Environmental sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. The physical construct envisioned by the architect, the interior designer, the store owner, etc. are all varied to some degree based on how they understand and respond to vague notions like “shopping.” Add to that the varied, contextually mitigated understandings of the consumer about an activity and space, and designing the elements that are meant to fit into a space becomes highly contentious. Frequently, retailers and CPG companies build around assumptions that rarely factor in the complex underpinnings of why people shop in a broader cultural context. The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy. And that leads to lackluster sales.
While there are a host of theories and design doctrines that go into constructing a retail environment, methods for retail space design have largely cantered around atmospherics for the last 30 years. Basically, the model states that pleasant environments result in an approach response, and unpleasant environments result in avoidance. Simply put, if the environment is pleasant it increases arousal and can lead to a stronger positive consumer response. If the environment is unpleasant, increasing arousal level will produce avoidance. The arousal quality of an environment is dependent on its “information load,” i.e., its degree of Novelty (unexpected, surprising, new, familiar) and Complexity (number of elements, extent of motion or change). People seek out novel experiences, but novelty becomes a burden and a threat if there is too much happening for the brain to process. Humans want to explore and be entertained, but not to the point of confusion.
The problem is that while the parameters of avoidance and approach, novelty and complexity, hold true at the cognitive and biological levels, they can’t compensate for cultural motivations. They are simply too simple. A contextual model expands on these principles and asks what cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids? Are they seeking escape from a busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? The point is that brands and shopping serve a wide range or roles. More so in an era of increasing internet shopping, increased expendable income and access to goods. The retail space is more complex than cognition and biological responses to stimuli.
Indeed, cultural norms often dictate our notions of comfort and self-worth, as do the various shopping contexts in which we find ourselves. The good news is that the contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space” and sets the stage from creating a recognizable brand identity. The key is understanding how the product, the retail space and conceptions of self and other work together as a system of meaning. Shopping begins long before the need to purchase an item arises and you get at a deeper understanding of what matters, in context, by exploring the deeper meanings behind the objects and the activities. Once you understand that selling toilet paper is about concepts of hygiene and purity, that selling heartworm medication is about our deeper fears of pollution and impurity, or that shopping for clothing is frequently about sex, your range of options increase.
What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, shapes on how a promotion, a marketing message or a brand is perceived. Promotions in high-tragic, high-messaging location, for example, are easily passed over unless the offering has a very clear purpose – it can’t simply be clever. As another example, a high-end grocery isn’t just selling food. For a husband trying to prepare an anniversary dinner for his wife, the store is selling self-assurance, facilitating love and helping lay the groundwork for a pleasant memory. That means, potentially, decreasing efficiencies and helping navigate the shopper to areas of the store he may not have considered.