The Product of Places: The Secret Equation to Convening Consumers


Everywhere I go, business leaders ask me, “What’s the next big thing in retail?” Understandably, they’re looking for a leg up on the competition and are intrigued by the latest roving robot and AI technologies. But instead of running after the same moving target everyone else is chasing, a smarter question for leaders to ask is, “What’s missing in society, and what do people feel they’re lacking in their lives?”

As social animals, we’re hardwired for human connection. When we go for extended periods without human contact, we feel alone, neglected and unwanted, which can lead to health problems, depression and aggression. Despite how advanced and hyperconnected our society is, there’s been a growing epidemic of loneliness, particularly among teens.

This trend isn’t surprising considering how much time we spend online searching for friends, amassing followers and counting likes. As we look around our streets, cafes and dinner tables, we see people together, but they’re not making eye contact, much less conversing. Instead, they’re transfixed by their screens. This phenomenon is described perfectly by Sherry Turkle, a leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology, as being “alone together.”

The Power to Convene Equation

I’m an architect, and my colleagues and I have spent the last 32 years studying where people convene in the public realm and uncovering how the environment of places affects our behavior. Rather than chasing the obvious trends everyone else is pursuing, we dig deep into the human psyche to uncover the unmet consumer needs yet to be served by brands.


When retail clients hire our firm, we present two general paths: 1) They can attract customers by lowering their prices and joining the commodity slugfest online, or 2) They can command a slight premium by convening customers around an experience that provides a physical, social and emotional payoff. Both options offer a path to success, but each requires a different business model. If they choose the first path, we recommend turning their stores into stripped-down warehouses of commodity products and cutting their staff and marketing costs to the bone to compete with online entities. If they choose the second path, we suggest extending the value equation beyond the product to include the following experiential components:

The Power to Convene = Escapism + Sensory Activation + Safety + Social Facilitation + Sense of Belonging

Let’s not kid ourselves — life is hard. Sometimes, we need a break from the daily routine of work, family and home. Like the fulfillment of seeing a great movie, going to an engaging place can give us a sense of escapism and therapeutic benefits that help us face the world with renewed energy. The ability of stores to transport their customers out of their everyday lives and into an imaginary realm allows them to be a different person for a few hours, to see themselves and others in a different light and to be a part of a community, even if it’s a temporary one. But taking customers on a journey that can hold their attention entails designing a believable brand realm where the emotional payoff outweighs the physical effort required to visit their stores.

Sensory Activation
As sensory beings, we rely on our sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to evaluate the raw information we receive from surrounding stimuli and decide to either invest in an environment or pull out of it. We don’t direct our eyes, ears or noses to pay attention to these items, nor do we tell our feet and bodies to walk this way or avoid that situation. These involuntary decisions happen subconsciously, without our thinking brain getting involved, because it allows us to react faster, which matters in critical moments and limits the expenditure of our body’s precious energy. Long before our conscious minds decide what something is, our senses have already detected, decoded and decided whether it’s an enhancement or impediment to life. So why does this matter in retail? Because consumer engagement is dependent on attracting and influencing the senses first, but far too many retailers and designers don’t understand how the sensory systems work or how critical they are to attracting, influencing and shaping consumer behavior. 

For thousands of years, humans survived by learning to pay attention to the most vital details within their environment. Through the process of evolution, we became extremely adept at making lightning-fast decisions about whether the people, objects or physical elements around us are there to help us or hurt us. If we don’t feel physically, socially and emotionally safe, we don’t stay long or engage with the offerings. However, when we feel safe, we’ll exhibit the most ideal consumer behavior a retailer could ask for: we’ll mill around and meander through a store at a leisurely pace, which changes the consumer’s perception of the store from commodity to recreation. Getting customers comfortable enough to let their guard down and fully engage with the product offering is key to the future success of stores.

Social Facilitation
Humans derive value, strength and confidence by being part of a community. We like to be in places that bring people together in prosocial ways around shared affinities, but not all places are good at social facilitation. Places like dark alleys, impersonal warehouses and harsh streetscapes are not places we like to be. They make us feel uncomfortable, defensive and antisocial, motivating us to get in and out as quickly as possible. Oddly enough, tall, narrow and long grocery store aisles trigger some of these same uncomfortable feelings. Despite this, the industry keeps building them for the convenience of the operators, not the comfort of customers. It’s as if the Gods of Retail have decreed, “High aisles must not be touched!” Creating places that foster sociability requires thoughtful design. Through choreographed scene-making and the strategic placement of props, you can provide portals of meaning that remind customers of your products’ distinctive value and worth. 

Sense of Belonging
The best places in our society have the power to make us feel like we’re part of a community and belong to something bigger than ourselves. We like this feeling of belonging because our ancestors survived and thrived by being the most cooperative species on the planet. To make customers feel like they belong, stores must manifest a big idea, purpose and field of meaning in physical form that transcends common commodities and taps into a shared identity that can be felt viscerally. However, when shoppers are rude and antagonistic with others, it usually has something to do with the environment not deploying the right kind of atmospherics to foster sociability and conversations among strangers.

The Best of Both Worlds

Because of the internet’s low barriers to entry and massive global reach, online providers will undoubtedly have to stay vigilant in maintaining low prices and costly customer incentives. Physical stores can no longer compete effectively in these commodity races, but they have an incredible opportunity to extend the value equation of products to include a physical, social, and emotional payoff that consumers find missing from their lives.

However, the battle between online and physical stores is becoming less binary and more an alchemy of physical store experience + online convenience, allowing customers to have their cake at a low price and eat it too in an experiential, prosocial environment.

Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA is an award-winning architect, experience designer and Co-founder of the bi-coastal strategic design firm Shook Kelley. Since opening the firm’s doors in 1992, he has worked with executive leadership teams for some of the world’s most well-known brands, such as Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods, Kraft, JM Smucker, The Cleveland Orchestra, professional sports teams, universities, urban districts and hundreds of local and regional businesses to stay relevant and profitable in our rapidly changing modern landscape. He’s the author of the book Irreplaceable: How to Create Extraordinary Places that Bring People Together.


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