Ethnography is a powerful tool, but it’s being so watered down as to become nearly meaningless in many cases. What ethnographers do, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity. There is, frankly, a lot of crap being produced by so-called ethnographers. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer anymore than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. It comes down to being able to talk about depth of knowledge and make connections that others overlook. Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. While it may come across as arrogant, that is not the intention. The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value and while the goal in the current economic climate is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), it is ultimately none of these things if the end work is not grounded in solid methodology or training. This isn’t to say one needs a PhD in anthropology from the Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it is to say that simply calling yourself an ethnographer doesn’t make it so.
And to be fair, there are times that it is possible to be, or at least appear, too academic. It is a criticism well deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the output and thinking depth of academics, but in a business context it’s difficult make the transition. They are not trained to think in business terms — they simply don’t speak the native tongue. Some are tossing that perspective out the window as much out of necessity as anything else. Some anthropologists, both in and out of academia, I think, are afraid of losing their “anthropologist” identity. That can be a tremendously threatening thing. Anthropologists started as rogue methodologists in many ways, developing theories and barrowing methods in order to get to a deeper truth. They no doubt need to return to that in all areas of anthropology, but especially on the applied side. People like Boas were looking for understanding the human condition in the broadest sense. By 1960 it was about defining the discipline.
But returning to the original point, a solid academic grounding in behavioral and cultural theory is imperative to doing the job well, whether it’s in helping create a marketing plan or designing a new product. Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? Are the kids there when the fieldwork takes place at 6:00 p.m.?
At a deeper level, the underpinnings of meaning are lost. What are the various meanings of “family” in a given context. How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? How does that carry over in the store? These are the host of observational data points that are frequently overlooked by researchers who lack a theoretical grounding. Now imagine what it means to lose that depth of understanding when designing something as complex and expensive as a new type of car. If you get it wrong, you may well waste millions going down a rabbit hole. Regardless of the product, service or message you are designing it makes a great deal of sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Getting it right means getting the right people.
In Las Vegas, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Whether it’s the gambler, the convention goer or the restaurant in the casino there is often a hidden agenda or a disguise. Las Vegas is a playground and a stage, a liminal space writ large.
The events Global Shop is no exception. Across the myriad vendor displays and supplier innovations, everything from virtual greeters to flashing window signs were being portrayed as the next big thing in shopper marketing. But much of what can be experienced was nothing more than an elaborate mirage. Great care was taken by manufacturers of displays for retailers to explain how their pegboard would increase sales and stop the shopper in his or her tracks. The newest LED decal would of course change the way people experience the retailer’s store front. The problem is that while all of the solutions and widgets being touted as the next great think were marvelous in terms of engineering and technological innovation, they had very little to do with the customer experience.
However, there were some that were more than technological and manufacturing marvels. These displays and designs tapped into the simple insight that shopping is about more than getting “stuff.” They played to the notion that if you can get the shopper to engage, whether it be to stop and explore the space or to actually touch products, then you have a better chance of converting them into buyers. These displays created a sense of belonging, or interest, of fun. They spoke to the idea that a retail location is more than a series of objects, it is a destination, a place that infuses goods with the mystery and pleasure of exploration. They provide shoppers with a sense of Place.
The universal truth, though, is this: great ideas win. The company that was making elaborate displays from shredded, recycled paper? Brilliant – eye-catching, beautiful, enticing. The Mexican furniture and fixture company that was using synthetic materials to make more durable display pieces reminiscent of Rococo art? Awesome – colorful, inviting, whimsical. All great ideas that used innovative techniques to create something special, and all based on really solid thinking.
Humans favor certain environments that satisfy survival needs. Through millions of years of evolution we are hardwired to seek out environments that signal an increases sense of comfort and a higher probability of survival. We seek out evidence of:
Minimal threat from predators and aggressors
Shelter from the outside world
Much of this is subconscious, but it remains deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Consequently, humans have evolved a visual preference for spaces that allow us to see without being seen when we so choose. From a retail perspective, this means developing enclosed spaces that downplay threat and encourage complete emersion in the experience.
