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Ordinarily, Great Britain is not the first country to come to mind when thinking of chocolate. The names of Switzerland and Belgium are more likely to come up first, and then perhaps some other European countries (e.g., France, Italy, Germany, Austria). However, the British upmarket chocolatier Hotel Chocolat may deeply change our perception of Britain in association with chocolate; that is, following of course consumers’ pleasurable associations with the brand Hotel Chocolat. The brand name identifies both the company and its products (i.e., it is a ‘branded house’ of chocolate). Moreover, the company is a manufacturer as well as a retailer, offline and online, of chocolate products of multiple sorts, all under an encompassing brand, Hotel Chocolat.

Britain has been known for chocolate from companies like Cadbury and Thornton. But their products did not really succeed in raising an equivalent alternative that challenges the quality of chocolate from the better known ‘chocolate nations’. Cadbury in particular is most probably the main source for perceptions of British chocolate generated by consumers; in some of its products Cadbury blurs the distinction between true chocolate and chocolate snacks or confectionary. In 2010 the American company Kraft Foods took over Cadbury in an unfriendly maneuver; yet Kraft had a problem in swallowing the business of the acquired British company and just a year later split all of its confectionary arm including Cadbury to a new spin-off company called Mondelez International. Thornton’s already set a standard of higher quality chocolate delicacies in forms like bars and pralines. It also developed a chain of chocolate delicacy and gift shops. However, the enterprise expansion eventually ran into trouble and in 2015 the brand was acquired by the Italian giant Ferrero (well-known for ‘Ferrero Rocher’, also owner of Nutella).

Hotel Chocolat seems to be different, not merely for its positioning as an upmarket brand but in virtue of the fine feel and taste of its chocolate products — one immediately knows it is different when tasting one of the brand’s chocolate products. Drinking their hot chocolate with cocoa-flavoured cream makes a fitting complement to the pleasure of eating the solid chocolate delicacies. The experience of visiting a boutique shop of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., in Covent Garden in London, in the basement) also is an important contributor to conquering committed chocolate lovers.

Appetising Selection of Chocolates at Hotel Chocolat

Tempting chocolates displayed in cave basement of Hotel Chocolat’s Covent Garden shop

 

Hotel Chocolat was co-founded by Angus Thirlwell, CEO of the company, and Peter Harris (Development Director). In an earlier stage of their chocolate business, the co-founders established a company named ‘Express Choc’ as an online retailer of chocolates in 1993 (no doubt an early venture in e-commerce). They opened their first physical shop in the north of London in 2004 after changing the business name — this event practically marks the initiation of the brand Hotel Chocolat.

Over the years the brand has evolved and broadened its concept and it actually extends beyond products, shops and online store (retailing) — it also includes a Tasting Club (pre-launched 1998), chocolate workshops  (School of Chocolate), café-bars, a restaurant in London, and a hotel with restaurant in the Caribbean Islands. The company is proud of being a grower of cocoa for its products, a unique status for either a chocolate manufacturer or a retailer. The co-founders acquired a cocoa plantation in the Caribbean island Saint Lucia (2006), an initiative that brought Thirlwell back to his childhood in that part of the world, an origin of cocoa. In the estate of the plantation they opened their hotel (‘Boucan’) and a restaurant (2011). Their restaurant in London, established a couple of years later (2013) to bring West Indian tastes to the UK combined with modern British cuisine (e.g., ‘Slow Cooked Cacao Glazed Lamb Shank’), bears the name of the plantation and the year it was created (‘Rabot 1745’).

In an interview to BBC News, Thirlwell explained the reasoning behind the name — at start there seemed to be no logical relation to hotels. As for the choice of ‘Hotel’, Thirlwell replied: “It was aspirational. I was trying to come up with something that expressed the power that chocolate has to lift you out of your current mood and take you to a better place“, like going on vacation where one would stay at a hotel. As said above, seven years later and Thirlwell materialised the symbolic idea of Hotel into physical reality. Regarding the French wording ‘Chocolat’, he said that “everybody agreed ‘chocolat’ sounded better than chocolate”, which is hard to argue with, and added that the sound of the word almost suggests the sound of how chocolate melts in the mouth (he used the Latin term ‘onomatopoeia’) (BBC News: Business, 27 October 2014).

As reflected from his interview to the BBC, Thirlwell is a devout chocolatier, completely enthusiastic about chocolate. This impression is also supported in a personal page about Angus Thirlwell on the website of Hotel Chocolat. He continues to taste products every day and approves every recipe the company produces. A guiding principle that appears highly important to him is using more cocoa in chocolate products and less sugar. It is said that people started to crave cocoa long before anyone added a grain of sugar. This principle was practised, for example, in a product called ‘Supermilk’ that contains 65% cocoa, emphasises the ‘smooth creaminess of milk’, and includes less sugar than a dark chocolate — a feel of milk chocolate that is nearly a dark chocolate. In ‘Our Story’ webpage, Hotel Chocolat laments the overemphasis on sweetness in British chocolate: “Today, sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa, and a typical bar of milk chocolate contains more than twice as much sugar as cocoa”. Conversely, the mantra of Hotel Chocolat is explicitly: ‘More Cocoa, Less Sugar’.

A notion of this motto is felt very present indeed in a number of chocolate products of Delicious Orange Tangs by Hotel ChocolatHotel Chocolat, and it is probably at the root of the magic of their chocolate, and their business success. Just for instance, take their chocolate shells filled with Salted Caramel Cream, or Orange Tangs (orange-filled chocolate sticks) that are truly special and delicious (based on the author’s experience). It is all about the pleasure of eating genuine and fine-flavoured chocolate.

Formally, according to the website of Hotel Chocolat, the company operates 93 shops as well as cafés and restaurants. The Telegraph (24 January 2018) tells us that in the weeks running to Christmas 2017 and New Year of 2018 Hotel Chocolat opened ten new shops, bringing their total number to 100 across the UK. The store locator on the website (provided with an interactive map) suggests, however, that the company may have an even larger number of establishments in the UK — 153 locations are designated as ’boutique’ (shops). There are specifically 26 locations of café-bars, and the restaurant in London. It should be noted that café-bars are mostly (or always) integrated with shops, and Rabot 1745 is a complex including the restaurant, shop and café-bar. The brand is also represented in concessions (51 in total). The conflicting numbers are confusing and make it hard to determine the true current number of outlets of the company (could be a result of duplication in the counts of location types in ‘Our Locations’, apparently mainly due to concessions counted as boutique shops). Hotel Chocolat also has two stores in Copenhagen, Denmark, and several outlets in Ireland (seem to function mostly as concessions).


  • The revenue of Hotel Chocolat Group in the financial year 07/2016-06/2017 amounted to £105.24 million, an increase of 15.5% year-on-year; the net income in that period was £8.76m, an impressive rise of 114.6% year-on-year.
  • Hotel Chocolat Group was incorporated in 2013 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2014 (the founders exchanged a third of their holdings for cash, receiving each about £20m, while in total raising £55m).
  • In the past six months the share price shifted between 240p and 380p, standing in late January ’18 at 333p; market capital: £375.5m.
Source:  FT.com, (Market Data)
Sales received a lift of 15% during the 13 weeks to 31 December 2017, attributed mostly to a special package in advance of Christmas (a gin ‘advent calendar’ package), a 100% cocoa collection, and the introduction of no-sugar milky chocolate range. Hotel Chocolat makes 40% of its annual sales in the run-up to Christmas and New Year (The Telegraph, 24 Jan. ’18).

A clear, well-stated and meaningful vision must have helped Hotel Chocolat considerably in its evolution and expansion. It stands on three values people in the company believe in: (1) Originality — not playing by the rules, rather doing things differently, and being creative and innovative. (2) Authenticity — growing cocoa, making and retailing chocolate, being true to cocoa and using natural ingredients (not letting sugar dull the flavour of cocoa itself and not mask the nuances from other ingredients, in line with the mantra cited above), and developing their own recipes in-house at the factory in Cambridgeshire (award-winning). (3) Ethics — committing to a deep sense of fairness that extends to farmers, customers and future generations (i.e., not spoiling the environment with waste in all stages of production).

