Published in Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2002 / Winter 2003
Moralism, Buying, And Selling
Some think that buying things you don’t “need” is immoral, but all of us do it, and if we were honest, we would admit that it’s harmless and we enjoy it. In Asia, the people I’ve encountered don’t think so puritanically—even Buddhist monks welcome the pleasures of shopping in the markets. We designers are not really producing what people need; we’re producing what they want. Our economy is based on creating those wants. In my firm, which designs to sell things, we study not only how people behave in stores but also anthropology, sociology, psychology, demography, and pop culture to understand what they want.1 When we help satisfy their wants, we give them moments of pleasure. Designers can be proud when they do that.
The only selling or retailing that is immoral is that which either lies about its product or that harms people in the long run. Selling lottery tickets is not in itself immoral, despite the low odds of customers’ winning. But encouraging people who can’t afford lottery tickets to buy them often is immoral, just as it is immoral for someone in an impoverished family to buy them often. Yet a poor person buying an occasional lottery ticket is buying a dream as much as is a rich person buying a yacht. A lot of architects think, as I once did, that business is nothing but greed. But we don’t understand it. Most business people are proud of what they sell and believe it will improve people’s lives—at the very least by giving them pleasure.
Some may argue that much if not most of retailing takes advantage of people’s weaknesses: their need to delude themselves that if they have this or that product, they will be more attractive, intelligent, secure, youthful, cool, loved, and so on. The ultimate result of shopping, in this argument, is disappointment, disillusion, even depression. My response is that people will have such delusions whether or not they are shopping and that the pleasures of positive fantasy outweigh the pains of a letdown to “realism.” Moralists decrying shopping are as tiresome and crabby as those who argue that being entertained by mindless action movies weakens our “character.”
Furthermore, retailing provides us with another “good” that is rare or absent from the rest of our lives: places to gather enjoyably with other people. Look at, for instance, Starbucks and Borders bookstores; if we don’t have gazeboes on town greens, we do have lounge chairs in stores like these. Many places where the public now gathers for shopping are also scenes of pleasant social activities and events, from musical and theatrical performances to encounters with friends.
Most of us are familiar with the best-selling business books with clever titles about swimming with sharks and seven effective habits, but these are more like self-help manuals than serious studies. Formulaic and simplistic, they give business a bad rap. The best of business writing—by, for instance, Theodore Levitt, Michael Porter, Philip Kotler, Al Ries, Jack Trout, and David Olgilvy—is worthy of attention from all professionals and is as thoughtful, sociological, political, and consequential as good architecture.2
Hypocritical "Superiority" To Retailing
We architects, trained to think of ourselves as commissioned artists, often shun architecture that helps companies sell. The mere discussion of architecture’s role in sales rubs traditional architects the wrong way. We associate retailers involved in the “evils” of consumerism. While we may not be as materialistic as our neighbors, we refuse to accept the fact that retailing is a major and unavoidable part of our lives and environment. All of us, including high-art architects, are consumers; we buy not only groceries, gas, and clothes, but also museum tickets, books, magazines, education, and even opportunities to commune with nature. We have been conditioned to believe that retailing is a dishonest, manipulative practice that preys on unsuspecting victims and corrupts our art. A respected academic recently told one of my students that if he weren’t careful he might end up designing Wal-Marts. While I am not a fan of Wal-Mart, I find it very telling that we have written off the world’s largest corporation.
When my partner and I started a design firm in 1992, we wanted to accept American culture on its own terms, to confirm people’s enjoyment in going to places like Rainforest Cafe, Disney World, and Las Vegas. Although I find Las Vegas casinos obnoxious and garish, a lot of people have very good times in them. Something’s happening. And we can choose to deny it or think that we’re looking at a sham.. . or we can look at it openly. When I began to try to understand what Americans really enjoy, I started taking control of my professional life. My partner and I did not want to call our work “architecture” because many people were confused into thinking it was only architecture, so we called ourselves Shook Design Group. After many years of competing against ad agencies, accounting firms, and business consultants, I learned that even the word design hurt our ability to get in the right doors and gain respect in the business world. Business clients have been conditioned to believe that “designers” will always give away ideas for free. We have changed our firm name again to shed the word design . . . more on that later.
