Brain Food: The Rites of Purchase

‘I shop, therefore I am’
By
|
Posted January 31, 2018

Every morning, customers file into their local coffee shop, order a beverage --  one with an impossibly long name – and go on their way to work. While it seems rather simple, this repeated process is full of activities that make coffee drinking a ritual in their daily lives.

The scents, sights, textures, standing in the queue, idle chatter with other customers, reading the menu board, how the baristas welcome you, waiting for the hot cup to be placed on the counter, adding your milk and sugar, and then heading on your way – these are all part of a process that is coded into your memory as to what defines your morning ritual. The sequence of events is crucial because it sets up your day with a recognizable order that you rely on to help the ‘9-to-5’ make sense. The time of the day, place on the street, people you see and talk to, objects you see and hold, the smells and sounds, all coalesce to create sensory patterns that make the experience meaningful.

Some brands understand the “power of place” and that a customer’s embodied participation in the experience is key to cementing the relationship between the brand and those who buy its product.

Rituals, and our participation in them, have been fundamental to the development of our culture for millennia. Through participating in rituals, we come to understand ourselves in relation to a greater context. I have heard it said that “repetition is the mother of skill.” In the case of rituals, “repetition is the mother of understanding.” Shopping has, in many ways, taken on the key features of a ritual. Getting your morning coffee is a ritual that many of us can relate to, but the idea of a shopping trip being like a ritual transcends coffee to all sorts of goods and services.

Participation in ritual shopping activities can enhance the customer experience, and in doing so, enhance the retailer-customer relationship. As stronger bonds grow between people and the places they shop, a sense of loyalty and commitment develops that in turn promotes return visits, which every retailer wants. Rituals we participate in become part of the fabric of our lives. They are roadmaps that plot the course of how shopping experiences should unfold and what they mean to us as we travel along the customer journey.

Theories abound about whether rituals require one’s direct participation or that through mere observation, people can be engaged in a ritual. In fact, it’s both. Participants and observers are co-creators in a ritual, each playing instrumental roles in how it unfolds. Whether we watch or directly participate, we learn about the culture in which the ritual is enacted. Participants of rituals act; those who observe think.

We can think of our culture as being composed of essential and discrete performances that can be displayed to others outside our community. When others are exposed to these demonstrations, they alter or reinforce their thoughts and feelings about our culture and how they should act or think in relation to us. When we repeat these activities at specific times of the day/month/year, they become embedded not simply as routine, but as acts that have more significance to our understanding of our world and ourselves. Through their enactment, these performances become a sort of script to be used by performers and observers to deepen their understanding about the group’s key beliefs and practices and what it means to be a part of the cohort.

Rituals as performances produce concepts not just in the performers’ minds, but also feelings in their bodies. What is important to remember about the body’s connection to understanding is that we don’t understand religion by simply having knowledge of the religious doctrines, but by going to church/synagogue/temple every week.

In a similar fashion, we don’t really know the potential pleasure of shopping or buying something by having a friend tell us of their experience in a store, but from doing it ourselves. Our body’s involvement is important in understanding all experiences. As we physically engage in the performance of the ritual acts, we come to more fully appreciate ideas that are only accessible by experiencing them. I can watch all of the Nike commercials in the world but actually “just doing it” brings me in touch with the brand and its ideology in a physical way which drives home what it means to be a brand loyalist.

In a digitally driven culture, social networking is changing the way we communicate, promoting the performance of life moments as videos or photos uploaded to the Internet. If ritual is a cultural performance lending meaning to the participants or observers, then the nature of ritual may also be in the midst of change. Handheld digital devices are moving context establishing ritual enactments from performances at specific times in specific places to happening anytime or anywhere we can capture digital images and present them to the world.

Through participation in shopping as a ritual, both consumers and sales associates take on identities that are embedded in the rites. Through their actions during an exchange on the sales floor, web site or social network, customers come to understand what the brand stands for. As mediators of experiences, sales associates play important roles in the performance of brand rituals.

The scripts that brands weave into their presentations and the acts we follow when shopping in their stores are parts of ideological stories. Through our participation in shopping activities we adopt them as our own. In this way, shopping helps to create our identity.

I am more aware than ever about the nature of shopping as a ritual. Shopping’s ritual qualities are not just about holidays or special events, but now more than ever extend to virtually every day we engage with the brands we love in a digitally mediated “buyoshpere.” Shopping’s ritual qualities join us together in communities of collective understanding where we learn about what it means to be an adopter of a brand, to shop one retailer over another, to be a member of a cultural community or a citizen of the world.

David Kepron is Vice President - Global Design Strategies with Marriott International. His focus is on the creation of compelling customer experiences within a unique group of Marriott brands called the “Lifestyle Collection,” including Autograph, Renaissance and Moxy hotels. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. David is also author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com.