Can Shoppers Think?

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.

11 thoughts on “Can Shoppers Think?

  1. You write: “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.”

    What retailers are you basing this information on? Retailers must certainly know that they guide culture. That is why they create it. Is Ralph Lauren not guiding culture by creating culture upon culture upon culture for people to purchase? What about every other culturally immersive entertainment/retail environment? Does Disney not know that they are guiding culture through their expressions of retail? What about Restoration Hardware? J.Crew? Tommy Bahama? Tiffany’s? It seems to me that retailers are both guiding culture, designing it, and spending a boatload of cash doing it. PS: it seems to be working.

    As for environments not thinking, well, you can give that one up pretty soon. We’re entering the age of the sensor. The technology is coming not only for environments to think, but to guide us in more ways that we can imagine–as individuals.

    The piece that you may be missing though–is interaction and dialog. It isn’t that retailers are missing how to guide culture, they seem to do that well enough with branding and environmental design.

    The piece that’s missing for retailers is knowing how to successfully engage the people that patronize their businesses in a dialog. They hire people like you–to help them. They aren’t clueless about creating culture. They’re clueless about communicating between their culture, the culture they are creating, and the culture to whom they are selling that “creation of culture” to as an end product.

    In other words perhaps what retailers need–is help transmitting their message across different cultures.

  2. There is a wonderful American Scientist article about the layout of supermarkets. It says that the most efficient layout for the consumer would be circular, with checkout at the center and aisles radiating from it. The warehouse layout forces the consumer to traverse aisles of impulse items to get to the common things people go to supermarkets for, like milk and bread. Ah, here is the reference:

    Henry Petroski, “Shopping By Design: Supermarkets, like other inventions, didn’t just happen; they were designed, developed—and patented.”, American Scientist Volume: 93 Number: 6 Page: 491

  3. Here, you will rarely see individuals. People come to Ikea in household groups: families, spouses or potential spouses.

    Have you seen 500 Days of Summer?

    What retailers are you basing this information on? Retailers must certainly know that they guide culture. That is why they create it. Is Ralph Lauren not guiding culture by creating culture upon culture upon culture for people to purchase? What about every other culturally immersive entertainment/retail environment? Does Disney not know that they are guiding culture through their expressions of retail?

    I would suggest that the analysis would profit from a distinction between a retailer who is trying to move a second party’s stuff and a retailer who is also the brand to be moved. But I’m a splitter, so YMMV.

  4. @sally: Thanks for taking time to write out these thoughts. It made me realize that I’m trying to maybe say something complex that just isn’t very clear yet. In particular, I think it has to do with the retailer’s sense of what “culture” is vs. an anthropologist’s view. Not surprisingly, retail organizations that I have encountered have a much less sophisticated theory and concept of culture. Instead, they see individual shoppers as very independent of the context in which they shop.

    I agree with you that these popular brands you mention are guiding culture. But in my experience, many of the people who run brands (though not the ones you list) feel like they are responding to what individuals want or creating desire inside of individuals, as opposed to creating and/or reproducing what we, as anthropologists, would consider culture. I need to clarify further, however. I’m thinking of a concept of a Geertz concept of culture.

    When I write that “retail is good to think with” I’m trying to make reference to the Levi-Strauss concept of “good to think with.” In other words, it’s not just objects, but entire material environments that play a critical role in shaping our cultural thinking/cultural logic. As far as I know from my experience, retailers have no secret laser voodoo raygun that would trick us into buying junk we don’t need (though I guess you could debate whether they would use such a machine if it existed to “get inside our heads”, but that’s another debate).

    Finally, I think you raise an interesting problem: are shoppers and the people who run the stores they buy things from on different sides of a cultural fence? That, I really don’t know for sure. But it’s worth looking into more.

    @keith: Great reference, thanks. I’m sure the article would raise, for us, questions of what “efficient” means, getting us back again to Sahlins on culture and practical reason.

  5. Michael’s posts started me thinking about a variety of shopping experiences. Here I will focus on three, all from the USA though from very different places. If these remarks seem useful to our readers here, I will address comparable experiences from Japan in another comment.

    The first of the three experiences a the HEB we shopped at in Corpus Christi, Texas. HEB is a regional chain, and this is a huge store that aims to be a one-stop source for everything a shopper might need in the way of groceries, sundries, pharmaceuticals and gardening supplies. The second is the Whole Foods in the Fresh Pond shopping center near Alewife station at the end of the Red Line in Cambridge, MA. The third is Market Square, on Brattle Street, a few minutes walk from Harvard Square.