The Omnipresence Of Retailing
Retailing has become significantly more present in more disparate environments than it was a decade or two ago. Consider airlines. Passengers buy products from catalogs in seat pockets. What once was a limited retail channel has become a booming market. Shopping provides the traveler with a means of reducing the stress, aggravation, boredom, and fear of flying. While some may see back-of-the-seat marketing as a plot by rapacious corporations to push products on us at one of our weakest and most captive moments, I argue just the opposite. People enjoy the experience of buying, sometimes more than having the products themselves, because the moment of buying is one of enthusiastic fantasy and escape (which, in this case, takes our minds off the anxieties of flying).
Airport terminals have become major retail outlets. Fifteen years ago, going to the airport was like stopping at a roadside rest area, with vending machines and (if you were lucky) some rotating hot dogs. Every major metropolitan airport in America now has a wide range of restaurants such as Chili’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and Cheers. After finishing our meals, we can stroll down the retail promenade and buy watches from Fossil, jeans from Gap, leather jackets from Wilson’s, pens from Mont Blanc, even shoes from Johnston & Murphy. (The Johnston & Murphy outlet in the Philadelphia airport is one of the top grossing stores in the shoe store chain, selling $700 per square foot.)3 Our airports are no longer boring and bland.
Look at any major institution—museums, zoos, parks, universities, stadiums, even churches— and you’ll see the growing presence of retail. We are inviting, encouraging, and demanding retailers to be more involved in our lives. The first thing that urban planners now think about for downtown revitalization is stores; they use retail and restaurants to create movement, activity, and renewed energy on the street, which will attract investors, homeowners, and other kinds of businesses. Churches sell daycare and fitness services; corporate buildings have gift shops, cafeterias, retail stores, and recreation centers, as well as services like dry cleaning and auto maintenance. Hospitals sell sports medicine, wellness education, alternative practices, and cosmetics. Long considered holdouts, even municipalities are beginning to embrace consumerism, hiring branding firms to create logos and other images that will attract new people and businesses.
Retail Planning And Design As Big Opportunities For Architects
Whether you are going to the mall, to church, or to the library, each venue has a specific exchange value that architects can either embrace or ignore. We architects should be leading the way, instead of allowing allied professions like graphic, industrial, and technology designers to claim and own the embodiment of this value. If we continue to avoid marketing in the built environment, it will be at our peril.
To date, retailing strategy has been left primarily to advertisers, marketers, accounting firms, banks, stockbrokers, and a few design firms. Ironically, the nondesigners on this list are more conscious of the need for strong design in what they produce than is the average architect. During the 1950s and 1960s, advertisers and psychologists started teaming up to create the popular and controversial field of motivational research. The most famous critic of this theory was Vance Packard, who in 1957 wrote in the best-selling Hidden Persuaders that “large scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our thinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought process. . . . The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.”4 Packard’s major target was infamous ad man and psychologist Ernest Dichter. Dichter was the director of the Institute for Motivational Research (founded in 1946) and was credited with the brilliant marketing strategies for Barbie, Exxon, Betty Crocker, and other successes. Dichter defined motivational research as “qualitative research designed to uncover the consumer’s subconscious or hidden motivations that determine purchase behavior.”5 The intent of motivational research was to shift marketers’ attention to thoughts and emotions. While Packard and Dichter have been criticized for exaggerating the power of subliminal messages in advertising, their theories sparked a revolution in the study of the relationship between emotions and purchasing. This revolution has now led us to “lifestyle marketing” (see below).
Fifty-six years after the founding of the Institute for Motivational Research, advertising and marketing agencies are acquiring (and considering acquiring) architecture firms because they need them to provide environments that they now see profoundly affect consumer perception and behavior.6 Until we architects begin to think like capitalists, these agencies will continue to take work we could have. For them design is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nevertheless, even instrumental design can be appreciated as design: we all enjoy well-crafted, witty, and beautiful ads. (And plenty of design for its own sake is still around to be appreciated: it’s called art.) Architects who embrace retailing are best organized as “integrated design services firms” providing not only design expertise but also strategic business consulting, branding, marketing, and sometimes even advertising. To design well, retail architects need to do these other activities well.
People enjoy the experience of buying, sometimes more than having the products themselves, because the moment of buying is one of enthusiastic fantasy and escape.