The description of these three values or principles seems elaborate and specific enough to offer very clear guidelines for all managers and employees in the company to go by. They are accompanied by two business or marketing goals set by Thirlwell: excite the senses with chocolate and making it widely available. The two goals help to add focus to the mission of the brand: the first seems to pertain primarily to the products, the second underlies the network of retailing through physical shops and an online store. Other activities of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., hotel,  restaurants and café-bars, Tasting Club, School of Chocolate) contribute in enhancing the brand: deliver its message across and strengthen closer relationships with customers.

The business revolves around the brand ‘Hotel Chocolat’ and its development as it is their face and voice to the world. That is how customers and other stakeholders recognize everything they do. The more prestigious image of the brand is expressed through their products and packaging, primarily with their premium collections (‘tables’ — e.g., 86 pieces £65, 179 pieces £100). Pricing is also part of supporting the image, though Hotel Chocolat tries not to be excessive (e.g., one can find small-medium packages and boxes for prices in a range of £5-25). The concept of Café bars is gaining weight in aim to come closer to consumers — creating a venue where they can relax and enjoy a good chocolate drink with something light to eat (e.g., brownies) from Hotel Chocolat. The company may tap on a desire of Britons for high-quality chocolate, having a better own experience with chocolates from countries like Switzerland and Belgium. The founders protect the brand from dilution by avoiding, for example, displaying their products on shelves in supermarkets for sale (but their products are sold through concession in departments stores of John Lewis which fits better their brand image). The brand is taken care of meticulously by the founders to maintain an image they worked hard to instill: “a necessity of life, albeit a luxurious one” (Kate Burgess, opinion column, FT.com, 13 March 2016).

The brand of Hotel Chocolat has built its strength in quality of products and the expanse of its brick-and-mortar shops in addition to online retailing, supported by further activities or services. But attention must be paid to challenges ahead. First, how to balance resources correctly between keeping the quality of products and the expansion of the retail network — not falling to the trap of sacrificing the pleasure from the chocolates to their increased availability in the retail chain. Second, how to manage wisely and responsibly reaching out to other countries. In the interview to the BBC News (2014), Thirlwell concluded: “If you are specialist you have got to be absolutely specialist. There is a lot of competition and we want to be in the driving seat.” Consumers who appreciate and love genuine chocolate would surely hope that Hotel Chocolat succeeds in its mission so they can continue to enjoy their delicacies, and be excited.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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Touch-screens are becoming the norm of display and interaction on mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets — devices with screen sizes in the range of 4” to 10”. Maximal area of the device’s face is dedicated to the screen, leaving a thin surrounding frame with enough space primarily for the physical ‘On’ button (e.g., awakening the screen, returning to the ‘Home’ display). Most controls for operating a smartphone or tablet and their applications are now virtual, represented as visual icons, symbols and keystrokes on the screen. Users can interact with the device (even for dialing a phone number) by pointing, swiping and similar hand (finger) gestures applied to the screen’s display. It all sounds and feels great, and mostly functions alright, but not all is bright — there is still much room for improvement and better fine-tuning.

The focal devices of this article are smartphones with screens normally between 4” and 5.4” and tablets that carry mostly screens in size of 7” to 10” (extra-size smartphones, also-known-as ‘phablets’, embody a screen larger than 5.4”). They essentially enlarge the real-estate of the screen by doing away with physical controls on the device (buttons and keypads). Operation of the device and interaction with its applications is delegated almost wholly to the touch of virtual controls and other finger-gestures.

This new form of handheld computer-type devices provides a highly advanced class of viewing verbal and pictorial content and interacting with them through manual gestures. Touch-screens were available already in the turn of the century with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The touch-screens of smartphones and tablets are yet empowered in several important aspects: (1) they can be operated with the touch of fingers without need for a pen or stylus; (2) the screens are larger; and (3) the images are in much higher quality. The differences do not end here, if only to mention the communication abilities of the more recent mobile devices. Smartphones in particular can be said to converge a phone and a PDA in a single device, but with some additional capabilities that neither mobile phones nor PDAs have had in earlier times.

The first critical problem to address with touch-screen mobile devices concerns writing. A user is likely to encounter difficulties frequently when writing text with a virtual keyboard — it is rather easy to miss target character keystrokes. The difficulty is not simply in typing text but in getting the words spelled correctly, and overall avoiding character typing errors. The difficulty to produce a text without errors is likely to turn out more acute and agitating with smartphones and the smaller tablets (i.e., 7-8”). It may also cause users to leave spaces in the wrong places, and inversely to concatenate words. Correcting errors can be furthermore annoying when the user cannot find the direction arrows or point his or her finger to stand at the right position of correction; going backspace is not useful if one already moved to another line when the earlier error is noticed or any other correction of text is demanded.

Mobile devices foster writing correspondence texts (e.g., e-mails, chatting, social media updates and comments) even faster than with other modes, specially when users are in motion.  People tend to write correspondence as such more quickly and haphazardly, taking less care to avoid mistakes, and textproofing before sending is usually not in high priority or time-affordable. The result is that producing a well-thought and error-free text message on a touch-screen with a virtual keyboard may be an irritating mission (e.g., either abort message or send it with some errors).

  • Writing alphanumeric text with a 12-key physical pad is hardly convenient, and is usually time-consuming. In that sense QWERTY-type keyboards, physical or virtual, are better. There is yet an important difference to notice: The keys on a physical keyboard (e.g.,  Nokia E5 that followed on the original Blackberry phones) can be quite small but they feel like separated bumpers (i.e., giving the user a tactile feedback where the finger rests) whereas a virtual keyboard is completely flat and smooth. The cost of the physical keyboard is of course the smaller screen.

Mistyping is mostly associated with failure to accurately ‘hit’ the intended character keystroke with one’s index finger, and often enough with the thumb (e.g., when in motion and only one hand is free to hold the device and write). That is because virtual character keys tend to be too small for our fingers used for texting (less so on 10” tablet screens). The kind of errors that may result are typing the wrong character, typing the same character inadvertently twice, or  not typing the designated character. Apparently, failing to execute selected actions also occurs with images, such as when having to press virtual buttons or activating icon and text hyperlinks. These controls could be related to the device and its utilities or embedded in websites and imported apps. These issues are well-explained by Steven Hoober in an article in UXMatters (“Common Misconceptions About Touch”, 18 March 2013). Hoober makes an important distinction between seeing clearly text and icon targets and touching them effectively, and he recommends target sizes for them (in measures of points and millimeters).

Hoober refers to an additional sensitive and critical consideration in preventing users from taking accidentally the wrong action: he calls this ‘preventing interference errors’. He clearly suggests to avoid placing controls for actions with opposite consequences too near each other lest trying to touch-press one control could result in adversely activating the other unwanted control. This applies especially to actions associated with catastrophic results or outcomes that are difficult to undo. For instance, he recommends separating sufficiently the locations of controls for Send and Delete actions (Hoober recommends a distance of at least 8mms and preferably 10mms between centres of the controls [the target point of finger contact]).

Touch-screen devices benefit indeed from a larger screen real-estate for image display. But there is nonetheless competition on that real-estate for the content of display, and competition can be quite tough especially on devices with screens smaller than 7” in size. The competition is prominently between images of controls and the content of device utilities, webpages and apps. It applies primarily to the interface of a virtual keyboard that requires a relatively large space (in some cases up to 50% of screen area). However, there could be other controls needed for operating the device and specific utilities, websites or apps (e.g., designers may have to give up on some pictorial imagery in order to allow enough space for action controls like “Add to Basket”).

Focusing on the virtual keyboard: when called-upon to write, it pops-up and hides  other content of the display (e.g., e-mail message, shopping webpage) in the lower part of the screen. It may hide content that the user actually needs to see while proceeding in composing a message or responding to content in a website. The smaller the screen, on one hand a larger part of the underlying display is hidden, on the other hand the keystrokes have to be smaller. Unlike with a physical keyboard, the virtual one can at least be dropped out when not in use and called again when needed for writing. But it can be disturbing if every few moments one has to drop out the keyboard and surface it again to resume writing. With larger screens there should still be enough space for text in the e-mail message editor that one can scroll; with screens 7” or less one may be able to see only up to four lines at a time and even that in small type difficult to read (changing zoom may help but also cause trouble — more below).

