Shopping Science

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These are exciting times for retail. The internet, social media and cultural changes bring great challenges and opportunities. Not so long ago it was all about having the right product at the right price. Nowadays there is so much more to it. Online sales are (still) rising and consumers are thoroughly informed about the product of their interest even before they ever set foot in a physical shop.

Also, people expect an experience. Shopping has become a hobby. Many people’s favorite pastime. They are not easily surprised anymore.

The development that I am taking part in is the emergence of science in retail. This is not an entirely new concept though. Shelf organization for instance is a field in which a scientific approach has taken over and been widely accepted as a big improvement.

When it comes to the shopping experience as a whole though, a scientific approach is not quite common practice yet. This will rapidly change over the coming few years.

Science tells us things about consumer behavior and perception that are of great value to retailers. If you look at some of the research that is being conducted it is actually staggering to see that so little use is made of it in practice. It cannot be because it is such a young field of science either. I use studies dating back to the eighties on a regular basis in my consults.

It might have something to do with a slightly conservative market. Or maybe just a lack of awareness when it comes to the huge possibilities. So let’s take a look at what it all encompasses and help that awareness grow a little bit.

A science based approach of the shopping experience focusses on how people typically react to stimuli through all senses. This is a bit tricky since much of it is personal. Taste for instance, is highly complex to predict. Why do you like blue while I like red?

A great deal however is highly predictable. We can now make precise predictions about what will happen to your perception of a retail environment if we turn the light down, or if we release the scent of roses.

I have personally conducted such research in the field of background music. I set off to manipulate the price perception and quality perception of consumers in a specific shop. The outcomes were quite intriguing and, more importantly, predictable. I will go into more detail on this subject in a later post.

This science based approach of shopper marketing turns the atmosphere in shops into a tangible and measurable marketing tool. It can be used to reach very specific goals. Perhaps you wish to excite your clients, or relax them. Maybe you want them to stay longer, or decide and leave quicker. Perhaps you want them to choose specific products over other options. Or maybe you wish to alter the route they take through your shop. It can all be done by carefully stimulating the right senses in the right manner.

So which senses are we talking about here? My personal specialization lies with our hearing. Sound and music are very powerful tools because our mind is extremely sensitive to them. First of all we have no earlids and we do not need to ‘look’ at sound in order to perceive it. Even if we are unaware of a present sound our mind can still react to it. So basically it is the most sure-fire way to reach an audience.

Vision is the next sense we can use to reach commercial targets. We have tons of options here. From the styling of the brand to the lighting and interior design of the shop and from shelf organization to digital signage or narrowcasting.

Scent is another sense that we can address. Since we cannot live without breathing scents will be picked up by all visitors at all time. This makes it a tricky one to work with though. Overdo it and any possible positive effect will instantly turn very negative indeed.

The remaining two senses are a bit harder to address. Touch is completely dependent of what the consumer is doing. You cannot force someone to feel something. You can still recreate the impression of touch though. A very soft furry material will be perceived as tactilely soft even without touching it. You can basically invoke tactile experiences by visual means.

Then there is taste. Increasingly more often you will find displays with free samples of food or beverages in grocery stores. The good old free coffee machine in the local supermarket is a great example. But these days you might even find a chef preparing bite size samples on the spot. Smart move to engage both our nostrils and taste buds.

I will elaborate on the science behind engaging our five senses in upcoming posts. For now, here’s a little homework for you: next time you go shopping, try and figure out how your different senses are being triggered. You might find that a great deal is a bit random or even contradictory. There is still a lot of potential for shopper science out there!

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