Successful retailers are switching from product marketing to “lifestyle marketing.” Lifestyle marketing reaches far beyond the consumer’s “needs” to tap into his or her deepest longings. Instead of dividing consumers into demographic groups, lifestyle marketing categorizes them into attitudinal segments that better reflect their core values. Those core values center on primal desires: to acquire, belong, interact, be healthy, have prestige, feel secure, and so on. The group of consumers that longs to feel “cool” (or sexy or macho or petite or smart or . . .) cuts across class, gender, racial, and ethnic divides. Pottery Barn and Martha Stewart are two examples of lifestyle (not product) brands. Appealing to consumers’ core values can be achieved through a display that acts as a surrogate for the brand and merchandises lifestyles by “vignetting.” Vignetting is mocking up a desirable scene with all the right props (merchandise). Each season Pottery Barn “remerchandises” its windows with vignettes that stage things like the perfect summer picnic party, Christmas, Thanksgiving. . . . The store is selling certain experiences by selling the props for those experiences: not just furniture but also pillows, linens, picture frames, flatware, candles, cookbooks, and mood music. The shopper’s fantasy of living better has become more important than the actual product.
Before architects can begin the pre-design process, we must first understand our clients within the context of their industries, corporate cultures, brands, and most of all, consumers’ minds. What is the client’s core competency, and how can it be matched with opportunities in the marketplace? Retailers now understand that to be competitive they must make their sales venues extensions of their brand images and promises. Consumers want to immerse themselves in three-dimensional experiences. As architects, we are in the best of all positions to help retailers create branding environments, but we will first have to incorporate broader knowledge and skills into our practice with the help of psychology, sociology, anthropology, advertising, and market positioning.
Rather than relying on predesign and programming, my firm employs a more extensive (and profitable) process that starts with researching the client, the desired consumer’s characteristics and aspirations, as well as relevant popular culture and societal cues (such as Britney Spears and Shania Twain exposing their belly buttons, empty-nesters moving into cities, suburban white kids emulating urban rappers, etc.). We look for opportunities to observe consumers in similar environments and similar purchasing situations. We then begin to do inner-life profiling of the consumers based on field observations that may yield data about the kind of car they drive, the way they wear their hair, the kind of shoes they wear, and the music they listen to, as well as whether they seem happy or sad, lethargic or excited while in certain stores. We are not conducting scientific surveys. Our interest is to understand motivations that are not easily articulated. We jokingly state that if we can see inside a consumer group’s medicine cabinets, refrigerators, and closets, we can predict almost all of its purchasing habits. Once we understand deeper motivations, we explore design solutions. We create “two-second icons”—images to be associated with the products, the essences of which can be perceived in the key two seconds in which shoppers decide whether to pay more attention—that trigger consumers’ emotive valuations. The two-second icon becomes the basis for all other design, becomes the brand logo. Since its inception, our firm has not done speculative work. We have sold ideas to people who needed and would pay for them. One of the most masochistic things designers can do is give their time for free. Our major emphasis should not be on negotiating and selling construction documents. We ought to sell our ideas and give away construction documents. Ideas are our commodity. “You’ll be paid eight to ten percent of construction costs” is a hideous statement. Ideas are not related to square footage; they should be sold based on their ultimate value to the client. A big idea merits a big check.
After a decade of studying consumers in retail environments, I saw more clearly that people don’t respond to the world as it is or how we, as designers, want it to be, but to their perceptions of it. Calling what our firm does “architecture” was quite confusing for all involved, so we redefined our service as “Perception Design”—we help prompt consumers to buy through environmental “signaling” that influences their perceptions. In a sense, we are designing the consumers themselves. Brand cueing takes place in the built elements but also the menu, uniforms, logo, aromas, and music, plus sensations, and, most important, emotions. Most architects are surprised that our firm generally won’t take on a project unless we are involved in evaluating all elements of the brand. We changed the firm’s name to the single word Shook with the tag line “It’s All Consuming.” We thereby tell people that we eagerly embrace consumerism.
Perception, our main concern, is an interpretation of sensory stimuli colored chiefly by memory and experience, not the “facts.” The chefs who understand how to shape perception (not the best chefs) have the best restaurants. Restaurant critics may tell you that the only things that matter are the quality of food, the ambience, and the service. But what matters is actually the perception of those things—and these perceptions vary with different kinds of people. Some think a huge, tender steak makes a meal great; others think it’s two ounces of artfully arranged organic greens. The best restaurants are figuring out who you are, then shaping your perceptions to match your desires.
