestselling Why We Buy never actually approaches the meaningful side of retail and why people are buying the things they do. Perhaps the book should have been titled How We Buy. It is behavioral analysis with some psychology slapped on top of it, not a theory of practice. Like it or not, people come to retail environments in order to find solutions for the occasions of everyday life. Retail environments establish limits and opportunities for those activities. Their physical organization is like a value structure, emphasizing and facilitating certain behaviors while steering clear of others.
Consider the traditional grocery store environment, a site with different brand names around the country, but essentially sharing common attributes. The chassis of this store was based, long ago, on a warehouse of food, which people approached with a list of products. The store would fetch products for you, gather them together and then ring you up. This is ancient history now. The great innovation in the industry was ripping down this front wall to allow shoppers inside and select products for themselves. Grocers saw this as a way to save time and make more money, but it also changed the way shoppers could consider the possibilities of food, meal planning and family life. Over time, the chassis of this space has not changed dramatically. The “perimeter” of the store has experienced change, with bakeries and produce areas made more dramatic, but the middle of the store, what is called “center store,” has remained largely the same: rows and rows of stacked products like inventory in a warehouse. This area is particularly interesting because there is ongoing debate over its fate in the industry. Should they try to make center store smaller or change it somehow in order to reflect changing ways families stockpile food in cupboards (or not) and eat processed and preservative-based foods (or not), or should they keep it as it is until declining sales force them to consider an alternative? The consumer packaged goods industry has a financial interest in making center store better, while grocery store companies have a compelling interest in maintaining their relevancy to how people eat and use food nowadays.
Retailers tend to not recognize their role in guiding culture for two main reasons (though there are likely others, and I’m open to considering them, of course). First, they are more focused on sales numbers. Grocery profit margins are actually quite small and dramatic change or experimentation could lead to bankruptcy very quickly. And second, they hold a strong belief that shoppers are individual, isolated subjects who make decisions purely on the basis of their own choice-making, whether “rational” or not. The notion that material spaces and their organization are integral to how people think and perhaps even generate thought is foreign to them. People think. Environments do not. Culture is why people eat sushi instead of meat loaf.
In my previous post, I pushed the idea that a shift is happening in the world of marketing, away from the centrality of traditional advertising and towards other avenues, including the internet and the inside of a store. But more fundamental are the ideas, theories and assumptions inherent or potentially inherent in such a shift. I’m thinking, in other words, about how various groups in the business world approach, research and analyze the basic problem of, why do people buy the things they do?
Closely entwined to traditional advertising is the psychology-driven field of market research and consumer behavior research. If you were to look at the top-selling books on consumer behavior on amazon.com, for example, you would essentially be looking at a list either of books written by psychologists or somehow centrally influenced by psychology. Three top sellers at the moment are Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (2008), Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (orig published 1984, with new editions coming out often) and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006). All of these books essentially begin with a couple premises. First, the human mind is not rational. And second, it is possible for us to get inside the heads of consumers. If you can answer the question of how people think, then you can influence the buying process.
So, if the efficacy of traditional advertising has truly diminished or plateaued, it might make sense that the underlying assumptions of market research and this psychology-driven consumer behavior research have changed, as well. As more and more retailers shift towards creating “experience-driven” retail spaces—and this trend extends well beyond Ikea, to include everyone from Apple and Whole Foods to Safeway, Target and many more—does this create some new space for interpretative sciences to emerge with a powerful role, helping retailers “read” a space, just like any other media? Are we shifting away from the psychology-driven subject of classic advertising?
The answer is, both yes and no. This is certainly one area where ethnographic research is increasingly considered as a potential source for insight. However, the dominant mode of psychology-driven insight often either shapes ethnographic work (i.e. the idea that ethnographers can tell us what shoppers are really thinking) or simply excludes it (i.e. paying for research ignored is not uncommon). More often than not, businesspeople will freely pick and choose between market research insights, ethnographic insights and any other kinds of research to piece together arguments for how to shape a retail environment. They are not purists.
What is nonetheless interesting to look at are the experience-driven retail environments of certain brands out there who seem guided by a different kind of calling, the opportunity to actually use some kind of community-centric cause to distinguish their company from competitors—these are the Whole Foods, Patagonia or even Ikea brands of the world. These retailers instead talk a lot about building a “culture” or a “community,” both internally and among their consumers, as opposed to strategies of persuasion or manipulation of subjects in the retail environment. What this sense of community ultimately means to these brands is often difficult to completely decipher. But the role they have in shaping the way we eat, what we wear and how we live our lives seems indisputable, whether they fully realize it or not. There are certainly implications here for the ethics of consumerism, more generally.