Virtual keyboards on mobile devices are split into two or three displays due to space limitations (e.g., Latin letters as for English or German [but with some order variations], numeric figures and symbols, and an extra keyboard for non-Latin alphabets as Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic). But in any particular set of keyboard display, some character keys or controls may have to be forsaken for space limitations. As suggested above, it is most annoying when the direction arrows are eliminated (e.g., on a Samsung 7” tablet) because it makes it more difficult to go back and forth across a text while composing and editing it.

Relying on gestures can save space for screen real-estate and help in making interactions fluid and efficient, but working with a touch-screen has limitations. Raluca Budiu of Nielsen & Norman Group (user experience research and usability experts, 19 April 2015) lists some of the main problems that may arise for users: (1) The leading problem concerns typing, and particularly the need to continuously divide attention between the content written and the keypad area; (2) Poor tactile feedback, small keypads and crowded keys make the typing experience more troublesome; (3) The target size of controls or keys has to be considerably larger with touch interface to optimize reaching time and minimise errors compared with a mouse; (4) Since there can be many target areas on a touch-screen (especially of smartphones), it is easy to make accidental touch errors (see Hoober’s ‘interference error’) — some errors can “leave the user disoriented and unsure of what happened”. Budiu notes that respecting the Undo usability heuristic is furthermore important with mobile devices.

References to those main problems could be found in the earlier paragraphs of this article. Two more issues are addressed below:

Scrolling over a touch-screen — Mobile devices do not apply a scrolling bar — the user can scroll by swiping the index finger in a swoosh movement up or down over the touch-screen. The smaller the screen, and if one is in a landscape mode, more scrolling may be needed (shifting left and right is also possible). Trouble may start when the window display is populated by ‘clickable’ tiles or pictures: if the user does not swipe the finger quickly and lightly enough over the image, he or she may activate the underlying link rather than scroll across the window. When that happens, the user may arrive to a different window display, and one has to find the way back. More disturbing, when the content is online and connectivity can be slow on occasion, the user may remain stuck for a long time before being able to return to the desired location of content and resume work.

Zooming and automatic change of size —  Since type on touch-screens of mobile devices can be small and uneasy to read, one can zoom-in to enlarge the display appearance and the text in it. This is usually done by swiping the index and thumb fingers away from each other over the screen (conversely, one can zoom-out to reduce size but see more content by bringing the fingers closer together). But caution: one has to be accurate, and this does not always work so well. One may accidentally “blow” a picture image over the whole screen, for instance. When writing an e-mail message zooming can be helpful as one toggles between writing and reading the composed text. Yet, these devices are smart and sometimes they try to adjust the size for you according to the identified mode of use; sometimes it is appropriate but on occasion it causes trouble and nuisance. In more drastic cases, whilst trying to enlarge the type on a webpage, the system may lock in a loop and continue zooming-in until the user can see nothing coherent and has to start over again.

  • Note that the scrolling and size problems were encountered much more frequently on a Samsung tablet, either 7” or 10”, than on an Apple’s 10” iPad .

People may discover at times that although they were sure they could see exactly where their hand should reach and act, it somehow missed the target. That may happen because perception augmented by cognitive conception and processes of location and action are not the same in the human brain. These processes are connected (i.e., they share and pass information between them) but are nonetheless distinct. Visual information flows and is processed in two pathways: (a) perceptual but non-conceptual information is passed through the ventral stream to the temporal lobe where percepts are interpreted into meaningful images of scenes and objects; (b) visuospatial (location) and visuomotor (action) signals are transferred through the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe to guide, for instance, our manual movements. The ventral-temporal (semantic) visual system allows to identify a target for action yet the dorsal-parietal (pragmatic) visual system is responsible in parallel for determining where the target is and how to act upon it. Furthermore, action requires only a subset of information from percepts, including size, shape and orientation of a target object to complete a task, much less than what we perceive and even recognize as seeing. The conceptual identity of the target is mostly not required.

Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), distinguishing between Semantic and Pragmatic vision as cited above, argue that pragmatic vision processed in the parietal lobe is more complex and multi-layered than has been theorised and described in literature on vision. Humans may believe they act on whatever they perceive (as an image) but in fact they usually act on the nonconscious signals that arrive directly to the parietal lobe. Recognising and identifying clearly the target and understanding what to do with it are therefore not enough — the target should be designed in a form that permits (affords) the visuomotor system to perform the action correctly and efficiently. The semantic and pragmatic processes occur simultaneously. In some instances the semantic system may assist the pragmatic system but usually deliberate intervention is not needed. A user should not have to tilt the tablet, for example, while trying to accurately and slowly direct his finger to touch the small backward or forward arrows of the browser on the touch-screen. This is an example of an effortful action users should not be driven to.

Using mobile devices with touch-screens has advantages and can be a gratifying experience. But there is also a lot that can be done to improve that experience, moreover if the aspiration is that consumers will use these devices much more frequently for performing more tasks, and especially that they will use tablets more than desktop and laptop computers in the future. Although the touch-screen mobile devices promote to use fingers, they should support the use of a pen or stylus and perhaps even encourage it with smaller screen devices (for typing and not just for drawing). It is also helpful to enlarge the images of keystrokes, icons and symbols as one approaches to touch any of these controls. These are just hints and there are probably many more ways interaction designers can create to improve mobile users’ experiences, making them more effective and enjoyable.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition; Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod, 2003; Oxford University Press.

Additional recommended reading:

Mobile Computing; Jesper Kjeldskov; In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition, Chapter 9); Interaction Design Foundation.

 

 

 

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The EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milano, that is coming to a close at the end of October, has concentrated on the future of agriculture and food on our planet. The urgency of these topics is elevated by adverse conditions of climate change (warming) and shortage in water, predicted to worsen further. The EXPO is generally a prime opportunity for countries to promote their nation-brands. This time countries were invited to showcase their advanced scientific and technological capabilities by offering programmes and solutions to overcome environmental and economic challenges of agriculture and food provision.

The supermarket retailer Coop of Italy has yet taken a different direction, within the realm of its business specialisation: Coop Italia proposes at EXPO 2015 its vision of how shopping will be conducted in future supermarkets. They have put on stage a functioning model of a supermarket store (Future Food District / il supermercato del futuro) where detailed product information is displayed on large digital screens and check-out and payment are performed on computer-automated terminals. Almost obviously, such a supermarket will require even fewer human service personnel than met today in the store.

  • Coop Italia covers online (in Italian) a range of aspects such as food retailing, shopping, technology, and the future of food itself.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (3)

It should be emphasised that the experimental supermarket of Coop at EXPO Milano is not just for demonstration but visitors of the site can practically collect food products into their shopping baskets and purchase them at the end of their trip. In the store’s front and on the upper level a visitor/shopper may find fresh produce and packaged food products displayed on shelves. From there he or she may descend to the lower level to find mostly refrigerated and frozen products. If products were actually selected from the display area, the shopper may go to the self-service scan-and-pay terminals and finalise the purchase (payment can be made by credit and debit cards or in cash).

The prospective format offers, according to Coop Italia, new interactions between consumers, products and producers. Mainly, consumers can observe and read from digital display screens much more information on products and their producers than has been traditionally possible in supermarkets. The screens are hanging usually above shelf cabinets or refrigerators at about head level. When the shopperCoop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (4) points to a particular product’s title and image on the nearest screen, a variety of details in text and graphics, and a larger pictorial image of the product, will appear on screen. Besides the essentials of product name, size measures and price, additional information may be presented on product components and nutritional values (e.g., calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fibres), and on its source (e.g., producer company and country of origin). This facility should save shoppers the effort of tearing their eyes while reading small print on product packages, where packaging is relevant at all. The information is also displayed in a more friendly and comprehensible form (e.g., using understandable terms, illustrated visually in graphic charts). These enhancements of the future shopping experience are much about advanced display technology and data visualization.

