Guest Column | August 13, 2018

High-Touch: A Path To Shopping Resonance

By Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.

School Shopping

Retailers these days hear so much about ROI that this simple acronym probably haunts them in their sleep. Sure, short-term return on investment is important, but perhaps also a bit shortsighted. In the long-term, there’s another kind of ROI they should dream about: Return on Involvement. The biggest marketing challenge today is how to engage the jaded or distracted (or both) shopper.

That’s one reason that retailers continue to allocate a larger share of the promotional pie to “shopper marketing” initiatives that speak to people in the aisles. Many organizations spend over 8 percent of total sales on in-store marketing, and when total trade spend is included this can often top 40 percent of total revenue. Shopper marketing has more than doubled its share of spending over the past five years. Still, brick-and-mortar retailers are fighting an uphill battle (on a good day) as many chains shutter their stores and some malls begin to resemble ghost towns.

It’s almost tempting to conclude shoppers no longer want to shop — but of course robust e-commerce sales remind us the interest is still there. Perhaps part of the challenge is what we might think of “store parity”; consumers just don’t see that much difference across stores. They certainly can’t justify the hassles of commuting to the mall when it’s much more convenient to shop at home in their pajamas.

The brands these stores stock face the similar issue of “brand parity.” The Holy Grail for competitive differentiation is to create brand resonance where the product or service becomes part and parcel of the customer’s “life project,” i.e. it plays a key role that helps him or her to define some aspect of social identity. Sneakerheads who covet the latest Air Jordans understand this; as do iPhone aficionados, wine connoisseurs, MAC Cosmetics fanatics, Corvette collectors, loyal members of Beyoncé’s Beyhive, or hard-core Phillies fans.

That’s all well and good for manufacturers. How do retailers play the same game? Can we also think about creating shopping resonance in addition to brand resonance? In today’s “always on — click here” digital retail environment, what value-added does the physical store bring to the table? Hint: A lot, if you think about your store as more than a place to display and sell inventory.

In fact, there are numerous paths to resonance. While it seems everyone is entranced by technology, there are high-touch solutions in addition to high-tech ones. Beacons and scan-and-go are wonderful, but they are only the means to an end: making the shopping experience pleasurable and seamless. Let’s not abandon low-tech fixes in our race to automate our stores. High-touch solutions can complement these upgrades. Indeed, touch literally can accelerate purchases: researchers who study the Endowment Effect find when people touch an item for even a few seconds they are more likely to connect with it, and therefore to buy it.

My latest book describes how many fundamental marketing frameworks no longer are valid today. One of these is a basic dichotomy we use to structure our lives: the distinction between work and play. In brief we want to work while we play, and play while we work. That means shopping needs to be more than checking items off a to-do list. Acquiring goods is work, but shopping also needs to let us play.

Way back in the last century (1999 to be exact), the sociologist George Ritzer coined the term retailtainment, which he defined as the “… use of ambience, emotion, sound, and activity to get customers interested in the merchandise and in a mood to buy.” Almost 20 years later, most retailers still haven’t learned today’s time-pressed shopper wants to squeeze multiple objectives into a shopping trip.

It’s fine to provide great merchandise at even greater prices, but if I can “have my cake and eat it too” by being stimulated or amused in my scarce leisure time, so much the better. For the most part (looming virtual reality experiences aside), this remains the most important point of competitive differentiation from online stores. When Amazon’s website can make us laugh, sweat or repeat the mantra, “How cool is this?” we’ll know we’ve hit a milestone in e-commerce.

Shoppers want to actively engage when they browse — but other than a few notable exceptions such as REI and some scattered concept stores such as the Samsung 837 venue in Manhattan, only kids-oriented stores such as American Girl and Build a Bear provide much in the way of stimulation.

Adults want to do more than push a cart down the aisles, too! Why don’t more merchants embrace the idea the store is really an educational institution with a lot of “learning supplies” lurking about for “students” to buy? Researchers who study The IKEA Effect know when we participate in the design or production of what we buy the value we attach to it increases. Learn from innovators like the Casper store that lets customers actually nap on its mattresses, or the Lululemon store that features a meditation studio.

The idea of offering in-store activities certainly is not new. But perhaps this approach needs to be taken to the next level to engage today’s jaded shopper. It’s great for a store like Williams-Sonoma to offer the occasional food sample or cooking demonstration — but what about a dedicated teaching kitchen and perhaps even a pseudo-game show like a version of Chopped that challenges contestants to best one another?

To be sure, high-touch is not the only path to shopping resonance, and thus to greater Return on Involvement. But it is surprisingly lacking in mainstream retailing today. Unless you’re competing strictly on price (good luck to you and Amazon), if you think of the physical store as little more than a product warehouse you’re just asking to be next in line for the retailing graveyard. Do what you can do well, not what Amazon can do better.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Solomon is the author of Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer. He advises global clients in leading industries such as apparel and footwear, financial services and e-commerce, CPG, retailing, sports, manufacturing, and transportation on marketing strategies to make them more consumer-centric. He is a Professor of Marketing in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. For more information, please visit, www.michaelsolomon.com.