Intuitive Retail

April 15, 2008 a brief moment

A few seconds is not a very long period of time, but it's all the time marketers have to communicate with a shopper at retail. That's why intuitive retail is the holy grail of in-store marketing. It's retail shorthand. In application it has the power to create rich, compact experiences that tap strong emotional associations and life connections without rational processed thought.

Foundations of intuitive retail

Intuitive retail is rooted in human behavior. For it to be effective, it must fundamentally meet the expectations a person has created through life experience and deliver confidence, control, comfort and belonging.

Manufacturers have spent millions on understanding how consumers use particular products and retailers have spent millions on how people shop their stores. However, associations developed in everyday life drive intuitive responses and expectations. Intuitive retail environments consider a person's expectations based on their whole journey to purchase, not just what they experience in the store.

In most cases, the associations that people build with brands and categories tend to be much stronger outside of the store than inside. People gain knowledge about the world through engagement with it. They go through everyday life and build associations and connections that affect how they behave in the future. Learning what people are doing and how they are behaving in their everyday life is foundational to understanding intuitive associations.

In categories that are high in emotion or high in involvement, intuitive environments reflect existing behaviors. For example, in the baby care category, a smiling baby's face is an incredibly powerful association rich with meaning. In categories void of existing positive associations, intuitive environments affect new behaviors by tapping into behaviors from other experiences-borrowing associations that can help create a new context and connections for people. For example, a comfortable leather chair often found in a home can add a sense of comfort and ease to an otherwise tense retail waiting room.

Creating confidence

The smallest things can cause a person to loose confidence in their shopping experience. Like any moment in life that steals your thunder, a shopper's confidence can be lost in just a moment, and if the damage is great enough, that moment could cost a retailer a customer for life.

For men, gender confusion is often a thief of confidence. Imagine a man looking for a new bike at his local bike shop. The shop has lines and lines of bikes without any signage to help make sense of them. Bikes today all look very different and very alike at the same time. After a bit of searching, he finds himself standing over a bike to check its fit. He's very excited about his choice...until a salesperson checks in and notes that he's standing over a women's bike. This scenario is called a ‘confidence killer.' The confidence and enthusiasm that the man entered the store with was stolen from him in that brief moment. Today's shoppers need retail environments and experiences that give them full and complete confidence.

People often feel disadvantaged at retail because they don't have as much knowledge or information as the retailer. Intuitive retail environments attempt to level the playing field for shoppers. An example is replacing wall-like service counters (that create barriers between customers and service representatives), with interactive pods allowing the consumer more access to computer screens for information and better understanding. This is a step towards closing this knowledge gap. Another way of leveling the playing field and closing this gap is using category descriptors. Signage identifying the men's bike section would avoid the confidence killer like mentioned above.

Giving control

People intuitively want choices in life, but too many choices can be overwhelming. In a shopping environment, this can lead to frustration and fatigue. There are 30,000 products at the supermarket, three times as many as thirty years ago. Old brands with new scents, new brands with old scents, new sizes, new line extensions; the list goes on. Choice has reached the overwhelming point.

Spend some time watching shoppers as they look for laundry detergent or cosmetics or any other category with never-ending choices and you'll see some shocking behavior. No matter what age or demographic, you'll see people popping off the lids of cleaners, laundry detergents, softeners, you name it, and sniffing what's inside. Why are shoppers resorting to such behavior? Because it is a way for them to gain control of their purchase decision in a shopping experience packed with overwhelming choice. It's a very natural behavior to smell these products; it's an intuitive way to filter their choices. Growing choice brings out a desire to control it and to find better ways to manage it. It's unfortunate that many retailers and manufacturers aren't providing adequate solutions.

Intuitive shopping environments help shoppers mediate plenty. Retailers and manufacturers become ‘choice editors,' similar to online retailers like Amazon and Netflix that offer intuitive interfaces and features that offer choice and control at the same time. People want choices, but need help making smart decisions between choices. Reorganizing aisles so they reflect a shopper's behavior or regimen at home makes an aisle much more intuitive and easy to navigate. Many people visualize the place in the home where they store a product or mentally go through each room as they create their shopping list. Merchandising products together in a similar manner connects those dots at retail without saying a word.

Bringing comfort

Shopping is like a relationship. People follow their gut; they trust their intuition. If the situation doesn't feel right, they stay clear. Shoppers can size up an environment in an instant. The entryway, lighting, furniture, sales staff and colors are all cues that have an immediate impact. Intuitive retail environments make shoppers comfortable and put them at ease. This need for comfort is more relevant than ever. Society as a whole wants less stress and is seeking more comfort. More decisions in life are based on being comfortable. This macro-trend toward comfort is affecting every part of life, from fashion where people wear flip flops to work, to technology where the popularity of the iPod dominates over productivity tools like the Palm Pilot, to the rise of the day spa in the health and beauty category.

Intuitive retail environments tap into associations of comfort from people's everyday life experiences. Cues from the home like soft lighting, warm wood tones or comfortable living room furniture that are placed in a retail setting are very calming and peaceful. An open  store front without a designated doorway versus a closed store front that forces people to walk through a physical door puts people more at ease because they don't feel like they're being trapped. Finally, people are used to judging other people in a snap, so sales associates that give off an air of helpfulness versus those coming across as a shark looking for their next victim have an immediate positive impact.

Delivering belonging

One of the most profound changes in society today is the growth of globalization. This growth has fueled a counter trend, a growing need for belonging to a local community. In a recent national survey, seventy two percent of Americans feel strong/some connection with their neighborhood.

Intuitive retail environments play off this need for belonging. Tapping local associations are an incredibly powerful way to provide a sense of community. An historic building or famous figure has as much power as a history book. A sports team's logo may be packed with years of inspiration or broken dreams. Donating to the local Girl Scout troop can conjure up memories of the shopper's own childhood. These associations and connections are packed with meaning and are released in a moment without reasoning or thought.


A few seconds is not a very long time, but with intuitive retail, it's all you need. The following recaps the keys to success for creating an intuitive retail experience:

  • Focus on the behaviors of people...take a holistic view of their life
  • Meet higher expectations...think about the journey to purchase
  • Affect or reflect behaviors...determine high/low emotion and involvement
  • Create rich, compact experiences...tap associations and connections
  • Create confidence...eliminate confidence killers
  • Offer mediate plenty
  • Provide comfort...put them at ease
  • Deliver belonging...offer a sense of community

"Intuitive Retail." Brian Kristofek, President & CEO, Upshot.