Even as we seek out environments that speak to our needs of comfort and survival, humans are inherent risk takers. Enticement and peril are part of the exploration process and without this deep-seated need to explore and take risks, we wouldn’t be human. Humans need to seek new information and test their skills.
Consequently, we seek out new experiences that can be differentiated from other experiences. We categorize these experiences, giving them greater meaning and a higher probability of habitual use. Categorizing and differentiating suggest:
Ultimately, this appears to be a contradiction. But there is the possibility of resolution. Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone. On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Uncovering those cultural processes and designing a retail experience around them offsets the impact of cognitive responses to an environment.
So what do we do to provide a sense of security while playing to the underlying desire to explore and learn knew things? We strike a balance. And we strike that balance by thinking in terms of converting space to place. Place identity concerns the meaning and significance of places for their inhabitants and users. People create memories within places and form personal and collective connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to bring new people to that place. The goal is to endow a venue with symbolic meaning, memory and significance.
The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the setting, or the setting it attempts to project, being written about, being party of stories handed down over time, being portrayed in art or being part of the collective myth. It can be established through modes of codification aimed at preserving or enhancing places and traditions felt to be of value. All this creates a “database” for framing the socio-physical settings we experience. By providing customers with symbolic cues in the environment that set it apart from the surrounding area, we cater to the need to delve into the new while subconsciously establishing an element of the known, the safe and the familiar.
The other day I was asked by a colleague to name one fact about shopper behavior that most retailers are surprised to learn. Something that has emerged over the last 14 years of work, but particularly since the rise of the mobile device. While there are a number of them, one that immediately came to mind was the obsession retailers have with choice. Why? Because the addition of mobile adds to an already overwhelming experience and too much choice can actually work against you. People are much less interested in ridiculous numbers of product choices than they say. Our obsession with choice is a cultural construct – we’re trained to say it but the fact is that we don’t necessarily want it. At least not in every environment. Indeed, design (good design, at least) is about limiting choice and directing people to take certain actions. You can’t make good choices if you are overwhelmed and confused. The natural response is to flee or fight. So streamlining inventory or improving flow can completely alter how a retail space is used and understood. As an example, the layout of IKEA seems like it would lead to cognitive overload, but it doesn’t because it designed like a Bazaar – IKEA directs shoppers through a series of visual vignettes, metaphorical “stalls,” similar to what we expect to see in an archetypal Bazaar. Consequently, shoppers are able to cope with the number of choices, to segment, categorize and compartmentalize them. Most mass retailers simply bombard shoppers with products and signs screaming “Buy this!” The product display without a storyline attached coupled with the sheer number of options is bewildering. In-store signage that is simply loud doesn’t covert shoppers to buyers, it’s just loud. It is the Fox News in retail design.
Shopping is increasingly an entertainment experience, a teaching experience and a means of expressing identity publicly. As such, it is something of a three-dimensional media channel which integrates elements of digital, spatial and information design into a multi-sensory experience. So, what was once simply a matter of product overload now has the added distractions of an increasingly mobile world. In other words, while there was always noise, the noise is significantly greater than it ever has been. People have limits to what they can process, whether on the retail floor or elsewhere. Simply throwing out more options in the hope it will spur purchases won’t work. It will, in fact, work against you. Because experience is rooted increasingly in dialog between members of social groups (e.g. moms, bicyclists, rockabilly fans, etc.), the retail experience actually begins well before we set foot in the store, in conversations where people congregate. Choice is, of course, always an element but overload is a risk retailers can’t afford.
So what does it mean for the future of retail? I think we’re going to see a return to unique goods and the stories wrapped around them. There will always be a place for the retailer with massive selection and 100,000 square feet of floor space, but they will have to put more thought into the experience. They will need to treat their stores as destinations. For smaller venues, the nature of the brick and mortar experience will become akin to a stage, a place to entice, enthrall and engage. Products and spaces that have subtle differences and convey human ownership or production is going to replace sterile, institutional settings. People are looking to be part of the storyline. Brands and retail settings that humanize their offerings are going to become fixtures for people and for communities.