Occasionally the visitor/shopper may also see some sales statistics and more background on growing and production of the product of interest with emphasis on nutritional and health implications. Coop Italia suggests that presenting more of these kinds of information will give better direction to consumers on preferred or recommended food products in future times (e.g., given new constraints on food provision). Thus Coop connects to the general issue of the future of food at the focus of EXPO 2015.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (1)

Being on site, the space of the supermarket looked elegant and modern. The large black screens hanging over, positioned in an angle as “\”, definitely signalled a change in the visual scene of the store. It was the first cue to be noticed as to how the future supermarket could be different. The screens were easily discernible but their arrangement was not in any way disturbing to the eye — one could quickly get used to them. Activating the display and viewing information for any chosen product was intriguing and to some extent even entertaining. On one hand it felt like “playing” while shopping, on the other hand it increased interest in products considered, if only for curiosity and not for purchase. The information presented was usually helpful and of practical value for decision-making. Overall, the future supermarket model appeared to enrich the shopping experience.

There were some impediments, however, in practice. Making the screen to display information related to a desired product was not always smooth and easy. It was not clear, for instance, if one should raise a chosen product item up to the screen above or just point towards the image of the relevant product (visitors could be seen trying both). Whatever sensors were supposed to identify the gesture of the shopper’s hand or the product itself, they occasionally were not satisfactorily responsive. Most screens were located on-top so that shoppers could not touch them, and therefore the question was: How do I cause the system to recognize my choice of product. But perhaps it was also a matter of some more training by the shopper to get it right (gamers should have better success with such a system).

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Additionally, sometimes it felt the information displayed changed too quickly, not giving enough time to review parts of the data provided. Information on each product was usually screened in two or three “shots” (i.e., display of first portion of product information replaced by display of the next portion). Since the shopper has no control of the duration of display, it could be sometimes irritating when, as a shopper, I could not review a data figure of interest in time. But one should remember that usually a shopper is not alone and the same screen may have to serve multiple customers within a few minutes, so a single shopper may be allowed just a brief time to inspect the most needed information. The stress on shoppers might be felt particularly during peak hours of shopping.  Hence, shoppers may benefit from the convenience of viewing information on large screens, but when necessary they should be able to toggle to the private screens on their mobile devices to continue their review of product information.

  • It is noted that Coop Italia provides QR codes for products that shoppers can scan and access the product information on their own devices (and possibly conduct the purchase online).

Regardless of the technology employed, the Coop deserves congratulating for their visually appealing layout and arrangement of product display, and its orderliness and cleanliness. It was evident that great care was invested in setting-up and housekeeping the supermarket. Since this is indeed an experimental stage for the future supermarket, it is reasonable and expected  that work to improve the performance and usability of the technology installed will continue. When it arrives, the younger generations will most likely be prepared for this concept. In summary, the shopping experience ‘nel supermercato del futuro’ was positive and encouraging.

 


How is Coop Italia perceived following its initiative? Naturally, the Coop would expect its Future Food District initiative to have a positive effect on the company’s image. Feedback they received from consumers following their visit of the future supermarket included (most frequent responses, cited from video clip):

  • The Coop demonstrates that it is modern and up-to-date (48%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it has at heart the future of the planet and its inhabitants (29%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it keeps in line with the new requirements of consumers (27%)
  • The Coop anticipates the future (19%)
  • The Coop is looking to generate curiosity and interest (13%)

But 16.5% also indicated that the Coop has gone too much ahead of its time, that consumers are not ready yet for all this technology, and 15% argued that the Coop may risk distancing those who are not familiar with the technology. Hence, the technological advances may be welcome, yet it could be too early to implement at this time.

 


The EXPO exhibition in Milano this year was enormous in scope and fascinating; it was well-organised and instructive. All countries presented products and other artefacts, images and models standing for some of their national and cultural assets and symbols,   emphasising, as much as possible for each country, environmental considerations and priorities. The differences in scale between exhibits of countries, however, were striking. There was also large diversity in level of sophistication of presentation, in the technologies used and other display aids applied. In particular, some countries focused more on high-tech techniques while others relied mainly on low-tech features.

Country exhibits hosted in shared-pavilions by theme (e.g., Cacao and chocolate, coffee, rice, bio-Mediterranean, arid zone) were modest; those countries also related  moderately to projects or developments to resolve agricultural and food challenges. But even among smaller exhibits it is unfair to talk of homogeneity because some countries were enlightening exceptions who managed to put up impressive and interesting exhibits.

Countries exhibiting in their own pavilions blended more expansively between their traditional assets and their programmes and technological solutions dedicated specifically to the challenges of future agriculture and food. It must be noted that some pavilions were impressive in their architecture per se. But the country pavilions also proved that size is not everything — diversity in level of effort invested, ingenuity and richness was discernible among those pavilion exhibitions. Furthermore, it also did not seem that variation in quality, originality and interest of exhibits was accounted for merely by differences in economic power or resources.

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

 

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As a shopper approaches the entrance to a store or shop, and walks through the doorstep, he or she quickly figures out how inviting the venue is. Does the store look interesting and compelling, showing a potential for exhibiting merchandise articles of value? Or does the scene look so crowded and messy it is hard to believe one can find there anything he or she may need or desire? More basically, do the store’s interior design and display appear pleasant to the eye or annoying? While consumers generally like to keep things simple and in good order, some degree of visual complexity can help to capture shoppers’ attention and make the store more attractive and inviting for prospect customers.

A simple design, stripped of any form of art and modestly furnished for displaying merchandise, stands the risk of being perceived too boring to justify spending time in the store or shop. An element of surprise, a break from the ordinary or standard, may be necessary to intrigue the shopper and entice him to enter and study the store more closely. But deciding on the right measure of complexity can be difficult. A store owner may not want to complicate its design and display to a level that is overwhelming for the shopper, making it hard for the eye to absorb (e.g., an unruly mixture of deep and flashy colours, every furniture or fixture in a different form and style). Challenging the shoppers is welcome, but the challenge should be carefully planned and designed so as not to scare them off. Importantly, planning for visual complexity is not just a matter of amount but even more so a matter of its form and composition.

Introducing variability (e.g., in shapes or colours) and irregularities (e.g., construct displays in non-parallel lines), for example, increase the complexity of a design. Complexity does not have to be extensive — a few elements can be sufficient to spice-up the design of a store; and even a disruption of “normal” order can have rules. When increasing visual complexity in the store one should take care to maintain the aesthetic appearance of its scene. In reference to the design of products, Hekkert (1) proposed four goals towards an aesthetic and pleasant visual design: maximum effectiveness from minimum means (e.g., use a few and simple features, apply correlated features that co-align into a meaningful construct); unity in variety (i.e., follow specific principles like those of Gestalt to maintain order and control in variety); striking a balance between novelty and typicality that excites but does not shock the consumers; and, co-ordinate between stimuli that relate to the different human senses.  Hekkert argued that the aesthetic experience should be considered in tandem with the experience of meaning and emotional experience. We may refer to these goals as a benchmark for constructing discernible but sensible complexity — for instance, breaking away from a Gestalt principle (e.g., symmetry) increases complexity, but it should be done without dissolving the whole organization of the store’s scene. Such guidelines could be of particular relevance for the design of product display, that is, visual merchandising.

Visual complexity may arise from different factors such as the number and range of elements or objects in a scene, the variety and density of visual-graphic features present (e.g., colours, shapes, texture), and deviation from principles of organization and regularity (e.g., symmetry, similarity, repetition). Clutter is associated with complexity but is not synonym with it. Clutter frequently represents the objective information-side of complexity, that is, the (excessive) detail and (weak-structured) layout of information in the scene. It is viewed as a driver of complexity though it is not the only facet to consider. Visual complexity, on the other hand, often reflects the personal subjective perspective, such as the evaluation by individuals (e.g., with respect to attractiveness) and their response to complexity. However, references in research to ‘complexity’ can be as complex and diverse as the term itself suggests. The effect of visual complexity on consumer processing, evaluation and behavioural response is important with respect to appearance of products and their packages, ads, webpages, and scenes of retail and service physical environments.

