Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Retailisation Series #2: Enchantment in a Disenchanted World

How retailers use design, architecture, and themes to rock your world


The Retailisation Series will spotlight how digital and architectural experiences are causing a shift in how brands, retailers, and shoppers interact. Inspired by the forward-thinking ideas in the 2005 book Retailisation: The Here, There, and Everywhere of Retail by Francesca de Chatel and Robin Hunt, each post will cover three different roles for retail in 2012 and beyond. The first post in the series covered convenience retail, and the role played by digital. This second post, "Enchantment in a Disenchanted World" will outline the impact of the physical space on leisure shopping, and will be followed in post three with an analysis of retail and culture.


Disenchanting Retail


Sometimes, convenience and quick, effortless shopping is not what we’re looking for from retail. There are certain times, and certain types of products, that demand that we experience them in the physical world as we shop—a process which, in many ways, we see less as shopping and more as leisure. As Chatel and Hunt note, this is most often the case when the purchase in question will have a major impact on our lives. “It is when we are thinking about ourselves and how a purchase could change us—when we think about buying that perfect suit or dress, that car or house—that we’re more likely to go and try it physically.” In these cases, online just doesn’t cut it: “The textures and metaphors of online shops are those of ease and efficiency, not of sophisticated, immersive experiences.”

More often than not, however, the physical retail experience can be just as mundane and disenchanting as the digital retail experience. Stores, after all, are mainly designed for one thing: to sell us stuff. There are shelves, there are aisles, and there are thousands of products just waiting for us to nab them as we patrol the sprawling venue with our shopping cart. They’re designed to be stocked, to be shopped, and to sell us products in the most efficient way. This type of retail design can lead to a mundane, mind-numbing shopping experience. This danger is highlighted by the authors as they cite sociologist George Ritzer, who wrote the book Enchanting in a Disenchanted World: "The spaces they create are often ‘disenchanting’ despite efforts to instill them with magical qualities" and that "there is real danger of people becoming bored by the ‘machine-like efficiency’" of the retail space.


A recent shopping trip to Staples Business Depot for some supplies sealed the images of “disenchanting” and “machine-like-efficiency” in my mind. Shopping for nothing more than a felt-tip pen, a sketchbook, and some Post-It notes, I was nonetheless open to browsing and picking up any interesting supplies that I may not have realized that I needed. Upon entering the store, however, I felt like a mouse trapped in a laboratory maze, with no sign of the cheese and no idea of how I would be able to find it. Row upon row of shelves towered over me, wrecking my sightlines. Products from all sorts of categories were everywhere: paper, desk chairs, TVs, printers, Bristol boards, and backpacks stared back at me wherever I turned. Somehow managing to find the items I was looking for, I made a bee-line for the exit and got the hell out of there. But retail doesn’t have to be this way.


Experiential Retail


In many ways, the physical retail space is moving away from just being a store that sells us stuff into something much more experiential (and as we’ll see, profound). In the right environment, shopping can be entertaining, fun, and a form of leisure. The retail experience can also provide a source of inspiration and stimulate our imaginations. David Peek, when interviewed by the authors, says: “Once basic needs are fulfilled, shopping becomes an act of self-fulfillment; it is a means of expressing oneself, adorning oneself…the purchase helps us imagine other lives and new possibilities.” Chatel and Hunt agree: “shopping becomes a lifestyle experience as well as a sensory experience where the consumer can touch, see, smell, taste, and enjoy the goods but also imagine owning them. People enjoy experiential shopping because it feeds their imagination.”






Feeding our imaginations can often result in retail experiences that are more like fantasy worlds than they are like stores or restaurants. Take the themed restaurants like the Rainforest Café and Planet Hollywood, for example. Both attempt to use thematic elements, in this case nature and celebrity, to build lasting and memorable experiences around the food. Many would argue that these retailers are selling the experience of being in them, and the inspiration and imagination that comes with it, and not the food itself. Chatel and Hunt note that “Retailers need to do this because all too often the reality of the merchandise is that it is unfulfilling, so it needs to be wrapped up in a dream. Through the creation of themed and artificial environments shopping is being transformed into a sensual experience, involving smell, sound, visual, and tactile stimulation, ‘delighting’ consumers and stimulating their imagination.”



