Shopping Isn’t Shopping

(By Colangelo)
Shopping Isn't Shopping
By Colangelo / April 20, 2018

The Oxford English Dictionary defines shopping as the action or activity of purchasing goods from stores. Implicit in this definition is that people shop to buy things. Indeed, the entire field of shopper marketing is based upon this seemingly obvious observation.

But what if the primary objective of shopping isn’t to buy things? What if there is something much deeper and more meaningful going on inside the minds and hearts of shoppers? Something that translates across digital and physical worlds, stands the test of time, and if properly communicated, will provide a meaningful and long lasting competitive advantage for both retailers and brands. In fact, if properly implemented, it calls for a complete re-envisioning of shopper marketing.

The truth of the matter is that there is something more meaningful going on and that for the most part, retailers, brands, and agencies have yet to tap into it.

A Deeper Truth

For the past 70,000 years, human beings have been a symbolic species whose most meaningful attachments have been generated through ritualized behaviors. (See Attachment and Ritualization in this volume). These repetitive symbolic performances produce attachment by satisfying our most deeply felt desires such as protection, empowerment, healing, etc. Think of the things you are most attached to- family, country, church, alma mater, sports teams- and now think of how many rituals are associated with these institutions.

Over the millennia, human beings have become hard-wired with the need to fulfill these ritual actions. A few smart brands have picked up on this, incorporating an underlying ritual process into their brand experience. One need not look any further than Starbucks, whose brand experience mirrors a communion ritual in order to produce a deeply felt sense of belonging (See Attachment and Ritualization in this volume).

The Unexpected Reality

Steve Jobs once famously said, ”It’s not the consumers job to know what they want.” Neither too is it their job to tell retailers or brands what desire or ritual process they need to fulfill.

This does not mean that we cannot access this information however. Through proper research techniques and analytical strategies, a clear picture of both the driving desire and underlying ritual can be ascertained. Once ascertained, smarter and more purposeful creative and marketing strategies can then be applied.

So if buying isn’t the primary objective when shopping, what is?

Daniel Miller, in A Theory of Shopping 1, first provided the answer by understanding the primary motivations and behaviors associated with shopping and then matching these motivations and behaviors to an underlying hardwired ritual.

When it comes to motivations and behaviors, four facts standout: (1) Most shopping is done for others in our household. (Our finding will still hold true even if shopping is done for oneself as will be explained later). (2) We shop for others because we want to be in a better relationship with them (family members, pets, friends, etc.); (3) We expend hard earned resources in order to procure the goods or services in this effort; (4) An enormous amount of time and effort is put into trying to save money.

Analyzing these behaviors and motivations within the context of ritual reveals a surprising insight: shopping is actually a sacrificial rite.

Shopping is a sacrificial ritual? Now before you think this is crazy, let’s take a closer look as to why this is so. Then we will look at the implications from a marketing perspective.

For thousands of years, humans have performed sacrificial rites. In these rites, people expend a valuable resource in hope of being in a better relationship with someone or something.

In ancient times, people would sacrifice crops, livestock, and even other human beings, and then offer them to their Gods in hopes of being in a better relationship with those Gods. First they would burn the resource, then offer the smoke up to the Gods as an act of devotion, and finally consume the remaining resource in a festive manner. Today’s more secular harvest festivals such as Thanksgiving have their origins in these ancient rituals.

There are many different types of sacrificial rituals. Some are very simple, others quite complex. But in all of them, there are three principal actions that must be completed. (1) An expenditure of a resource; (2) An act devoting that expenditure to whom we want to be in a better relationship with; (3) Consumption of the remaining resource that signifies a joining of the two parties.

1 Miller, Daniel (1998). Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Turning back to shopping, it easy to see two of these actions taking place: the expenditure of a resource (money) and consumption of the remaining resource (the usage of the item bought in exchange for money). The devotive act is not so obvious, but it is definitely there. It takes place through the act of saving.

The amount of effort people put into saving money while shopping is staggering. With all the time and energy spent on comparative shopping, loyalty programs, bargaining, etc. one can make a legitimate argument that the act of shopping has actually been transformed into an act of saving. And this is not just because of the functional benefit of saving money, but for its emotional necessity in fulfilling the sacrificial rite.