    Passing through the main entrance of the HEB, the shopper faces a large open area. To the left is a small soup and sandwich restaurant. To the right is an amazing display of fresh produce, including at times such items as lychees from Taiwan, and mountains of avocados, papayas and Mexican mangoes. But looking straight ahead into that large open area I mentioned the shopper is confronted with what I call the temptations, the artisanal breads, the gourmet cheese, the fresh seafood and, beyond a kiosk for food advice and cooking demonstrations, the meat section, with Texas-sized fancy cuts of beef the first thing to catch the eye. Near the meat is a hardware display filled with all sorts of BBQ gear, food processors and other culinary equipment. The temptations area is where foodies will do most of their shopping. To reach the center store, shoppers entering the HEB must traverse or deliberately ignore this zone. On the other side of the center store are the non-culinary hardware, chilled and frozen food sections. These can be reached via the aisle crossing the back of the store; but most of the action is the aisle that crosses the front of the store, passing by a massive selection of beer and wine tucked behind the artisanal bread. The pharmacy and the passageway to the gardening center are at the far side of the store from the temptations.

    Entering the Whole Foods at the Fresh Pond shopping center, the shopper is forced to do a left turn that has them entering the store facing the long row of tables and benches that fill the whole front of the store, where people can be seen eating the ready-to-eat items from the buffet and delicatessen at the other end of the store. It requires a U-turn to get to the produce section at the end of the store closest to the entrance. Supplements and organic personal care products occupy a special section separating the produce from the center store. Fish, meat and dairy are strung out along the back, where the HEB has things like ordinary bread and cereal on Walmart-like racks. The signage and special offers lean heavily to “organic” and “locally produced.” The most striking difference from the HEB is, however, the proportion of space devoted to the buffet and delicatessen and the area where shoppers can sit down and eat what they have purchased on the spot.

    Market Square is a much smaller store than the HEB and Whole Foods. The buffet area and the tables and counters where buffet items can be consumed on the spot are the first thing you see coming through the front door. The produce is minimal, a single, very narrow set of shelves separating the buffet from the cashiers, who stand behind a counter like convenience store clerks, instead of at traditional registers. The remainder of the offerings include a variety of chips, cheese, cold cuts, bread and ready-to-eat salads. The cold drinks section offers a high proportion of exotic items, e.g., a personal favorite, Pellegrino Limonade. Market Square is, in effect, a somewhat larger than usual combination of delicatessen and convenience store.

    Are these three stores typical? In some ways they all conform to established shopping routines. But their locations and the shoppers who frequent them cover a wide range. Corpus Christi is in South Texas and has the distinction of being the city with the highest rates of obesity, type one diabetes, and amputations in the country. To us, the HEB was an oasis in the middle of a totally depressing, mainly fat, greasy, fried food landscape. The Whole Foods is in Cambridge, Massachusetts but two miles out from Harvard Square near Arlington and Summerville. Looking for bargins, we would check out the Trade Joe’s that recently opened across the street, but the Whole Foods always drew us back. We didn’t mind paying a little more for healthier, tastier stuff and a much more interesting shopping experience. Market Square was handy, just a few minutes walk from the apartment we sublet in Cambridge. We enjoyed the buffet a couple of times, but stopped going because it was crowded at lunch time and, at the end of the day, sandwiches from Cardullo’s, the deli and imported exotic food emporium on Harvard Square, or Darwin’s the deli/coffee shop around the block from our apartment turned out to be more attractive.

    You will not be wrong, of course, to read these remarks as reflecting the attitudes of affluent middle-class, health-conscious foodies. Their relevance to the growing number of Americans who grow up in Fast Food Nation is, of course, highly debatable. But that is, to me, precisely what makes the kind of work that Michael is doing so fascinating.

  6. @John: Thanks for this. That you can so vividly remember these grocery store experiences is exactly why some companies are beginning to take money out of their advertising budgets and putting that money instead in their store design budgets. And if we consider an organization’s budget as a statement and one indication of their values—that is, what activities they value most or least—then I think this is indicative of the kind of shift I’m talking about in the world of consumerism.

    The other issue that you raise about obesity and health in Corpus Christi is something I consider extremely important, and I’m planning to write a post on this.

  7. You write:

    “When I write that “retail is good to think with” I’m trying to make reference to the Levi-Strauss concept of “good to think with.” In other words, it’s not just objects, but entire material environments that play a critical role in shaping our cultural thinking/cultural logic.
    As far as I know from my experience, retailers have no secret laser voodoo raygun that would trick us into buying junk we don’t need (though I guess you could debate whether they would use such a machine if it existed to “get inside our heads”, but that’s another debate).”

    I reply:

    I get it. Levi-Strauss. Systems. Which is why you should pay close attention to the following:

    When I write that environments are going to start to think, I’m not talking about “secret laser voodoo.” Sensor networks aren’t going to be about “secret laser voodoo.” They are going to be about linking online presence and profiles with physical spaces so that physical spaces will become more responsive, individualized, personalized, and in some ways, able to really dialog with people and the objects and services they wish to purchase. Its retail. Its thinking. Its sensing. This is where we are headed with retail and with all sorts of other physical spaces.
    (If you are interested in learning more, you can read our work in the forthcoming proceedings of OneSpace2010, or catch up with us at the AAA.)

