Understanding How the Brain and the Body React In Data-Driven Shopping Environment
Retail operates in time and space. So although we frequently hear about the psychology of retail, the physiology of retail is often overlooked—and it matters. Both the buying and selling of goods and services operate in the same complex universe of space-time as we physical humans do.
To understand the best way to sell (and to understand how we buy for that matter), we had best examine how our bodies work to lead us to decisions. How exactly do the concepts that describe our physical humanity influence how we buy and sell? How will understanding them help retail companies make better sales decisions?
Understanding Autonoesis and Proprioception
Two human abilities that are key to understanding how we relate to our bodies: autonoesis and proprioception.
Autonoesis is our ability to recognize that today is different from yesterday and one minute ago is different from one minute from now. It also allows us to generate counterfactual scenarios. If upon entering a store I head for the music department and then to books, autonoesis allows me to instead imagine I had gone to the power tools section then the food aisle. So every time customers enter a retail space, autonoesis enables them to choose the order in which they shop. That, in turn, influences (or should influence) how we design retail spaces.
Proprioception allows us to navigate an aisle in a store without blundering into the shelving or into other shoppers. It also allows us to picture the physical layout of a store and to pick up products and examine them. It creates psycho-physical blueprints for comfortable spaces as well as allowing us to recognize uncomfortable ones. This influences how we design retail spaces among other things.
This is all to say that how we shop is in large part a function of our physiology. To make the right decisions as a business we must understand how we function as thinking, breathing agents of choice. But how do shopping in physical space and shopping online address the reality of our physical bodies?
How the Brain and Body React in a Physical Retail Environment
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, «What is it?»
Let us go and make our visit.
As T.S. Eliot implied, the physicality of our world can lead us to psychological and spiritual understanding—or may lead us to bypass it.
There are a set of accepted organizational principles most stores abide by, according to Rosemary Hua, Snowflake’s Global Head of Retail and CPG GTM. Retail stores use data science to determine which items draw customers to the store. Staples like milk, eggs, and toilet paper are typically buried in the back of a grocery store. On the apparel side, discount racks are usually placed in the back of the store.
“These store layouts will force customers to walk past luxury items like ice cream, chocolates, and snacks because they know the gut reaction and potential underlying hangri-ness of the customer will increase the chances of an impulse purchase,” said Hua.
This organizational approach is called “planogram compliance.”
Additionally, there is a tendency to do two things when entering a store, both of which are based on how we orient ourselves in space.
Studies have long suggested that when first entering a store, customers tend to look left but to move right, counterclockwise around the store. That could come from the primacy of right-handedness and the fact that most people’s written language moves from left to right. This points at the idea of the psyche being an intersection of our physicality and how we’ve processed information.
Another example of the physiology of sales is how packaging affects how we regard products. “Take a look at the process behind creating a private label item, and the packaging differentiators to attract customers to one item versus another,” said Hua. “Some retailers are beginning to invest heavily in private label items, like generic soap or generic allergy medication. While the ingredients are nearly identical, the packaging of the item plays into a person’s psychology. Whether that be a certain color to invoke a certain mood, a certain plastic or paper wrapper to invoke a certain physiological touch, or even the thickness of the packaging to stand out against a shelf of the same exact item, these are all levers and triggers that CPG [companies] use to influence how you shop.”
A Sales Ecosystem With Its Own Rules
A stale concept—that the network of sites and applications that make up the web are an analogy of the physical world—has once again reared its head. The objections to it are much more than the “uncanny valley,” the unbridgeable distance between a thing and the representation of a thing. You simply do not make decisions in cyberspace the same way you do on Main Street. You certainly do not shop the same way.
“Both of those components, autonoesis and proprioception, are actually broken concepts whenever we look at our online presence,” said Karen Rhodes, Chief Account Technologist for Hewlett Packard Enterprise. “Online, I don’t know where all of my data is, I don’t know where all my body parts are. In the physical world I have this vision of myself as this little human, walking through space and time and existing in a very set physical location and also in a specific time. On the internet that is not the case at all.
“I exist in a universal way in lots of different data sets that I have no clue exist. Also, all of my data, all of my experiences, exist together. What I did when I was 17, what I did when I’m 27, when I’m 72, they’re all out there on the internet. The entirety of that human becomes a thing different from what she is walking down Main Street.”
The notion of online is not a one-for-one analogy with offline. The closest we can get to that is a sense of privacy, and even that analogy doesn’t bear out, given how much of our data is mined.
The closest we get online to our physical actions are the decisions we make when we’re alone in an aisle of a supermarket versus when we’re among others.
“Men will buy a pink deodorant or razor or personal care item because they trust the color pink in a man’s personal care item as an indicator of quality and care—but only if they’re alone,” said Rhodes. “Online, the pink stuff is going to sell more because they’re essentially alone in an aisle.”
In other words, the online world is not a “cyberreality,” certainly not in the retail environment. It is a sales ecosystem with its own rules.
Leslie Lorenz, Industry Principal, Retail GTM at Snowflake, notes that online shopping will attract those who are comfortable with “fast shopping” try-and-return sales experiences, and with one-click shopping and other variants that put a big emphasis on trust—your own and the brand’s.
“It’s a different experience with brands that change how you actually build product into your channels. It used to be you had online and you had in-store. And online meant on your company website. Now there’s shopping on Facebook, Instagram, and more.”
Retailers Must Approach In-store and Online Retail Differently
All of these physiological considerations, and how they affect psychology and decision-making, add up to mean retailers must separate their assumptions about in-store and online retail. Online retail can’t be thought of as mere pictures of the real world. Conversely, the world of their physical stores need to retain an almost neolithic sense of physical interactions, something primal.
Sellers need to accept that their online existence is a retail space where they meet their customers, leaning far more heavily on concepts and interactions than on physicality. And their stores are a place where endcaps full of Hershey’s chocolate bars can alter a customer’s relationship with the divine, and the disposable razor aisle can be where customers find a surprising world of comfort.
This is a world of change and will only reward those retailers who can change with it.