Saving functions as a devotive act because by saving, one marshals one’s resources for the future benefit of the household (For today’s world with an exaggerative focus on self, saving can also serve as a devotive act to oneself). It counters the loss and waste of expenditure in the same way that our ancestors countered the loss and waste of their burnt offering when they sent the smoke up to the Gods.

The emotional pull of this devotive act is incredibly strong. It explains why rich people still clip coupons, why people go crazy over “free t-shirts” at athletic events, and why people will spend extra money in order to get “free shipping.”

A recent study by neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak lends credence to the importance of the devotive act and further support for classifying shopping as a sacrificial ritual. In his study, he measured participants’ production of the “happiness” hormone oxytocin while they shopped. He discovered that buying goods didn’t produce feelings of happiness- as indicated by production of oxytocin. Even when shoppers were given a gift of homemade chocolate at checkout, they did not produce a significant burst of oxytocin.

However, when shoppers were able to marshal some money, $40 given to them at checkout, they did produce a significant burst of oxytocin: the implication being that gifting-receiving chocolate and being in a relationship with the retailer did not matter while shopping, whereas the ability to partake in the devotive act produced a significant improvement in mood.2

2 Zak, Paul (2015). Why Does Shopping Make You Happy. Wall Street Journal.

Practical Implications

Understanding shopping as a sacrificial rite has profound implications for retailers, brands, and agencies. Implications that go way beyond the obvious need to communicate savings. In order for retailers to attach their brand, they need to re-envision the shopping experience as sacrificial rite.

This means treating the physical location and/or digital space as a pilgrimage site. One that satisfies the customer’s ritual desires for enticement and expenditure, as opposed to current design that satisfies the retailer’s most pressing needs. It means re-envisioning concepts such as entrance, center-store, perimeter and exit in order to align with the structures and processes associated with both pilgrimage and sacrificial sites. The current frameworks for retail design do more to inhibit ritual fulfillment than satisfy it. This is true of most digital sites as well as they do a very poor job of helping customers fulfill their most important desire.

Beyond retail and digital design, the entire aspect of the customer journey needs be ritualized. This will not only provide more immediate spending, but will build long term attachment between retailer, brand, and customer. We mentioned the three basic actions involved in a sacrificial rite, but there are several more steps, as well as different contextual factors that involve both physical and sensory elements that are vital to its successful completion. By aligning their customers’ shopping journey with the steps in the pilgrimage process, retailers will be able to provide the proper context, emphasis, and action to continuously build attachment while interacting with the consumer. If retailers, brands, and agencies want to convert consumers to shoppers to purchasers, doesn’t it make sense to utilize processes that have been cementing conversion for millennia?

Loyalty programs, re-envisioned as devotion programs, offer a host of new opportunities for retailers, for the devotive act is not just the means to the end, but is in many ways, the end itself. Devotion programs do not work or have the same emphasis as reward programs. A devotion program would utilize rituals of incorporation to continuously reinforce attachment between retailer, brand and customer and deemphasize rewards. Not only will this elevate the relationship for consumer, it helps retailers avoid the financial strain on the bottom line that comes with over emphasis on rewards.

It is important to remember that different types of retailers with different personalities and missions, while all providing a sacrificial rite, will need to behave differently. There is no one size fits all solution. For instance, Amazon, Williams Sonoma, and Walmart, would not behave in the same manner, nor provide the same context within their own sacrificial ritual.

Brands too have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the bond they share with their customers. They play the key symbolic role within the ritual process, guiding participants and ultimately satisfying their ritual desire through purchase. Their role is just as important as the retailers, and just like the retailers, they need to operate differently depending upon their essence and stance. Most importantly, their stance and role in retail must correspond with the retailers rite. The standard consumer journey must be correlated with the retailers ritual process. A rebel brand has a different role and purpose in a sacrificial ritual than a caregiver, for example, but both also have to be integrated into the retailer rite as well.

Re-envisioning the shopping experience as a sacrificial rite offers tremendous promise. Much as Starbucks re-envisioned the coffee house experience as a communion ritual, retailers and brands have the opportunity to produce breakout growth by fulfilling their customers’ ritual desires. If properly provided, leveraging the power of ritual fulfillment will create the strongest possible bond with customers, and we know that the stronger the attachment, the stronger the sales.