Journal: The Last Word - Shopping - RSA

The future of shopping


  • Economic democracy
  • Creative economy

Our purchasing habits have increasingly moved online, but bricks-and-mortar retail therapy isn’t finished yet. 

A typical weekend for many people in the UK prior to our first lockdown in spring included a trip to a high street or shopping centre before maybe a visit to the cinema or another form of entertainment, culminating in a dinner with family or friends. All these places are full of people, smells and conversations, and are aesthetically pleasing. The stimulation our brains get from such activities is unparalleled.

Of course, this changed when lockdown began. With social contact potentially dangerous, any trip outside the house became predominantly functional.

Yet the majority of what we consume is not utilitarian. The pleasure we get from aimlessly strolling down the high street, perusing shop windows, grabbing a coffee and meeting friends is an integral part of our lives.

Human beings are social animals, and the denial of meaningful human interaction is not something we can survive for long. It is our instinct to connect with others, if only by observing. Browsing in a shop is often more about looking at people – what they are buying, how they are putting an outfit together – than simply perusing the latest deals.

Most of us turned to online shopping but found that it did not quite cut it. Although invaluable for getting essentials, we realised how boring it becomes. Scrolling the endless ‘sea of sameness’ might be a good insomnia remedy but it does nothing in terms of fulfilling our basic needs of belonging and self-actualisation. The lack of rich sensory stimulation was another problem. As much as multisensory experience is possible online, it is often not delivered. Digital channels rarely rely on senses other than vision. Temple University’s Fox School of Business published a study showing that “smellizing” (prompting people to imagine the smell of a product) increases product engagement. It is just one in a series of studies demonstrating the power of sensory imagination and memory. 

It is no surprise, then, that physical stores are still the favourite of the majority of shoppers, even those who are digital natives. The experience, the sensory stimulation, the meaningful human contact and the relationship-building are all things customers get from the in-store shopping experience. The simple pleasure of browsing without needing to buy anything has value in itself. Yes, research shows that experiencing pleasure often leads to a purchase being made, but it does not change the fact that the motivation that brings a customer into the store in the first place often has nothing to do with needing to buy something and everything to do with the need to meaningfully connect and engage in a diverse collection of experiences.

The predictions that we will shop way more online post-pandemic fail to appreciate the ‘soft’ benefits of simply being in a shop. We will continue shopping in physical stores, although they might be more local and will need to adapt to new consumer demands, such as transparency and sustainability.

My hope and prediction is that we will come out of this crisis with a more authentic, transparent, ethical and sustainable form of consumerism. The money we are spending has the power to shape the world. So, what world would you like to live in post-pandemic? 

Follow Kate Nightingale on Twitter @StylePsychology

This article originally appeared in the RSA Journal

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