Whether you are shopping, having a candlelit dinner, waiting for a bus or to see a doctor in an urgent care clinic, our brains are busy at work processing the environment around us and forming emotional responses to all that stimulates our five senses. Neural structures that have developed for decoding sensory information, exhibiting empathy, perceiving patterns, and seeing in pictures have a direct influence on the design of all of these places.
There is no doubt that digital media is an exciting new tool in the experience designer’s toolbox. The pervasiveness of digital media and its integration to our lives is having an effect on the structure of our brains as well as our physical environments. Digital place-based media, handheld devices and emerging technologies are changing the way retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and myriad other businesses, need to communicate with their customers.
The community of architects, interior designers, builders, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers have long believed that ‘customer experience’ is ‘out there’ in the environments we design and build, but in fact, it is in our heads created by the magnificent and mysterious machine that is our brain. Today, an understanding of neuroscience is a prerequisite to appreciating what truly motivates the behaviors of all of us who, more than ever before, are ‘consumers’ at almost every waking moment in our digitally connected world.
A whole generation of shoppers sits at the transition between what we know as traditional shopping places and customer experiences we think are only seen in science fiction movies. The Internet connects not just people in extended social network groups but shoppers minds into a collective global shopping community that is far more complex than it has ever been before.
We can no longer think of Omni-channel retailing as simply a number of distribution channels to provide more stuff to shoppers. Rather we need to move to truly understanding what engages the customer’s brain in an ‘Omni-Experience’ paradigm in the “Buyosphere”: an intricate 3-dimensional web of interconnected relationships that tie together shopper’s digital life-streams with their every day shopping activities. A key to creating engaging shopping places in a digitally driven future is developing “Technempathy”; an acute awareness of how technology can be used in the service of empathic extension between retailers/brands and customers. Technology for its own sake is irrelevant to customer experience. When it is used in the service of connecting in relationships built on ritual, story-telling and play magic can happen and simple shoppers can become life-long customers. Technology has to mean something to customers and become part of an integrated process of how they get through the customer journey.
Today, we are able to capture an enormous amount of information about customers as they interact in a digital world and leave behind a Hansel and Gretel trail of digital morsels. The big deal with Big Data is that retailers and brands will use the seemingly infinite stream of ones and zeros to provide customer experiences uniquely crafted to the “Market Segment of One”. Instead of a one-size fits-all approach, shopping environments will be geared to the needs of individual shoppers rather than large demographic groups. Furthermore, shoppers will continue to become expert marketers through performing their life stories for broadcast to their social networks. They’ll need to know how to sell themselves, the “Brand of Me,” into their social networks and in doing so they will also become more discerning customers to whom the tricks of the marketing trade will be transparent.
When wholly digitally-based experiences become ‘better-than-real,’ offering customers virtual shopping places where anything can happen, retail place-makers will need to engage the customer’s creative right-brain in the act of making stores relevant by getting them directly involved in “Creative Collaborative Consumerism.” Customers familiar with creating content to be posted to their social networks will engage in stores whose reduced sales areas will be more “Brand Performance Places” where participating in the ritual and story telling of the brand will take precedence over stocking product.
Emerging technologies are reshaping both the shopping process and well as the places that are created for the exchange of goods and services. Customer’s motivation to continue to engage in the store will rely on a thoughtful integration of the neuroscience of shopping behavior with technologies that move shopping places from storehouses of goods to brand performance places.
To create better products, services and environments designers, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers need to understand the big ideas around how technologies are fundamentally changing the customers brain, their communication style, how they find meaning and validation in the digitally driven socially networked lives. Retail place-makers will be confronted with a much more fluid shopping process that places engaging the emotional, creative brain in experience at the forefront of priorities rather than trying to establish relevancy and value to the customer by offering abundant choice or differentiation on price-point.
Effective store design in the future will draw together art and science at the intersection of the anthropology of shopping places, emerging technologies and neuroscience that drives decision-making in the shopping aisle. And, a rally call to retail designers will come as they will be forced to create shopping places that compete with ubiquitous online shopping, fully digital-based experiences and the replacement of smartphone dependent interaction with wearable tech.
The store will never go away. But it will change in ways that we can only now imagine as part of a sci-fi movie. The changing retail landscape will happen less as an evolution than as a (r)evolution.
David Kepron is the Creative Director of the Brand Experience Studio at Little (www.littleonline.com) and the author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brained Stores Will Shape The Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World.” (www.retail-r-evolution.com)