Store owners have the choice whether to display more or less merchandise in the main space of the premises, and where and how to display it (e.g., on tables, counters or shelves at the centre, along the wall, or as a fixture attached to the wall). Additional elements of interior design would accompany the display to create the overall impression for the shopper-viewer. Orth and Wirtz (2) tested direct and mediated effects of visual interior complexity on store attractiveness in two types of environments, deli stores (merchandise-oriented) and coffee shops (service-oriented). They showed that greater complexity (e.g., many products crowded on a long counter) hurts the perceived attractiveness of the store. Attractiveness is furthermore mediated by the pleasure experienced by shoppers-viewers from the display and overall scene. That is, lower attractiveness is driven, or can be explained, by shoppers being unhappy with or annoyed by the visual scene. It is also attributed to a decrease in processing fluency of the more complex visual scene (fluency is mediating between complexity and pleasure). The consequences, as this research shows, can be a behavioural tendency of avoidance from a more complex store and weaker intention to revisit it.

  • The researchers measured “attractiveness” with respect to aspects of overall attractiveness, product quality and price level. However, information on products and prices was only implicitly shown but not manipulated, or alternatively not shown at all.  Hence, our ability to learn how complexity, as an attribute of visual design, fares in its effect on store attractive relative to the other two aspects is very limited. The effect of complexity that seems truly to matter relates to pleasure experienced from viewing the store’s scene, pertaining particularly to its visual appeal (not mentioned in the scale of attractiveness) — complexity is less appealing to the eye. This experience is sensibly influenced by the lower fluency when perceiving the visual scene.

A rich view into the store-perhaps too rich

But the case for visual complexity in the store is not yet lost. The answer for employing complexity to the advantage of the store or shop may be in selectively implementing particular layers or facets of visual complexity in the interior design and visual merchandising of the retail outlet. We may learn a lesson from research by Pieters, Wedel and Batra (3) who analysed visual complexity and its effects in the context of advertising from the consumer perspective. They made an important distinction between “feature complexity” and “design complexity” and showed that these layers of complexity have opposite effects on attention and attitude (through techniques of eye-tracking and direct questions).

Feature complexity refers to the variation, density and layout of visual features (colour, luminance and edges) across a whole scene. For example, an ad image that contains more colours all over is more feature-complex. In other words, feature complexity is enhanced as the eye has to shift more frequently between areas of different colour, luminance or texture and cross more edges of objects and frames. Clutter is associated in this account with feature complexity. Design complexity pertains to the appearance of identifiable objects contained in the scene (e.g., a picture of a product or a fashion model figure, a brand logo). The six criteria defined by the authors may be divided into two groups: (a) criteria concerned with the appearance of specific objects (irregularity of object shape, dissimilarity of objects [differ in shape, colour, texture or orientation], and having more edge and colour detail); (b) criteria concerned with the layout or arrangement of objects ([greater] quantity, asymmetry of object arrangement and irregularity of object arrangement). It is noted that configuring and designing the appearance and arrangement of particular objects is to a great extent in the control of ad designers, and hence their better ability to determine the level of design complexity of the ad. Pieters and his colleagues substantiate the following differing effects of feature and design complexities:

  • Feature complexity reduces attention to the advertising brand (e.g., its name heading or logo). Furthermore, greater feature complexity (visual clutter) hurts consumer attitude towards the ad.
  • Design complexity increases attention to the pictorial elements in the ad as well as to the ad in whole. Moreover, higher levels of design complexity improve attitude towards the ad.
  •  (It is also shown that greater design complexity together with better brand identifiability in the ad enhance ad comprehensibility, probably by improving consumer ability to attach associations inferred from the ad with the focal brand.)

Extending insights from ads to brick-and-mortar retail stores is not quick and easy. First, an ad is a two-dimensional image whereas the store’s space is a three-dimensional scene — our perception of visual effects differs between 2D and 3D views (e.g.,  a photograph compared with the actual location). In addition, ads often incorporate an heterogeneous mix of different types of pictorial and text elements and other graphic features, conjoint in a discontinuous layout not possible in a physical 3D space. Nevertheless, some insights on visual complexity seem applicable also to the interior design of a store and to visual merchandising.

Consider these two examples for increasing design complexity in a store:

  1. Imagine a shelf display on a wall where merchandise articles (e.g., sweaters) on each row are in a different colour; suppose we now arrange items so that in the center we get, for instance, a circle filled with items in a colour different from the remaining display, thus adding a colour while “breaking” the horizontal rows of the shelves.
  2. Suppose we created a display composed of small square tables on the floor with merchandise articles (e.g., books) on top; we may add complexity by placing one table in a different shape (e.g., triangle), or moreover add a stand in an irregular shape.

Another issue may be raised with regard to design complexity, whether instead of manipulating visual aspects of specific fixtures or props it is better to manipulate their arrangement and for example set asymmetric or irregular layouts. These design variations may serve to make a statement or highlight cues about the store’s image. The challenge is not to lose sight of the whole scene to avoid rendering it too confused, disturbing or difficult to follow (i.e., cluttered). We may further realise that even in a store the visibility of a brand logo, large photographic images posted on walls and other signage count, no less than in ads — they support brand identifiability and visual merchandising.

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

If a retailer is cautious and prefers to start in a middle ground, here are a few possible avenues for action. Front windows make a good place to start. Particularly the cabin-type window displays that are closed on the back and block the view into the shop’s space sustain a scene that is closer to 2D. The front window displays are of special importance because they provide shoppers the first introduction as they approach the shop. And of course one may also on advertising for the store, such as for an ad that includes a photographic image of the store. Specifically for ad posters that are intended to be shown in the store (e.g., new fashion outfits, deals), Pieters, Wedel and Batra recommend that they should reduce feature-based clutter as much as possible because of the short duration shoppers are expected to be exposed to those ads. Photo images of a store may also constitute a practical and suitable medium for studying consumers’ evaluation (e.g., visual appeal) and attitude given an exhibited level of complexity in the store.

Introducing visual complexity in a store is a matter of form, composition and style. Not just the extent of complexity created but also in what ways it is done will determine its acceptance and favourability by shoppers. Ultimately visual complexity needs to stimulate shoppers to purchase. Applying aspects of design complexity is the course for store owners or managers, and visual merchandisers and interior designers working with them, to exercise their creativity. But it is essential at all times to keep an eye on the overall scene outcome so as not to fall into a trap of creating too much visual clutter and confusion.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

(1) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

(2) Consumer Processing of Interior Service Environments: The Inerplay Among Visual Complexity, Processing Fluency, and Attractiveness; Ulrich R. Orth & Jochen Wirtz, 2014; Journal of Service Research, 17 (3), pp. 296-309

(3) The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity; Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, & Rajeev Batra, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (Sept.), pp. 48-60.

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With click rates on online ad banners ranging between o.5% and 2% it is not difficult to understand why many in the marketing, advertising and media professions often question the efficacy of click-based models of advertising on the Internet. It is a problem for both advertisers of products and services and the website owners that publish ad banners on their pages.

For advertisers, exposure of consumers to their ads is not a sufficient or satisfying criterion but immediate action in response to the ad banner is very difficult to elicit; perhaps clicking-through should not be expected just because these objects are “clickable links”.  Should the effectiveness of ad banners be doubted because of low traffic it may generate, or is it that the criteria used are inappropriate?

For the owners of websites used as vehicles for advertising (e.g., newsmedia, portals, social media), it is a question of effectiveness in generating satisfactory revenue from those ads, conditioned on mouse clicks. When webpages receive high volumes of visits, even very low click rates may be sufficient to collect a handsome sum of money, but this cannot be generalised to most websites and pages. On the other hand, if a website is loaded with ads across the pages to generate more revenue, it may end up cluttering its own content and chasing away visitors.

