All of us move through our lives with a clock ticking inside our heads. Even in troubled economic situations, time, rather than money, is our most important commodity. That clock tends to tick at relative degrees of loudness. You can meet a friend at Garden State Plaza Mall for the afternoon, and the clock ticks softly, a kind of shopping therapy. At the same mall another time, you want to get in and out as fast as you can. In other words, the meaning of time can change.
My mother was relieved when a 7-Eleven opened a location close to our suburban home in the 1950s. The idea of buying milk for a young family any time of day was a godsend, even if she did have reservations about both the price and quality. Ask a Millennial today where they buy milk, and you get an eclectic list; the drug store, the grocery store, the convenience store, the mass merchant, even the office product superstore sometimes stocks milk. In parts of Europe, you can even buy milk at roadside vending machines.
Convenience, in all of its forms, remains the seminal offering of any modern merchant; from SPAR convenience stores to Amazon.com, retailers are striving to address our concerns about time. Time itself is measured in three forms: real time (or stop-watch time); perceived time; and some combination of the two. The third is a mysterious vortex where feelings and facts get intertwined, something merchants and marketers have been struggling with for the past 30 years.
Addressing and improving this third perception of time varies across stores and services. At a recent conference, Internet merchants talked about a future when they will deliver ordered goods to the address where you are physically identified by your mobile phone, highlighting their desire and ability to connect with you exactly where you are. It summoned images of the shady drug-dealing rendezvous of the past, or the old highway handoff. Call it scary or call it cool. In retail design, the big-box stores and mall operators are focused on navigation issues and cutting down on the time we move through space, diminishing the feeling of being lost, as well as expediting our movement — and purchase-decisions — by getting us closer to what we want, faster.
Lost in Space
Over the course of three decades, we’ve learned that 20% of the time someone spends in a mass-market supercenter is spent feeling lost, or trying to navigate their way through a perceived maze. This can produce frustration and result in lost shopping opportunities and sales. In our office-product superstore research over the past 10 years, a whopping 35% of customers surveyed reported they did not want to be there, a clear indication of the “stack it high and watch it fly!” syndrome stores have historically exhibited. All three major office-store players, including one high-profile merger, have greatly improved store sightlines and shopping ability resulting in a major decrease on the customer confusion index. This has improved sales and saved time on both ends, but their work is not done.
The grocery store, whose basic layout — milk in the back left-hand corner, meat in the back right-hand corner and produce up front — hasn’t changed in 80 years; until recently. Now grocery merchants recognize the local convenience store as their newest competitor, with sleek modern fixtures up front that help customers save time. Supercenter owners have learned that customers typically shop three times a week, using the store differently each time: once as a grocery store, once as convenience store, and a third and or even fourth time as general merchandise store. Walmart, Target and Kmart have all made format adjustments, but customer behavior in these spaces is still changing.
The success of e-commerce is, and always will be, driven by speed and convenience. Male geeks all over the world may be fascinated by the technology, but the female consumer is less concerned about how it works than its potential ability to help her streamline and multi-task her life.
According to the most recent US Census Bureau data, the number of American households in which the female is the dominant bread-earner increases with each passing month. Being mother, wife, worker, and provisioning agent puts stresses on time-management issues, making the competition for her expenditures even more fierce.
In the world of marketing, we hear pundits throw around a series of terms — convergence, diagonal, and other terms — often to describe the convergence of the online and physical retail worlds. They point to the explosive growth of e-commerce ventures, particularly in China where Alibaba and others have grown huge customer bases in the past five years as the smart phone and overall Internet access has exploded exponentially. But our global research has suggested another way of interpreting how the impact of the website design and mobile platforms connect with shopper behavior. Our investigation points to the interconnectedness of retail/shopping trends to the evolution of housing trends.
Our shopping mall culture followed our migration from the inner city to the suburbs. Frank Lloyd Wright popularized the concept of nuclear family home. Henry Ford put the motorcar within reach of almost everyone and made the suburb accessible. The housing developments of 50 years ago created subdivisions of almost identical homes, creating homogeneity and class structure as a by-product. Just like our Chaldean ancestors, we went shopping not just for goods, but for the privilege of looking at other people, hopefully some of them different from ourselves.
In North America in 2014, people are on the move more than ever. With some exceptions like Detroit, American cities are being re-populated by the young, the rich, and the childless, as people seek to get closer to their jobs and escape that homogeneity that plagues the subdivision. That move to the center both changes and complicates our relationship with, and through, time.
Our ability to multitask has thus expanded. The retail research community understands the nuances of shopping culture and demographics, such as designing urban stores for one-handed shoppers, because the other hand is always carrying something. The carryover to online shopping, where there are a variety of issues such as the realities of urban delivery, can be infinitely more complicated.
In the future, or by the 22nd Century, the way we spend our time will continue to evolve, change, and grow. For example, in the capital city of Seoul, where most Koreans live and work, almost everyone spends about two hours a day on public transportation. By reading novels and textbooks and listening to Arcade Fire on their devices, time can be slowed down and the quality of time can be improved.
We all have a limited amount of time, making it our most precious albeit arcane currencies. It can move quickly, slowly, unpleasantly or wonderfully — it all depends on how we spend it.
My alarm clock went off three times last night and was consigned to trash basket. I’m looking for a new one that helps me sleep, wakes me up and puts a smile on my face — and most importantly, budget an extra 90 minutes in each day where I crave to do nothing.