Editor's note: Gavin Johnston is cultural anthropologist, ethnographer and owner of People Path LLC, a Kansas City, Mo., research company. He can be reached at gavin@people-path.com. This article appeared in the June 10, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.  


Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work - procuring goods, meeting needs, etc. 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 to discussions about seemingly rational behavior. But it isn't so simple anymore. As incomes have grown, access has exploded and free time has increased, shopping has become entertainment as much as anything else.


Even in an unstable economy, the decision to buy is driven as much by value as it is by need - perceived and real. 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 consumers find it. Choice equals enjoyment, turning shopping from labor to entertainment. The retail environment is an expansive, immersive media platform and there are multiple lenses we can use when conducting research and analysis. We tend to gravitate toward the functional side of things and solve problems from one conceptual angle. But that needn't always be the case.


Function, need and desire


This is not to say that entertainment is the only way to look at shopping but it is increasingly becoming an element that shouldn't be overlooked. Shopping becomes entertainment depending upon the function, need and desire for the object being shopped. For example, shopping for apparel can sometimes be a chore if it is needed for a utilitarian function (e.g., a woman purchasing a "work bra") but it can become entertainment if the item is desired for other cultural functions (e.g., a woman purchasing a bra for ... use your imagination).


What this means for marketing is that the best retail experiences - that is, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales - are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative. 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. Place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. One of the most effective ways to do this is to incorporate people into an entertainment experience and directly involve them in the story.


So how do you go about doing this? It starts with some simple but powerful tools.




In the past, language emphasized the mastery involved in shopping and there were very real, practical results stemming from one's 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 and exploring 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).


Examining the stage


A store is frequently indicative of a theater. Even without the direct associations with a specific storyline, a retail space still conforms to some very basic principles. Namely, escape, fantasy and inclusion in a condition of exclusivity. 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 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. Understanding the elements of performance provides the researcher with a window into how context shapes behavior and meaning.


Understanding social roles


When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and serving as an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs. It has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Natural space is replaced by constructed space.


Retail spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space lead to a greater sense of social dependency and reinforce the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. Returning to our bra example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store increases the sense of romanticism and plays to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking. Understanding the social roles to which people ascribe allows you to determine how best to reinforce them - or break them.


Underlying desires


In the end, retail shopping is becoming more complex. With the increased use of online shopping and the ease of access to 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. This means exploring new ways to conduct, analyze and interpret what it is people do, thus providing greater depth and value to our clients.