    You write:

    Finally, I think you raise an interesting problem: are shoppers and the people who run the stores they buy things from on different sides of a cultural fence? That, I really don’t know for sure. But it’s worth looking into more.

    I reply:

    How can they not be? Look around you: merchants are from all kinds of places, all kinds of cultures, selling all kinds of products to all kinds of cultures. How can there *not* be multiple “cultural fences”?

    oh, and PS

    You write:

    “In particular, I think it has to do with the retailer’s sense of what “culture” is vs. an anthropologist’s view.”

    I reply:

    Seriously? Do you think even anthropologists’ agree on a “view” of culture?
    Come on now…that’s impossible! :-)

    PPS:
    @MTBradley good point re splitter

  8. Thanks for the clarification. I am somewhat aware of this sensor network technology trend and will be interested to watch for its more widespread implementation and the impact it could make. Right now, it’s outside of my, admittedly limited, purview, which doesn’t make it unimportant.

  9. When we moved to Japan in 1980, our shopping opportunities included a traditional shopping street just down the hill from where our apartment complex is located. There was a liquor store that also sold snacks, rice, and cigarettes, a butcher with his counter facing the street, a fresh produce store, and a fishmonger. Now the fishmonger is gone, the butcher’s effort to expand his operation into a small grocery has failed and is once again a small counter. The first-floor space that was once the grocery has become a Korean BBQ restaurant. The produce seller is still in business, and the liquor store has become a 7-11 convenience store. Only the 7-11 can be said to be thriving.

    As the shopper enters the 7-11, turning right puts her in front of the ATM, a copier, and a Japanese equivalent of a Ticketron machine. Continuing straight ahead, she will pass the checkout counter, where the clerks will also accept parcel deliver packages and the shopper can pay her city taxes or other bills by handing the form to the clerk, who scans a barcode and accepts the payment.

    Besides the cash registers, the counter is also the place where hot snacks can be found. These normally include stuffed, steamed Chinese buns, fried chicken and french fries, plus, in winter, oden, a variety of fishcakes, hard-boiled eggs, chunks of cooked Japanese radish, and other stuff purchased an item at a time and served with a generous dollop of the soup in which all of these items are simmering. Microwaves are also available, in which the clerks will heat items picked up in other parts of the store.

    If the shopper turns left as he enters the store, he will pass the magazine and manga racks, with with news and ladies magazines closest to the door and hard-core porn at the other end, the farthest away from the entrance. Depending on the time of day, several shoppers may be standing in front of the magazine and manga racks perusing or reading what they find there. The chilled cases along the lefthand wall (opposite the checkout counter) offer a variety of ready-to-eat food, sandwiches, salads, rice balls, Japanese lunch boxes, together with a wide range of ready to heat items. From a consumer perspective, one of the nicer results of a highly saturated convenience store market and fierce competition with fast food restaurants as well as other convenience store chains is that most of the food offerings are pretty good and new ones are constantly appearing.

    Beer, canned cocktails and soft drinks are in the chillers at the back of the store, wine in the rack in front of them, in the same aisle with the ice cream and other chilled desserts. The center of the store is filled with snacks and more snacks and a single aisle of sundries. End of the aisle offerings include DVDs of recently popular films.

    Convenience stores with this range of products and services in more or less the same layout (transformations reflect the location of the entrance) are now an established part of life in Japan. They cater not only to teens and young singles, but also to young mothers, who find it cheaper and simpler to feed their kids convenience store food than to buy and prepare fresh food. (A study done a number of years ago by the Japanese advertising agency ADK suggests that women born since 1970 are increasingly uninterested in home cooking.) Older folks, like us, are, I suspect, another growing segment. In an urban environment like ours, there is always a convenience store at most a short walk away, and convenience store food can be an attractive alternative to solitary eating at restaurants, even if the price is about the same.

  10. 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.

    You are right of course, except that it isn’t really, yet, ancient history. My mother-in-law (or teściowa) operates a small but thriving neighborhood grocery in Poland based on precisely that model (though not exactly by choice, since the grocery is too small to do otherwise).

  11. I think the following statement overlooks a basic challenge created by introducing self-service into the shopping experience.

    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…Over time, the chassis of this space has not changed dramatically.

    The challenge of collecting items around the store and bringing them to the counter was only partially solved by the invention of flat-bottomed paper bags in the late 19th century. However, the move from carrying shopping bags to carting shopping bags was a significanttransformation in the grocery shopper’s service journey. In other words, shoppers in the self-service grocery started their journey with a shopping bag in hand until Sylvan Goldman introduced the shopping cart in 1936. By all reports it was a challenge to get shoppers to use it rather than carrying their shopping bags around the store.

    Today it is interesting to watch the customer’s use of reusable bags in grocery stores since reusing bags returns the bag to the beginning of the customer’s shopping journey.

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