Then there is simply pure entertainment. The Australian urban architect Victor Gruen, the authors write, was one of the first retail designers to introduce the concept of entertainment to retail when he designed some of the very first shopping centres in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. He aimed to add as many functions as possible to the shopping experience, believing that retailers should be a place to meet, rest, and hang out. “Shopping malls,” Chatel and Hunt write, “became destinations in their own right where people did not come out of need…but for fun, to spend hours, if not days, wandering through fantastical landscapes escaping the realities of the exterior world.” Think about how fun it feels to play around with the latest iPad and tech gadgets in the Apple Store, or how nice it is to spend an afternoon drinking coffee and reading a magazine inside of a Chapters or Indigo Books store and you get the picture: retailers can be entertaining.







Retail as a Form of Self-fulfillment


Many retailers are going beyond entertainment and the sensory experience when it comes to providing an enchanting experience, with some even going for something much more spiritual and self-fulfilling. “Attempts to imbue the experience with spiritual values—be they mystical, mythical, or historical,” write the authors, “seek to create a sense of common heritage and tradition among shoppers who frequently have nothing in common save the space they choose to shop in. Tapping into the spiritual side of shopping, Peek speaks of ‘[mental] state management]’ and explains the power of design in inducing trance-like shopping moods.” Quoting Peek, the authors note: “Everything must be specified or the trance might break. [Retailers] are state managers; we do everything to get the customer in the right state of mind and then keep them there.”

What this emphasis leads to are retail experiences that are designed to make an impact on our lives. Retail architect Jon Jerde says, “We strive to give people the feeling that in the last ten minutes something significant has happened to them, something they might not understand, but which will give them a feeling of increased sensitivity and perception, the kind of feeling artists have. People are brought into a state in which they suddenly start to doubt the known, a state which is defined in art as ‘the suspension of disbelief’. Then they are open to new, richer experiences, experiences of their own…” This approach, Chatel and Hunt write, is “part of a move to ‘re-enchant’ the disenchanted world of consumerism. It is part of a wider phenomenon in which writers, thinkers, and designers are trying to ‘mollify the harshness of the modern world’ using wisdom traditions of the native Americans, Semitic traditions, and Buddhist cultures to revive the world around us.” They do this, of course, mainly through design: “We are being spoonfed ready-made experiences, herded along predetermined routes, lulled into quiet contentment as we wander through climate-controlled spaces on the backdrop of tuneless, soothing muzak.”



Sound familiar? Ikea is one example of a retail experience designed from the ground up to offer its customers some level of spiritual fulfillment. The authors argue, “Ikea’s mission goes far beyond just furnishing our homes; it aims to define our lifestyles and beliefs by inciting us to take control of our lives. [Ikea founder] Kamprad’s vision is in fact so far-reaching that he does not just aim to improve lifestyles but the people themselves. He does this by giving the ‘visitor’ – not customer or consumer – great autonomy. Self-sufficiency is the key: in-store there is minimal service, you choose, carry the goods yourself, take them home yourself, and also assemble them yourself.” Even the self-assembly aspect of Ikea’s retail experience is considered part of your self-development: “Kamprad believes it is good for you, and makes his visitors better people. The idea is based on a kind of ‘sharing philosophy’, where you take half the task of owning upon you.” The journey through an Ikea store, as well, can also be an experience of self-discovery. As Kamprad writes in A Furniture Dealer’s Testament, “Happiness is not reaching your goal. Happiness is being on the way.”





And so, physical retail experiences don’t always have to be mundane, soul-sucking alternatives to the act of buying the same products online. They can be experiences that delight, entertain, and invite us into fantasy worlds, and they can also be experiences that provide food for the soul, and attempt, through design, to change the way in which we view the world. In the final post in this series, we’ll see how some retail brands are attempting to appropriate elements of culture.

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