The Shopper’s Brain: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Customer Behavior

 

The following Q&A excerpt with David Kepron — Vice President of Global Design Strategies for Marriott International and author of Retail (r)Evolution — was originally published in Credibly Business Journal: Understanding the Needs of the New Consumer, the first in a three-part series on retail trends and innovation. For more of our conversation with David, download the journal right here.

CREDIBLY: What are our brains doing when we’re shopping?

DAVID KEPRON: Our brains are ultimately geared towards the recognition of patterns and the interruptions 
in those patterns. Some of these patterns have shaped our brains in ways that are consistent across all cultures and all races, and we all
 share some of them. For example, when we see a snake, or the grass moving as we walk along the path, we’re likely to jump out of the way. That’s cross-cultural. Those instinctual reactions to experience are born into us because of our evolutionary development over millions of years.

Then, there are things that we share because of where we grow up — my ability to speak English and French, for example, having grown up in Montreal — and there are some things that we don’t share at all, which are directly related to our own individual experiences from interacting with the environment.

But of all those experiences, it’s really the ones that we do over and over and over again that become part of the way we experience the world. They lay down and solidify the neural connections and firing patterns that allow us to see, hear, feel, or do some sort 
of behavior. So, if we know that the brain 
is geared towards identifying patterns of experience and calling out the anomalies
 in those patterns, we can use that to our advantage in retail.

david kepron Vice President Global Design Strategies, Marriott International retail (r)evolution

(David Kepron)

This is why things like “gift with purchase” are so fundamental to how people are engaged in a retail place. You go to your favorite store, you’ve been there a hundred times, you know the products, but all of a sudden you’re getting a 10% discount, or a free compact or eyeliner if you’re a woman in a cosmetics department.

Those moments of novelty are the brain focusing in on the unexpected, the interruptions in familiar patterns. And we focus on those moments because that’s fundamentally how we learn. We don’t learn by always getting it right; we learn by getting it wrong. When the brain misinterprets an expectation in a pattern, it stops and says, “Hey, wait a minute, something is different here, pay attention.”

Well, if I know that, then I can begin to look at how interruptions and visual patterns can capture attention and get customers to look at something that I want them to look at. I can fill a 100,000 square-foot store with stuff, but if I change an element within the visual field that is as small
 as, let’s say, an 8×10 sheet of paper, and put it in
a place where I know it’s going to be different within the context of its visual adjacencies, I can guarantee that nine out of 10 people are going to be looking at that thing. And once I capture their attention, I have an opportunity to sell a message, to push a brand ideology, to engage a customer at a shelf level and create opportunities for learning and novelty.

What sensory experiences should retailers focus on to create those moments and opportunities?

There’s a great old teaching adage that is often attributed to Confucius, and it says, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” That’s a great way to think about how people experience retail places.

We can engage customers auditorily, by playing different music or having something that breaks the regular rhythm of the sounds that you hear in the store. And of course, a huge amount of our sensory information comes into our eyes. Our ability to understand the emotional content of stories and places through our visual system is a key driver to experiences, and that applies to virtually everything in the visual environment, including text and language. Even single words may trigger certain brain areas that lead to emotional responses — and not just when you see the word “sale.”

And of course, remember that our skin is the largest sense organ in our bodies, so our brain really understands the difference between the outside and the inside of the store, the changes in humidity, how your footfall on concrete is different than a carpet. All those sensory inputs to your brain can enhance the likelihood for a customer to have a positive experience.

I’ve heard you say that the “generation gap” is really a “brain gap.” Tell me about the change in the wiring of our brains that is happening for younger consumers.

I can’t take credit for the idea of the brain gap. That comes from Dr. Gary Small, who wrote a book called iBrain. But essentially, patterns of behavior and repetition lay down neural patterns that lead to expectation, right? I expect something to happen, because I’ve gone through that behavior over and over again.

There’s this paradigm in the neuroscience world that says, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” meaning that the brain continues to reinforce those neural pathways and use them at the exclusion of others, as you continue to follow those patterns of expectations and behaviors and your way of thinking and doing things.

The other side of that coin is something called synaptic pruning. Your 
brain is born with many more neurons than you actually end up using, and between the ages of about nine and 25, it goes through a process of pruning away those neurons that you’re not using as frequently. While your brain
 is only 3% of your body weight, it uses about 20% of your body’s energy, so synaptic pruning says, “Hey listen, if I’m not going to continue to use that neural pathway, I’m going to trim it away or shut down the road and not spend any money on its repair.”

So what does this mean on a brain level in terms of how technology is influencing us? If you’re a youngster or a toddler, and you’re increasingly activating neural pathways for communication and engagement through digital devices — if you spend all day, every day, communicating in 140 characters through your digital devices, and when you’re out to lunch or dinner with friends you’re texting each other even though you’re sitting across from each other at the table — you, from a very early age, are reinforcing ways of behaving and communicating and engaging in less embodied ways and more in digital ways. It’s not too far of a stretch to say that those neural pathways that are focused on embodied emotional engagement are becoming less used, and are less likely to survive the synaptic pruning process.

I recently wrote a blog about this called “The Empathic Decline.” A University of Michigan researcher named Sara Konrath published a study that was a cross-temporal meta-analysis of empathy in college graduates, and she determined through her research that kids graduating college today are 40% less empathic than their predecessors, and that the decline began to become more acute through 2002 through 2006. So, you begin to look at our increasing use of digital technology as a co-modality for communication, and a decrease in our inclination to be empathic.

This presents a very interesting dilemma. When these kids come to your store or your hotel or wherever you’re trying to engage them, it’s not that they’ll be less interested in your stuff — though they likely will be, because they will have abundance of it online — but they also will very likely not be able to engage with you in a way that the retail world has built its foundations upon: empathic connections in face-to-face, embodied relationships. Think of Mr. Whipple at the county store, or the Cheers bar where everybody knows your name. They won’t simply be uninterested, but they may literally not have the mental machinery to engage in a way that you’ve always assumed you could rely on to attract and make experiences relevant to customers.

Talking to teenagers has always been a challenge with adults, but it may be increasingly so in the digital age. The way you communicate with young consumers won’t likely get you to the end that you expect. And that ends up becoming not necessarily a generation gap, but as Gary Small says, a “brain gap,” where the neural wiring and how the functional areas of brain work are not the same. Over and over and over again, they have rehearsed patterns of behavior that make their brains fundamentally different than the brains of previous customers. And that’s a huge challenge, because it requires a complete re-thinking of engagement and what is relevant to them.

Download the latest Credibly Business Journal to hear David Kepron’s thoughts on how retailers can create relevant experiences for young consumers.