In the early days of modern American retail, the market was driven by want, hope and desire. Shortly before the turn of the 19th century, the industrial revolution created a glut of merchandise on the market, and the newfound department stores became selling stages for massive quantities of goods. Factories in the northern states employed scores of workers who produced myriad items. People had jobs in the factories and made money. With that money they bought more goods than ever before. The factories churned out even more product, and the machine fed itself as the desire for “more” grew exponentially.
Emily Fogg Mead, a sociologist and advertising expert, said of the times, “A magnitude of goods were produced to satisfy the needs that no one knew they had. Consumers wanted berry spoons, mustard spoons, sugar spoons and soup spoons in ever-increasing variety. They wanted more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today.”
What ensued was 100 years of yearning and longing for material goods. Retail thrived in an environment fueled by desire, but not necessarily by need. The grand age of consumerism was born. People wanted things whether they needed them or not. Retailers were quick to recognize the aspirational drive of consumers across the country, and the great merchants of the 1920s learned to capitalize on those aspirations and dreams. Helen Landon Cass, a well-known radio commentator, said at a convention of display professionals in 1923, "Sell them their dreams. Sell them what they longed for and hoped for. Sell them this hope, and you won't have to worry about selling the goods."
Simply stated, the emerging technologies back in the day fostered new behaviors. This remains the case today – human behavior is responsive to changing times and new technologies. As we continue to navigate the early part of the 21st century, it’s evident that two things remain constant: one, change is inevitable, and two, change impacts the way we act and the way we live.
The concept of change can be daunting, it challenges the notion of stability and rattles the equilibrium. It has the unintentional effect of throwing people off balance. When change alters, disrupts and reshapes human needs, it creates tension and anxiety. Innovation is the remedy for intimidation and distress. And as consumers embrace innovation, they demand more, and their expectations increase.
Airbnb, Uber, Amazon, Zocdoc, Zipcar, Seamless, Warby Parker, Away, online banks and even your family doctor, have changed our expectations and reshaped the world. We’ve entered a new realm of possibility that seemed unimaginable just a few short years ago. And while change is daunting, it should not be threatening.
It’s clear in the current day and age that today’s consumers have put the notion of “materialism” on a back burner after self-improvement, ambient wellness, a healthier community, an end of excess, reduction of waste and a positive impact on the world. Retailers today must ask themselves, “If we didn't exist, how would the world be different?”
The informed, and ultimately successful, retailer will analyze the needs of today’s changing customer base and create brick-and-mortar environments that are relevant and more responsive to the needs of the community. They will embed solutions to pressing everyday contemporary challenges into the built environment.
Having empathy and tapping into the issues of concern for today’s consumer is not only good for business, but it’s also good for the community. An environment that is responsive to feelings and emotion is an environment that is inviting and compelling.
In London, a capital city strangled by pollution, Stella McCartney teamed with Airlabs to ensure that the air in her new store at 23 Old Bond Street is the cleanest air in London. Ink Hunter, an AR app, tells tattoo enthusiasts to “think before you ink.” The app, employed by a growing number of tattoo studios, allows impulsive tattoo lovers to see how the ink will look on them before making the indelible decision.
In St. Louis, the Angad Arts Hotel provides an experiential stay that embraces the visual arts, performance, fashion, literature and gastronomy. Billing itself as the first hotel in the world that allows guests to book luxury accommodations by the color of the room, primarily based on their mood and emotion. At Nike, every gesture the brand makes begins with the customer. Nike Live analyzes customer data to understand how far customers run, and when they run. More and more retailers are recognizing that it takes awareness and understanding to connect with the community, and ultimately with customers.
Nespresso’s Madison Avenue store prominently displays a sculpture titled “Last Chance to Shine,” by interactive artist Daniel Rozin. The piece consists of 832 tiles made from compressed aluminum Nespresso coffee capsules. A plaque beneath the artwork states that Nespresso capsules are made from aluminum which is “infinitely recyclable” and encourages customers to contribute to the sustainability program by recycling capsules there.
Traditionally, retail has been a mirror of society, a reflection of our values, challenges, successes and changing behaviors. It can also help channel those behaviors into a driving momentum that can have a positive impact on the world.