Looking Beyond Retail and Service Spaces

Retailers would be familiar with the author Paco Underhill who has been described as an environmental psychologist and/or a retail anthropologist.  This combination of shaping the environment to shape consumer retail behavior was the focus of his books entitled Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, The Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping and What Women Want.

Using observation and ethnographic methods, Underhill recorded and analyzed how shoppers approach and navigate the retail store, how they see visual cues, what will catch their interests, and what will make them buy.  When asked in an interview what he thought was an important insight about consumer behavior, he said, “The biological constants govern the things that are driven by us being right-handed, or that our eyes age in a very predictable manner, or that there are some basic ergometrics, or human measurements, that factor into how we interact with stuff."

While my anthropological lenses appreciated the evolutionary basis of that observation, I found his conclusion on studying consumers even more interesting. He also said  “Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn't change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with and that, therefore, relationship to consumption here has to be more real."

This relationship to consumption needing to be authentic may be pursued by looking into how Filipinos give meaning to the spaces they use or the places they give importance to.  This leads us to a more emotional approach to consumer understanding, a more powerful source of insighting on what compels people to do what they do. 

These meanings in spaces and places can be inferred anywhere from social media selfies at beaches or FB comments about museums or monuments, to commuters falling in line at bus and jeepney stops or  vehicles counter-flowing in Manila’s busy streets.  In the retail scene, shopping at Divisoria and its maze of shops may give the Filipino bargain shopper a sense of adventure and invincibility, beyond the sense of satisfaction in being able to bargain and getting the most bang out of his or her buck.

I remember the old Makro wholesale mart when it first entered the Philippine market. There was much excitement at the new concept (especially since imported items were sold) and for a while, the idea of leaving your bags behind at the counter, with no plastic bags provided (this was before recyclable bags became the norm in grocery shopping) or even with no kids inside the shopping area, were acceptable as Filipinos explored the new option.  Soon enough, the novelty of a bulk, low price, no frills supermarket lost its allure as the Filipino shopper looked elsewhere or went back to their familiar neighborhood grocery.

Later, S&R, another wholesaler with imported goods established its own following - the middle and upper class markets, who liked to shop as a family, were willing to pay a membership fee to experience exclusivity and buy hard-to-find imported items not found elsewhere.  Throw in its famous pizza and there was born loyal customers for life.

Is it the hugeness of its store?  The layout and signages?  The product mix and the service offerings?  What meanings does the Filipino shopper attach to all these?  A familiar imported feel?  The hunt for unknown (or hard to find) items? Another place to bond as a family, combining chores with quality time of dining out? 

While both hypermarts provided functional  wholesale, lower price value, S&R connected with more emotional substance – something that middle and upper class markets would look for compared to more price-sensitive shoppers of  other wholesalers, and that emotional connection included brand exclusivity – from the membership fees to the customer experience.

Supermarket shopping for many Filipinos is a family affair where children get to sit in the cart to enjoy the ride or to pick a favorite snack or candy.  The hugeness of hypermarts are intended for the shopper to spend time inside rather leisurely compared to smaller premium community supermarkets that offered only the most basic and popular products for the busy buyer.  This means layouts, signages and over-all ambiance matter.  While wholesale and low prices clearly go together, the Filipinos’ penchant for imported items as well as value-for-money pizza, may have made the difference for S&R. As Underhill observed, by shaping the retail and service environment, you can shape consumer behavior.

I have friends who go to both Divisoria and S&R.  Clearly in each place, they are shopping for different items and for different recipients, even expecting different qualities in product and in service delivery.  For them, both experiences are a form of adventure that don’t quite compare.  But the option is much appreciated by the archetypal Filipino shopper – the functional pursuit of value for money is linked to the emotional connection.  And this has to do with the customer experience of feeling the excitement over a bargain or a novel find or tied up to an aspiration, straddling a space which provides other meanings to his identity and psyche.

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About the Author

Chiqui Escareal-Go

 is the CEO and Chief Behavioral Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders, the only advocacy-based training and consultancy firm focused on marketing, sales, strategy and innovation. For more information, please email info@mansmith.net.

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