Who owns the consumer?

How do we reconcile the approach of our retail clients and their desire for control of the consumer, in which they invest huge sums, both in the form of research as well as in advertising, brand marketing and  creating retail shopping environments, with our interest in sustainability and reducing unnecessary consumption? Are we ethically and morally at odds or is there a middle way for society, its institutions and us as designers, to continue to develop?  This article from Archinect by J.James R.  only hints at these darker tones while pointing out how consumers are taking control themselves with the help of technology – arguably with the most influential and controlling instrument ever invented – the smartphone – smart for who, I wonder, as Apple, Google an others gather global positioning data and consumer preferences from our searches and movements with which they are able to more and more tailor their offerings to our overt and hidden desires.

Illustration by J. James. R.

Illustration by J. James. R.

The danger today comes from a shopper who walks into a store as if it were a product showroom. She pulls out a smart device and begins scanning barcodes using the Red Laser or Shopsavvy mobile app. She researches specs, prices and recommendations, and then makes a purchase from a low-cost retailer. Consumers are redefining how they shop and retailers are racing to catch up. —Joe Skorupa, Retail Info Systems News

At the Retail Technology Conference, which happened April 13-15, retailers were coping with a new phenomenom regarding shopping habits— how smartphone-enriched shoppers are treating bricks-and-mortar retailers like galleries and museums. Macy’s CEO, Terry Lundgren, says that traditional stores have to be as interesting as the online experience in the age of wireless.

This interaction of consumer with retail store, mobile phone and wireless internet is referred to as “omni-channel.” But, all is not necessarily lost. Brian Kilcourse, of RSR Research, says that 95% of all retail purchases are still fulfilled through the store. Given the fast growth of “omni-channel” shoppers, there are more consumers who are increasingly knowledgeable about both price and information.

Perhaps, the most interesting and most relevant architectural tidbit is this, “retailers need to be able to understand and see into the consumer’s pathway to purchase, and this cannot be done only after a transaction has been made but should also aim to identify pre-demand signals,” Joe Skorupa writes paraphrasing Kilcourse.

The rest of the article evolves into a more sinister tone and demonstrates how retailers can “own the consumer” by tracking and guiding the consumer through a collaborative approach involving marketing and information technology. It fails to acknowledge that the shopping experience is not guided by an information architect but by a “bricks-and-mortar” architect. And even for architects who don’t dabble in zeros-and-ones, the idea of a consumer who can fly the coop virtually when he or she becomes urged, frustrated or disenfranchised by their current experience will be a very daunting task to manage within the constraints of reality.

Oracle surveyed 1,054 shoppers and found that the number who used mobiles devices while shopping grew by 27% in a single year. Of those, only 29% made a purchase on a mobile device. If the growing number of shoppers continues to become omni-channel shoppers, should the basis of retail design change course?

But, how does one create a store— a real physical place with very real overhead costs— that’s designed to not necessarily sell products?

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