Did you know that our brains actually operate differently than they did a decade ago? If this idea makes you a little uncomfortable, that’s understandable. Change is unnerving even when it doesn’t involve our bodies. And the idea of rewiring our brains sounds weird and borderline sci-fi horror movie. But change is also inevitable and the nine-ish hours a day American adults are spending in front of a screen of one kind or another, often skimming headlines, pivoting between multiple tabs, even between multiple screens, and actively dividing and indexing their attention has changed the way we’re wired to think and act.
And when we shop, or do anything else for that matter, the quality of that experience, what we’re hoping to achieve, how much time we’re willing to allocate, and what we’re taking away emotionally, intellectually, and sensually, has evolved from the ways we felt, thought, and sensed not that very long ago. This is not science fiction; it’s fact.
Recently, WNYC’s New Tech City reported a story called The ‘Bi-literate’ Brain: The Key to Reading in a Sea of Screens. The story is incredibly interesting and, as the title implies, the focus is on the way we read and retain information. Old school reading was linear, deep, concentrated. Screen reading, even screen reading of e-books, it turns out, darts around, leads to less retention, and is easily interrupted. To function best, we can adapt a bi-literate brain that can pivot between the two types of reading as needed. But it turns out a bi-literate brain is not that easy to maintain. Screen brain is taking over because brains find skimming so much easier.
This is a topic big enough for an e-book and doesn’t have loads to do specifically with retail, so we’ll leave the science at that and jump over to how this does relate to how we do other things in life, like purchasing goods and services. The act of shopping, like the act of reading, doesn’t actually come naturally to human beings. As Mike Rosenwald, of the Washington Post, states in the WNYC story, “We don’t have any genes for reading. You know, reading is an acquired skill that the brain learns. We have genes for vision and recognizing characters; but the idea of reading is not something the brain comes with.” The same goes for decision making, budget balancing, time management, and matters of taste, all elements that affect what and how we make purchases.
Our premise here is pretty simple. There are now two distinct kinds of shopping and the way our brains work when we’re doing one (in person) versus the other (electronically) is different – different pace, different attention span, and with a different value focus. Certain types of purchases are going to simply warrant a slower shopping experience than can be found on a screen. Just as a brain toggles between slow-linear and fast-screen reading; a shopper toggles between slow/experiential and fast/data-point shopping. Some purchases lend themselves easily to fast shopping. But some really don’t. How something smells, feels in your hand or against your skin, catches the light… these are factors nearly impossible to convey except in person.
And so your brain visiting your favorite store’s website is actually acting differently than your brain would if you were looking at the exact same products inside of your favorite store. Different synapses are firing; different senses are being engaged. Your considerations are different. Your decision on what to purchase may very likely be quite different.
Coming to terms that this distinction exists in our newly bi-literate brains means we aren’t each just shoppers anymore. Hardly anyone anymore is “just a shopper”. We are, in fact, two different shoppers. Understanding the new Bilateral Shopper is going to be key to the future of retail because the retail evolution is just that, an evolution, and there has to be room for both.