How to Design Retail Experiences for the New Shopper Brain


How to Design Retail Experiences for the New Shopper Brain

By Special Guest
Ed King, VP of Strategy, MaxMedia
  |  August 25, 2016

Retail today is in flux. By 2017, Amazon will overtake Macy’s as the largest clothing retailer in the U.S. Sears is sinking a half a billion dollars into its click and collect model to bring shoppers back to the store. It seems every day another traditional retailer declares bankruptcy. Brick and mortar is dying a not-so-slow death. Right?

Or is it? There is evidence that the retail pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.

As brick-and-mortar retailers scramble to figure out how to compete with the ease, selection, price, and convenience of online shopping, native online retailers are unexpectedly looking to build brick-and-mortar locations. Birchbox, the darling of the subscription box concepts, admits that, despite having more than 1 million subscribers, the company is “not in the business of selling people samples.” With constant customer churn, it looks to open dozens of brick-and-mortar locations to help the company achieve profitability. Imagine that: Turning to overhead-heavy physical stores to achieve profitability!

Don’t call Warby Parker an e-commerce company, as it has opened 31 stores and enjoys astronomical sales per square foot numbers in the $3,000 range. Bonobos, once an Internet-only retailer, has opened profitable “guideshops” in key markets and looks to have 30 physical stores by the end of 2016. Even Amazon, the undisputed champ of online retailing, is diving into the brick-and-mortar business, showing the rest of the industry how to sell in physical spaces.

A few savvy retailers have caught on to a trend — the allure of engaging in an emotional experience at retail keeps shoppers coming back.

One thing is evident: People keep shopping, and retail sales continue to rise. In the first quarter of 2016, 92.3 percent of all retail sales still occurred in physical stores. As many wrongly predicted, our society hasn’t become rife with digital zombies, permanently affixed to their tech devices, never leaving their homes.

It’s easy to forget that shoppers are still human beings. And, the human brain still craves the emotionally engaging, physical, visceral, sensory-driven, social activity known as shopping. Yes, it’s true that technology makes it easier to order nearly anything online and have it delivered the next day. However, retailers can fight fire with fire. Many of those same technologies can be leveraged inside brick-and-mortar stores along with all the wondrous tactile things a physical environment provides.

Today’s always-connected, experience-seeking shoppers (we call them ACES) don’t differentiate a digital from an analog shopping experience. They have done their research before stepping into your store. They have read reviews from complete strangers, seen their friends enjoying the product on Instagram, and have viewed unboxing videos on YouTube (News - Alert). They are comfortable with screens in all aspects of life and expect a seamlessly integrated, immersive retail experience.

To achieve a truly emotionally engaging, immersive retail experience, retailers would be smart to follow the place, people, pixel model of architecting the ideal shopper journey.


It’s important to establish the right environment for shoppers. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s important to cover a few basics to put the customer in the right buying mindset upon arrival. From the parking lot to the front door, use lighting, textures, and smart design to create an open, barrier-free, inclusive, safe, inviting environment. Inside the store, the layout should be organized in such a way that enables customers to intuitively navigate the aisles.

Products should be exhibited in a way that emulates the consumption environment. When products are merely housed on a shelf without the ability to interact with them or see them being used in their natural habitat, the shopper’s mirror neurons are not activated, and the shopper cannot envision use of the product.

For example, if you’re selling plates, arrange them in an ornate place setting on a bistro table with props and surrounding scenery that evokes the Tuscan countryside. The shopper’s mirror neurons will project her into that scene, and the odds of getting that sale just increased dramatically. Anthropologie, a women’s clothing chain, is the king of creating vignettes like these.


Millions of dollars are spent on branding and advertising campaigns designed to drive customers into the store. And often, we leave that investment in the hands of a $7.25 an hour employee to make or break someone’s precious visit. CSRs are the lifeblood of brick-and-mortar retail, and it’s critical to maintain consistency and constantly improve this element of the shopper’s in-store journey.

Chick-fil-A is a master at hiring and training for empathy. CEO Dan Cathy insists employees “exhibit humility, passion for service, compassion, and genuineness” and accomplishes this through a rigorous hiring and training process. Go to YouTube and type in “every life has a story” and prepare to be blown away by a simple, yet gut-wrenchingly powerful training video.

Appliance retailer Pirch CEO Jeffrey Sears believes so much in the company’s mantra, “live joyfully,” that he sends many of his new hires to San Diego for two weeks to immerse them in what it feels like to live joyfully. After all, only by knowing how it feels to live joyfully can one truly sell that feeling inside the store.


Anyone can get an experience right once. As my dad used to say, even a blind squirrel will find a nut every once in awhile. The real challenge in retail is to consistently scale these positive, emotionally engaging interactions across hundreds of stores, thousands of times per day. This is where technology can be a real business asset.

Digital wayfinding is a great way to remove the friction of navigating retail spaces. The time of you-are-here, static, small font, number-coded mall store finders is long gone. Contextual, directional, animated maps offer customers an engaging, intuitive, even entertaining way to easily find what they’re seeking.

Interactive, touch screen, digital flat panels offer customers the ability to narrow product choices based on personal preferences. Imagine a Tinder-like user interface that gives customers simple choices in an entertaining manner – then a unique blend of options are presented. Add on a simple RFID system, and maybe the products magically appear in the dressing room as the customer arrives. Whether it’s self-serve or CSR (News - Alert)-assisted, guided sell solutions offer customers the flexibility of shopping online with the physical, emotionally-driven experience today’s shoppers crave.

Sam Walton once said, “It's easy to compete with us. Just do what we don't do.” Instead of trying to compete with Amazon on its turf, focus on the one advantage brick and mortar has over ecommerce: the physical shopping experience. By looking through the lenses of place, people, and pixel, you’ll be able to deliver a visceral, emotionally-connected experience that will engage shoppers and keep them coming back for more.

After all, it’s hard-wired into the shopper’s brain.

Ed King (News - Alert) is vice president of strategy at retail digital experience design agency MaxMedia (

Edited by Alicia Young
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