When you buy a product based on seeing its surrogate—a picture or a film of what having the product will be like—the “reality” of the product is unimportant. You need the surrogate. We can put a really nice hat, with stars at the top, on some anonymous model and make everybody believe he’s a chef. But the second you let people who want to sell you something be “natural,” potential buyers don’t know whether to believe them. They need surrogates to build this credibility. You must reach consumers in a dramatic, compelling way. This is where our training as designers comes into play. Look at a sneaker with no logo on it; it’s just rubber and plastic, boring. Take the same sneaker, put on a swoosh, and its value quadruples. Things aren’t logical in retail. People decide on the cleanliness of a restaurant according to the cleanliness of its bathroom. Decoding these kinds of things is what designers should include in their practices.
Images are strategic weapons in our society. We pick our politicians based on their images. We don’t choose them because of their IQs, knowledge, or school attendance. We don’t even care about their criminal records. More often than not, their images are fabricated, so the consumer has gotten smart enough to wonder about the integrity of the image. The making of images thus has to get more and more sophisticated. The saddest thing about our last Presidential election was that neither candidate had the ability to “convene” us by making himself a distinctive brand. The issues debated were not important enough to us. Branding pulls us into a place to which we respond. Branding creates trust.
We are designers of perception through image-making. Architects want to think that images are too shallow and that architecture plumbs deeper matters: tectonics, space, habitability, art, and so on. But in the days after the agricultural society, the manufacturing society, and even the information society, we have come to the era of images, and it’s ours to shape.
Architects haven’t been driving home the fact that we are designers of perception through image-making. We want to think that images are too shallow and that architecture plumbs deeper matters: tectonics, space, habitability, art, and so on. But in the days after ciety, and even the information society, we have come to the era of images, and it’s ours to shape. Images can be effective and helpful or ineffective and useless; images save us time when we are as absurdly busy as we are.
One of our firm’s designs was for the grocery store chain Harris Teeter. We referred to our design as a store on steroids. A grocery store is a square box with no windows. How can you make that exciting? We deployed environmental cues that communicated value, quality, customization, and fun. Every designed element of the store—the floor, the ceiling, the wall murals, the signage, and so on—was tested in focus groups. Consumers’ reactions to the physical environment are often surprising: we found that they believe exposed ceilings and concrete floors (as opposed to drop ceilings and VCT tile) communicate that the products are cheaper (usually they are not). We found that murals and chalkboards boosted the perception of quality, authority, and freshness in certain categories (milk, meat, coffee, etc.), and sales went way up. Not all of this information can be gathered in focus groups. Most intelligent consumers would argue that murals, chalkboards, etc., have no impact on their buying habits, but we found that when we took down the meat department mural, sales went down. Most of what motivates consumers is way below the surface of their consciousness. Designing successful retail requires diving under that surface. Many would say that we manipulate consumers; we think that we are helping stores get credit (purchases) for the things they do well.
A Case In Point
Over three years, our firm provided the brand strategy and design for a Philadelphia-based food chain, Genuardi’s Family Markets—a third-generation, family-run business of about twenty-eight stores. Although Genuardi’s was the best-liked grocery chain in Philadelphia, it was experiencing strong competition from bargain stores and the high-end, top-quality Zagara’s.
Prior to our involvement, an accounting and strategy consulting firm recommended to Genuardi’s that they buy Zagara’s. After the purchase, the consultants developed a plan for merging Zagara’s and Genuardi’s cultures and brands. Not long after they introduced this plan, the chain experienced significant consumer dissatisfaction, weaker sales, and increased internal fighting. Business consultants exacerbated these problems, and Genuardi’s decided to hire us.
When we studied the two brands as they had been prior to merging, we found that they had equal status in the minds of their consumers for completely different reasons. We distilled these findings into two “brand vision” charts that outlined a variety of factors—a profile of their best customers and their emotional bonds with the stores, and what each store’s brand “promise” had been. We then developed a strategy not to integrate but again to distinguish the stores so the two brands and cultures could operate differently but with the common goal of capturing the broadest range of consumers.
Each of a supermarket’s departments—dry goods, perishables, and prepared foods—has different profit margins. Products manufactured, branded, and labeled by outside vendors, such as General Mills, have slim profit margins because the supermarket is acting as a middleman. The profitability of prepared foods can be much greater, especially if they are private label brands that enhance the overall image of the chain and encourage customer loyalty. Our client sought to enhance its identity and increase profits by creating a brand for its prepared foods department as well as subbrands for about seventy-five products in that department.
