Howard Saunders   Apr 27, 2016   Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   2 Comments

When did retail turn into a science? Browse the list of upcoming trade conferences and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a branch of physics. It’s even worse when you look at the pseudo scientific jargon they use at ‘digital commerce’ seminars. It’s all algorithmic disruption, omni-channel touch-points, digital footprints, universal wallets, shopping funnels, micro-conversions, journey maps, crypto-currencies, connected spaces, content silos, click-throughs, and cyborg face-wash. I made that last one up, but it’s only a matter of time. We don’t sell stuff any more, we trigger conversion with the help of beacon technology in order to reduce friction. Marketeers were always jargon-junkies but things have become much worse recently.

It’s as if at some point in the last three years or so, the old guard of retail, the battered, the bruised and the bewildered, slid slowly down the wall weeping as he handed over the keys of the store to the nerdy millennial in the white lab coat.

For despite its impressive vocabulary, most of this pseudo-science just seems too linear, too simplistic, as if the ultimate aim of data analysis is to predict exactly what the consumer is thinking before she does. In an ideal world I’d imagine these retail nerds would have each of us followed by a personal drone that maps our every eye movement as we open our wardrobe in the morning or scan the kitchen cupboard in the hope of inspiration for dinner. Presumably, this data is then sent back to Nerdist HQ where giant matrix diagrams are decoded. ‘SOUP!’ The humanoid voice eventually utters. ‘She wants soup!’

Surely we can do better than this pointless quest to crack the enigma code of retail? Shopping is not a science but an emotional dance, a nuanced game of aspiration, respect, reward and relevance: emotional needs, not practical. There’s no code to be cracked here, anymore than there is in our personal relationships.

Since science is front of mind, here’s an experiment: Take two identical universes, A&B. In Universe A it’s a sunny day. You meet a good friend in town for coffee and after you say goodbye, you wander into the department store before heading home. As you browse the watches/jewellery/bags the assistant catches your eye and greets you with a warm smile. She keeps a polite distance until you start to show more interest. She wanders over and gently, but enthusiastically, tells you that they’ve only just received that particular model. She shows a genuine knowledge and passion for the brand, and as you chat you end up comparing notes on earlier models you both liked. She opens the cabinet to give you a closer look and lovingly points out some of the features. She’s not pushy, and as she goes to put it back you stop her and try it on. It looks good in the light and you have been promising yourself a reward for a few weeks now. Sold.

In Universe B it’s not quite so sunny. The same girl is there, only this time she’s slightly distracted, though she still smiles as she clocks you lingering. She finishes with her customer and walks briskly over. She asks if you’re interested in seeing anything and you straighten up to reply ‘It’s fine thanks, I’m just browsing.’ No sale.

The differences between the two scenarios are subtle, very subtle but nonetheless crucial. The question I’m interested in then, is how do we build that emotional connection for digital commerce? Put simply, how do we make the sun shine online?

The pinnacle of retail intelligence is not prediction, the assumption that every purchase has an invisible trolley wire stretched taut from brand awareness all the way to the checkout, ticking all the boxes along the route: Availability? Check. Colour? Check. Price? Check. Add to cart. This digital route to the checkout has clearly modelled itself on the supermarket, a format which, ironically, is in decline in the real world. In digital supermarkets you can be sure that everything is neatly laid out in order of price, or colour, or size: an endless aisle of stuff. Far too many brands have simply thrown us the keys to the warehouse, and all we can do is wander back and forth, up and down the aisles until we have seen absolutely everything. That’s no way to shop.

If we dissect the retail process too much we’re in danger of watching it disintegrate before our eyes. Reward, surprise, emotional connection, desire, spontaneity, elation and relevance are far too wriggly and intangible to be pinned to a cutting board like a dead frog. Understanding shopper behaviour should not be about predicting the inevitable (soup!) it should be inspiring us to venture into new territory, showing us things we hadn’t planned to see, didn’t know about, things that weren’t on our radar.

They’re very busy in the backroom right now with all their algorithms, plug-ins, bots and beacons…but it’s still the backroom. Whatever new channels of brand awareness emerge, whether it’s personally interactive billboards or pop-up chatbots, it still comes down to three things: original visuals, engaging copy and emotive sound. Millennials and Gen Z’ers may flit across devices like a bi-polar grasshopper but that doesn’t mean they’ll be seduced by equally frenetic snippets of communication.     

Building a more emotional connection online is what the cleverest brands are already learning to do: online communities that make you feel you’re a part of something, instead of just being told ‘what’s new’. Shouty pop-up intrusions are being replaced by powerful, warm, engaging stories that keep a respectful distance before inviting you in. And then once inside, the online world can offer so much more than the offline: meet our designers, visit our factory, ask us questions, hear our philosophy, see our plans for the future, tell us your own opinions and ideas.   

After all, retail is not rocket science. In fact, it’s not science at all. Like anything that answers human, emotional needs, it’s an art. 

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About Howard Saunders

Howard has worked in retail design for over twenty five years. As a former Creative Director of Fitch, based in London, he was responsible for retail design and branding and for creating multi-disciplinary teams of architects, graphic designers, product designers and copywriters and making them work together! As an independent consultant Howard has worked closely with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Westfield, for over a decade, helping them develop new store designs and keeping them informed of the latest retail innovations and shifts in customer expectations. His work with Westfield, for example, culminated in the creation of the artisan Great Eastern Market at Westfield Stratford, Europe’s largest shopping centre, which opened in 2011 on London’s Olympic Park. Now based in New York, Howard’s current clients include CBRE, Claire’s Accessories, Consumer Goods Forum, Ebay, Johnson & Johnson, L’Occitane, Magento, Mothercare, Permira and Westfield World Trade Center. As an international speaker Howard’s talks are big, visual journeys across the world of retail. Provocative, challenging, brutally honest, evidence based and thoroughly entertaining.


  1. Sharon Kahan Says: May 31, 2016 4:04 pm Reply

    Brilliant! Totally agree.

  2. Sharon Kahan Says: May 31, 2016 4:05 pm Reply

    Well done ! I quite agree.

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