Internet users who browse websites in search for information on a particular subject (e.g., photography, nature), and  read or watch related content on webpages, are very likely to see ad banners as no more than a distraction from their main task. Clicking on a banner that sends the users to another page means an interruption of the kind many would not welcome. There are exceptions, of course, when for example the ads are for products (e.g., cameras, hiking gear) related to the main topic of the website and thus provide access to additional information that can be of interest on relevant options (i.e., context in which ads appear matters). Ads may be perceived less disturbing to surfers who are engaged in exploration with no planned goal but for fun and entertainment; checking on advertised companies and products may be accepted as part of the exploration, although maybe not in every condition (e.g., when users are wary of non-trusted solicitations, busy interacting with friends in social networks, engaged in watching music videos and so on).

However, viewing an ad banner for a brand can leave an impression, and a trace in memory, in consumers’ minds that will have its effect at a later time, especially if a choice situation in the same product domain is looming soon after. Consumers may register in memory the exposure episode, with the brand name and additional information contained in the ad, for checking-up later without being required to click-through at the same moment. Importantly, this “registration” does not have to occur consciously to make an impact.

If a consumer-surfer is interested, he or she may attempt intentionally to remember the ad and look-up for the brand’s website when the time becomes available and convenient. When  working on a computer or a mobile device, one can easily type a note or set-up a reminder, especially if the website address also appears on the banner. But an ad banner can operate without waiting for a voluntary response or overt reaction from the consumer.  It depends to a large extent on the kind of impression made by the visual image of the ad banner on the consumer-surfer at an initial or quick glance. An image that is easier for the eye and mind to process, that feels pleasant to look at, its informational content will become more readily acceptable and persuasive. Visual processing fluency (1) at the perceptual level suggests that principal elements of the image can be identified with little effort and great accuracy — for instance, in a banner’s image, that may include the brand/company name, logo icon, and picture of a product. Visual fluency can be facilitated by the use of colours and recognizable shapes that are pleasing to watch, symmetry, clear contrast between figure and ground, etc. Its persuasive effect may not be strong enough to trigger a mouse-click yet increased fluency can make the ad’s content better remembered as well as better liked by the viewer for a longer time after exposure.

An ad banner can influence consumer attitude and response also through a process of priming. This type of effect in the particular domain of ad banners on the Internet has been studied by Mitchel and Valenzuela (2). The consumer is initially introduced to the ad in a seemingly casual and incidental way. However, information in the ad stimulus, “planted” as a trace in the consumer’s memory, would prime her or him, unconsciously, to use it during a future task, for example when recalling brands or choosing between alternative brands. Such exposure could work simply by evoking a positive attitude towards the brand in the priming ad. In another procedure, a joint presentation of a brand with a product attribute in the ad banner would prime the consumer to look for and give priority to that same combination when it appears in the information provided on a set of product alternatives to choose from.

according to this research, priming by an ad banner can affect the consideration of brands for purchase (tested with airlines) in three significant ways. First, a brand whose ad had been shown earlier was more likely to be considered for purchase (of air-tickets) than if an ad for another brand had been shown or no ad at all (control). Second, this effect is stronger for a lower quality brand than for a higher quality brand, that is, a stronger brand has less to gain from priming through its ad banner. Third, when consideration is based on recall from memory, priming has a stronger effect in leveraging the likelihood of consideration of a primed brand than if the brands have to be selected from a constrained list — this may be explained by the added impact of priming through prior exposure on memory (note: this difference is valid only for the lower-quality brand!). Advantages of priming are established also when making the final choice of a single brand to purchase from (subject again to the second and third qualifications above).

Mitchel and Valenzuela further reveal in their research an interesting effect of priming of established brands on a “new” unfamiliar brand (i.e., a fictional airliner). All participants were exposed to an ad banner for the unfamiliar brand before given any tasks and therefore the relevant priming effects arise from the lower-quality and higher-quality brands. It is shown that results for the unfamiliar brand were more favourable if at the beginning of the research the higher-quality brand had been primed rather than if the lower-quality brand or neither of them had been primed. The more positive image of a higher-quality brand seems to spill over to the unfamiliar brand by lifting the brand’s evaluation higher and increasing its likelihood of consideration and being finally chosen — an advantage that earlier priming of a familiar but lower-quality brand cannot provide to the unfamiliar brand.

We may learn from this research that ad banners can be utilised to create an advantage for a brand during consumers’ decision processes without their full awareness of it but it will not help any brand — it is more suitable for brands that are currently weaker — and not in every situation. The placement of the ad banner for this purpose has to be planned wisely, preferably in websites, and on particular webpages, where consumers are engaged in learning about a product domain or making the first steps of searching and screening products. Designing an ad banner that is clear, concise and pleasant to watch can only help to maximise impact.

Measuring the effectiveness of ad banners is undoubtedly faced with difficulties and barriers. There is greater tendency to refer to statistics of page views to assess also potential exposure  to ads placed on a page (“impressions”). However, overall “page impressions” are not detailed enough as they refer to the whole webpage; they cannot tell us to which sections or objects, particularly ad banners, a consumer-surfer attends, nor at what level information is processed. Capturing fixations on particular objects by Internet users requires an application of the methodology of eye-tracking. Latency of eye fixations can already provide an indirect indicator of the extent of processing information. However, that methodology cannot be practically and economically applied on a large-scale nor can it be applied on a regular basis.

A third-way approach that is based on tracking mouse movements over a webpage, and is able to detect objects on which a mouse hovers even without clicking on them, provides a sort of middle-ground solution. It is not as complete and accurate as eye-tracking but it can provide a substantive even if partial information on objects to which a consumer-surfer attends; it is based on the premise that our hand often follows our eyes (i.e., visuo-motor correlation) and we tend to point the mouse on a place or item we concentrate at a given moment. And, not least, it is a more feasible solution, technically and economically, to operate on a large data scale. At this time, it seems as a viable platform for developing extensions and improved measures of consumer attention, browsing behaviour, and response to stimuli.

  • The Internet company ClickTale, for example, offers a range of methods for analysis and visualisation of users’ behaviour with a mouse (e.g., “heat maps” based on frequency of mouse “landings” in different locations over a webpage and tracking the movements of a mouse on a webpage).

There are remaining limitations to behavioural data that do not allow us to assess more fully the extent to which ad banners are processed and how it may affect our attitudes, thoughts and feelings. Difficulties can be foreseen for example in measuring the implicit effects of visual fluency or priming on consumers in a “live” environment in real-time. The way to test and measure these effects is by conducting experiments while combining cognitive, attitudinal and behavioural data. The new age of touch screens presents yet a new set of challenges in measuring covert and overt responses.

To conclude, here are a few points that may be worth considering:

  1. The relatively small area of a standard ad banner can make it challenging to construct and design effective ads. First, it is recommended to graphically design an image that is visually fluent for the consumers-surfers, as much as it is in control of the designer  — the rest is in the eye and mind of the viewer. Second, include sufficient information in the banner, like a key claim or description of strengths, that the consumer can relate to and keep in mind, consciously or unconsciously, without having to click-through anywhere else. Third, include a web address the consumer can save and use anytime later.
  2. Think a few steps ahead, what consumers-viewers may do next, that is, how consumers may be influenced by the information and utilise it in a subsequent activity (e.g., shopping online). Thereby, plan the content, placement and timing of the ad banner with respect to events or types of behaviour it intends to affect.
  3. Animated ad banners quickly capture the attention of viewers by their motion. However, such ad banners that appear especially on sidebars attract attention involuntarily at the periphery of the visual field, that is, even if the reader tries to avoid it. Limit the period of time the animation works or let the user stop it lest she is likely to abandon the page altogether.
  4. Beyond the advantages of motion and sound of ad video clips, they can be activated on-site and viewed without requiring the consumer-surfer to leave anywhere else, an important benefit of time-saving and convenience. They should display a visually appealing opening screen and be kept at time-lengths of 30 seconds to two minutes to attract and engage viewers for a reasonable period of suspension from other tasks on the website.