Working closely with the client’s branding team, our firm began to decode the places where good food for good value comes from, including mom’s kitchen, farms and farmers’ markets, certain restaurants, fast food venues, food courts, and grocery stores. We knew that to be successful, the private label brands and the prepared foods department would have to overcome the perception that grocery stores are for from-scratch ingredients only, that they don’t have good prepared foods, and that they are inconvenient.
The images we used needed to evoke quality, freshness, reliability, and healthy indulgence, as well as convenience and value. Architecture alone was not going to accomplish this, so our team included not only a principal-in-charge, a project architect, and two interior designers, but also a brand manager, a graphic designer, and an environmental graphic designer. We worked with our client’s CEO, COO, and vice presidents of marketing and “acquisition integration,” as well as with the directors of operations, food service, and merchandising services. Together we identified the brand of the chain, created a brand “position” among its competitors, and closely studied the brand audiences. The result was a “store within a store” with a separate name and entrance. This helped the supermarket distinguish the prepared food area from the grocery store. Consumers perceived its separate entrance and checkout as convenient, and its European layout and finishes as cues for “good food.”
The client’s branding team came up with the name “The Kitchen,” and we responded by designing its logo using anthropomorphic figures (consumers love anthropomorphic figures). The Kitchen logo was applied to packaging for foods cooked in the store—bakery and deli items, coffee, and pizza. The chain had acquired a bakery called Sunset, so we created a separate label for their line of “artisan breads” called Sunset Mills. Other Sunset Mills products included specially packaged olive oil and product information/nutrition cards.
In The Kitchen’s meat section, two more label brands helped create a perception of quality. For the premium, “all-natural” beef, we created the brand name “Dakota Reserve,” and for other meats—chicken, pork, turkey, and ground beef—the name “Up Country.” None of these meats actually changed, but meat sales rose by 15 to 16%. The bread packaging and bread cart we designed form an environment in which shoppers were meant to be immersed in an aura of Old World craftsmanship. The Kitchen immediately exceeded sales of similar product groupings in the chain’s other stores by an average of 15%.
These results demonstrate how architectural firms can increase their clients’ profitability by branching out into related design disciplines. But there are many more opportunities for architects in retailing. After 9/11, President Bush and Mayor Giuliani encouraged us to go shopping to help strengthen America. While I find this message scary and naive, it demonstrates how vital retail is to our economy. Not all retail is good—at times retailers find our neuroses more profitable than our mental health. The debates about retail’s psychological effects have been going on almost since the establishment of advertising as a field. As architects, we should not ignore issues like this. We may be in the best of all positions to help elevate these discussions to levels of appropriate complexity.
1. The current bible for retail anthropology is Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999); Underhill had been writing articles and appearing on National Public Radio many years prior to publishing this book. The most useful sociology books were written by William H. Whyte, particularly The Social Life of Small Urban Places and City: Rediscovering the Center for their insight into how people interact in public places. More recently, Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day (New York: Paragon House, 1989) is an excellent examination of social interaction in public/retail settings. There is so much to draw from in psychology, but two of the more profound books are Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1962) and Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper, 1964), with its theory of a hierarchy of human needs. Ernest Dichter wrote several useful books including Handbook of Consumer Motivation: The Psychology of World Objects (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), The Strategy of Desire (New York: Doubleday, 1960), and Motivating Human Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971). Another resource for understanding what motivates people are the books related to the Enneagram, including Helen Palmer’s The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). In demography, the two most influential sources are the monthly magazine American Demographics and The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means about Who We Are, by Michael J. Weiss (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000).
2. See, for instance, Theodore Levitt’s The Marketing Imagination and, in that, his 1960 essay “Marketing Myopia”; Michael Porter’s writings on competition and strategy, which started appearing in the early 1970s; Al Ries and Jack Trout’s landmark Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986), which again began with work in the early 1970s; David Olgilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man (New York: Atheneum, 1963) and his Olgilvy on Advertising (New York: Vintage Books, 1987); and Philip Kotler’s books on marketing management, which started appearing in 1974.
3. From my conversation with a store manager.
4. New York: D. McKay Company.
5. In Linda Obrec, “Marketing, Motives and Dr. Freud,” Detroiter Magazine, December 1999, <http://www.moline-consulting.com/Reinventando/ Pagines/conceptoDeLasMotivaciones.htm>.
6. In 2002, “a subsidiary of Omnicom Group, Inc. of New York, one of the world’s largest advertising and corporate communications companies,” bought Design Forum, a “nationally known retail design firm.” “Leading Ad Company Buys Design Forum,” Dayton Daily News, 12 February 2002.