References:

1. Cognitive and Affective Consequences of Visual Fluency: When Seeing Is Easy on the Mind; Piotr Winkielman, Norbert Schwarz, Rolf Reber, & Tedra Fazendeiro, 2003; in Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective, L. M. Scott and R. Batra (eds.)(pp. 75-91), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

2. How Banner Ads Affect Brand-Choice Without Click-Through; Andrew Mitchel and Ana Valenzuela, 2005; in Online Consumer Psychology: Understanding and Influencing Consumer Behavior in the Virtual World, C. P. Haugtvedt, K. A. Machleit, & R. F. Yalch (eds.)(pp. 125-142), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Over the past thirty years designer brands have gradually held ground in fashion stores and departments, thereby altering the experience of shopping for clothing in many stores. This phenomenon can be observed in department stores, fashion retail chains, and down to single independent stores. They range from stores that offer clothing items from a number ofFashion Store Front Window selected designer names to those dedicated to a specific designer brand name (e.g., Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gap, Paul & Shark, Stella McCartney), either by direct control of the fashion house companies or by licensing. The key motive is the dominant emphasis put on brand names in a store’s scene. The changes that have taken place in the retail arena in the way merchandise display is organized are likely to have an impact on the order and structure of the purchase decision process of consumers as well as emotional aspects of their shopping experience in fashion stores.

There has been a remarkable shift in the layout of clothing departments and shops from product-orietnation to brand-orientation. It is easily felt, as you enter the floor, that the garments on display are clustered by designer brands. The shopper is implicitly guided to search for and choose items by a desired brand before making his or her mind what kind of item is needed or wanted (e.g., trousers, shirts, skirts, jackets etc.) Often the brand-logo signage mounted on tables, shelves or other fixtures, or posted on the walls, makes it fairly obvious that the shop is a brand theatre.

Fashion Designer Brands Store

There is a continuous competition for attention or focus between the designer brand names of clothing and accessories and the store name as a brand. In single-brand stores that carry the same name as that of their fashion products the conflict is essentially removed because the single brand corresponds to everything in the store — at the product level and at the retail level. It does demand, however, greater effort to ensure congruency between elements of brand image that are characteristic of the products and elements embedded in the store design and atmospherics. Yet in other types of fashion stores or departments such competition is omnipresent and valid. A strong reliance of the store on the clothing brands offerred to shoppers could enhance their perception of assortment in the store but it is in danger of eclipsing the store name in face of the designer brands. In other words, it suggests that the store is fully dependent on the designer brands it offers and downplays the retailer’s own competencies and other attributes of its store(s).

One method of tackling this challenge applied more frequently by department stores and fashion retail chains is to offer clothes under their own private label which is different from the name of the store but is strongly associated with it. In some cases, the retailers sign exclusive contracts with designers who will make garments solely for them, and thereby the designers get protected exposure of their creations at the retailer’s store(s). Thereon it is a question of striking a reasonable balance in display space, in-store signage and advertising assigned to the retailer’s own fashion brand(s) relative to other ‘imported’ designer brands.

  • Chains of “fast fashion” like ZARA and H&M constitute a special case: They act as single-brand retailers that assign the chain-store’s name to all their products but in fact their strategy is to mimic up-to-date trends of fashion by some of the better known designers and offer products of compatible designs at more affordable prices to shoppers from the middle-class.

But what about those mini-stores within a store assigned to particular designer brands? It means that an enclosed 3-walled section on the floor of a store’s department is dedicated singly to a given designer brand that offers a variety of its product items as if it were a stand-alone mini-store of the brand. The shopper can compose a whole set of dressing solely from that brand without ever considering similar items from the displays of other brands. Is that truly in the interest of a retailer? This is an extreme form of segregation of a designer brand from the rest of the display that sacrifices advantages of the retailer as a fashion seller to end-consumers for the benefit of the “guest” brand. If a brand orietntation is in order, it should be laid out flexibly and openly, keeping each brand-area easily visible from other brand-areas, as is already more common nowadays. The shopper should feel free to navigate between brands without setting artificial borders on the floor. It affords the shopper to mix items of different types of garment according to his or her judgement and taste — a choice of brands is available but is not constraining.

A separation by brand is still not always over-encompassing. For instance, a male shopper may step into a large section dedicated to men’s shirts, yet, where the rich assortment of shirts is sorted by brand. That is contrary to sorting shirts, for example, by style, size, leading colour, or design form (e.g., unicolour, stripes, squares). For a shopper who comes to purchase a particular type of shirt in mind, moreover if he wants to match it to a pair of trousers, sorting the shirts by brand can make this task more difficult and bothersome. Putting the brand before other attributes of clothing can often conflict with practical objectives of shoppers and force on them a structure of decision process that is unfitting their task. The disposition that shoppers are mainly looking for socially desired designer brands could be overweighted, especially with respect to shoppers in their thirties and above.

There is, furthermore, a price aspect to this emphasis on designer brands. Making it appear that nearly all merchandise is provided by fashion designers, appealling at least in name and logo, gives the impression that the merchandise is more expensive; this perception is not detached from reality of recent years (often supported by upgrade to more flashy and luxurious designs by fashion and department stores).

Another implication of brand-orientation in organising merchandise display is that finding the items shoppers look for takes them longer, and requires them to walk greater distances on a floor from one area to another to compose a set of dressing, particularly if they are not fixed on a single brand. This may sound like an excellent reasoning to the retailer because it extends the duration of a shopper’s visit in the store and gets her or him exposed to more merchandise, in expectation that the shopper will select more items and spend more money. This prediction is true just to a limit; it is likely to backfire if the longer search is accompanied by elevated angst or frustration hopelessly trying to find the kind of items sought for. It would probably not bother visitors who come for learning and exploration, but these are the less likely shoppers to spend money. It would be much less desirable to shoppers who come with a deliberate plan to buy.

The emphasis on brands can be met already at the entrance to a store on the front windows: in many stores a nice long vertical list of designer brands decorates the window and welcomes you to the store. The directory signage in front of the lifts and escalators is also frequently indicative: If in the 1990s there were details on the information boards of types of articles on each floMen's Fashion Front Window Sidelookor, now you are more likely to find the logos of brands available and very brief definitions in small letters of clothing and accessories. This may also on occasion add to the trouble of finding one’s way in the store. (Example of a store for men’s fashion in a European city that seems more original and attentive to shoppers: it takes a short time to discover that as you climb to higher floors in the store you move from casual to business to luxury dressing for men).

There could also be a lesson from implications of the brand orientation to sales personnel in fashion stores and departments. Sales team members are often less visible and less intervening, which is good especially in the early stage of the shopper’s visit as she or he studies the clothes on display; however, soon their guidance and advice should become helpful and appreciated, perhaps even more than in past decades. The sales team mission is after all to sell clothing articles that best fit and compliment their customers. Hence, the expertise and experience of sales team members in matching garments and composing aesthetic-looking outfits for customers across and within designer brands on their floor could and should still be much required and valued.

Retailers are said to have stronger leverage on manufacturers and are in better position to set conditions and terms for including their products in their stores’ displays. But on the ground, when it comes to fashion houses, retailers appear to have succumbed to their rule of designer brand names. Fashion retailers whose main business is retail seem too often to put all their pride and stake on the designer brand names they manage to introduce in their stores. Some retailers hold their own brands that provide a good answer to the designer brands they host. Yet it all revolves around brands. Fashion retailers must not stop developing and advancing additional competencies and attributes that would stand as their specialised sources of advantage, such as the friendliness of their store layout, its atmospherics, and the expertise and courtesy of their sales personnel.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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We can think of visual images in different forms. Pictorial images like a painting, a photograph or a drawing often depict a congruous scene of figures, objects and background, telling a story, enclosed in a frame. An image in a marketing context may represent product objects, people (e.g., customers, sellers, models, endorsers), a view of the scene of a retail store, etc.. But we may also refer to the visual image of a print advertisement as a visual scene that displays a complex layout of pictorial images, brand logo, text and additional graphic elements of decoration. Rather frequently the ad would show portions of pictorial images (like ‘clip-arts’) embedded in the whole scene, and the spatial arrangement of its objects or elements appears as discontinuous. Visual images may further be related with product packages, website pages on the Internet, video, or the view of a store’s front window and its interior space when one is present on premises of the physical site. Viewing a visual image  is an experience that may be, for example, enjoyable, challenging, annoying or disturbing. If the image leaves us indifferent, however, we would not spend enough time to figure out what we experience.

Lindt ChocolateWhen the object of a researcher’s study is a visual marketing material like an ad or product packaging it is most sensible to show the actual material or a pictorial image of it to consumers participating in the study. It is essentially more reliable for measuring affective and cognitive responses going beyond elementary memory-based measures of awareness. As we try to measure consumers’ recall of detail in an ad’s scene, its accuracy tends to decrease sharply and therefore any further references to content asked from respondents are likely to be of low reliability. The same is true when studying response to a retail scene — we should bring the research participants to the brick-and-mortar site itself, show them photographic images of its scene (i.e., layout, design, merchandise display) or computer-simulated images for a store in planning. Presenting an image of the material or retail scene is likely to enable researchers to capture emotion-laden responses more varied in type and intensity, and reach greater depth in the thoughts and feelings evoked in consumers-viewers vis-a-vis reliance on memory or mental images re-constructed by participants in their minds.

Pictorial images may be used productively, nonetheless, also if they do not appear related to a focal product, brand or company. A visual image can be utilised as an implicit bridge that helps to connect consumers’ mindsets with a brand of interest and to open-up the respondents to engage in a dialogue with an interviewer about personal or more private aspects of their lives (e.g., how a brand may function in the relations between a parent and his or her children). Relevant pictures with respect to the topic of research may be introduced by the interviewer or the interviewee. Professor of marketing Gerald Zaltman (Harvard Business School / Olson Zaltman Associates consulting firm) advises that pictorial images can help consumers to reveal and reflect attributes of a focal brand or company even though on surface the image shows no relation to that brand; the image serves as a metaphor whereby figures or objects in the image substitute for the brand (e.g., a gorilla has been shown by purchasing agents to suggest that managers from the vendor company have been stiff and stubborn in negotiations with them or  have demonstrated insensitivity to their needs). In Zaltman’s technique of metaphor elicitation (ZMET) the consumers bring pictorial images of their choice to their interviews through which they may describe the brand or tell a story about the role it plays in their lives (1).

Advertisements compete eagerly for grabbing the attention of consumers against editorial content as well as other ads in their own product category or in any other domain. It is a tough and demanding competition. The methodology of eye tracking, enhanced by advanced technology for taking different measures of eye movement and fixations, is especially suited for studying what captures attention to the ad and how information is attended to and could be utilised within the ad scene. It is generally assumed that the longer the latency of fixation on an object or element, the more thought a viewer dedicates to it, though the technique cannot directly reveal much more about the nature of affective reactions or cognitive processes.

Important and useful insights have been gained through eye tracking research. An extensive research by Pieters and Wedel (2) shows, for example, that the power of text to capture attention is sensitive to the surface size of its text-body but a picture can capture attention fast almost regardless of its size. Hence it is unnecessary for advertisers to fill an ad copy with larger pictures in expectation that it would increase the chances of capturing attention to the picture and to the ad as a whole. For text, however, surface size, determined by amount of text or font size, is significant (e.g., consider magazine ads that combine a colourful and vivid picture on top and a body of text of some explanation beneath it for achieving maximum effect). Regarding brand logos, it is found that the surface size of the logo is likely to distract viewers from reading text. However, greater interest in a brand logo for any other quality (e.g., the brand itself) can increase interest in reading the text, and secondarily, watching the pictures in the print ad. Text is attended by viewers of print ads particularly more elaborately when viewers have a declared goal of buying a product of the type advertised (Rayner and Castelhano, 3); this is compared with a task when viewers are asked just to rate an ad — then pictures get to play a greater role in viewer attention (i.e., number of fixations and time spent observing and processing). Consumers are more interested in text portions of a print ad that provide information on a focal product relative to pictures when a purchase of product of that type is seen expected.

In order to characterise more concretely the processing of visual information and better understand the valence and content of feelings and thoughts, the investigation process of research has to continue with other methods (e.g., experiments, interviews with probing). The approach I put forward aims to provide such expansion of insights: the technique allows to attach additional information reported by viewers to objects or elements they choose and relate to in the visual material (e.g., a print ad, a photograph). Its starting point is based on visual thinking rather than verbal explications, therefore I named it Visual Impression Metrics. The following chart of a framework model of communication depicts plausible factors that may trigger the processing of ‘objects’ in a visual marketing material from the consumers’ point-of-view:

Two notes to the chart: (1) The combination of verbal and visual elements that correspond with each other is fundamental to encoding; (2) From an information processing perspective, consumers may go back and forth between attention to and processing of various elements or objects in the whole image.

A pivotal strength of eye tracking is the ability to trace when attention is awarded unconsciously to objects in the ad in addition to conscious attention — viewers transit between these processes as they move from bottom-up to top-down (and vice versa) processing of the information found in the visual material. A consequence of this, however, is that respondents are not likely to be able to comment on objects they attended to unconsciously. An approach as described above, while more reliant on conscious processes, may be used in conjunction with eye tracking so as to shed more light on how consumers-viewers utilise information from objects in the visual scene, their meanings or implications for them.

In the other realm of research using visual images, a pictorial image is utilised as an aid to enquiring on a topic or concept rather than being the subject of research. An interviewer may show the respondent a picture selected by the research team and invite him or her to discuss it (e.g., what they see in the picture, what it reminds them of, what associations it brings up about a product/brand). When showing the same picture to a group or sample of respondents, it is possible to compare and aggregate how various consumers relate and react to the same image. On the other hand, a picture retrieved and brought by each consumer-respondent is much more capable to entail an idea associated with a brand that is meaningful and relevant to that individual. Gerald Zaltman’s method for eliciting metaphors by visual images is most appropriate to that end — it is free of the assumptions or expectations of the marketers or researchers. But on looking at the interviewing process, it is apparent that separating the thoughts of the interviewer from those of the interviewee is not obvious. A main theme of the instructions of Zaltman to interviewers for probing, as demonstrated in his book “How Customers Think” (Chapter 4 Appendix), is to avoid offering an interviewee their own explanations or interpretations of a reply just given by him or her nor implying their own understanding of the picture. An effective probing approach is to follow-up on a last reply of the interviewee using his or her own words (4). The line between desired and flawed probing in examples given, however, is not always sharp and clear — one needs to carefully make the vital distinction between guiding the interviewee (right) and leading the interviewee (wrong).

Selecting a pictorial image as a stimulus to trigger an “enquiry” in a survey (i.e., quantitative research) needs to be done by careful screening and examination, guided by pre-tests and/or qualitative research techniques, in order to present a picture that conveys the target concepts one wishes to study or test. Vice versa, key constructs (e.g., emotions, thoughts or associations) revealed in a qualitative study by using visual images should be substantiated through quantitative methods for the relevant target population of consumers. Thus, researchers would choose for a survey a pictorial image they appraise, according to findings of the qualitative study, as the best representative or conveyor of the concept of interest shared by the consumers. The method of Visual Impression Metrics, for instance, is suitable for certifying whether focal figures or objects as portrayed in the image scene carry the expected meaning.

The possibilities for research with visual images are numerous; they offer some intriguing opportunities for enriching our consumer insights. Visual images evoke more quickly intuitive and emotional responses, they often succeed in encouraging people to share their thoughts and feelings, and may engage forms of visual thinking that differ from verbal thinking. Depending on context and purpose, visual images can be used in marketing research to enhance the quality, reliability and validity of our findings, and thereby improve the knowledge of marketers about their consumers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Notes:

(1) “How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market”, Gerald Zaltman, 2003, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

(2) “Attention Capture and Transfer in Advertising: Brand, Pictorial and Text-Size Effects”, Rik Pieters and Michel Wedel, 2004, Journal of Marketing, 68 (Apr.), pp. 36-50.

(3) “Eye Movements During Reading, Scene Perception, Visual Search, and While Looking at Print Advertisements”, Keith Rayner and Monica S. Castelhano, 2008; In Visual Marketing: From Attention to Action, Michel Wedel and Rik Pieters (eds.)[pp. 9-42], London, New-York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

(4) Ibid. 1.

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