Good, Thoughtful Hosts #203: Retail Research with Sheri Blattel, Part 2: Technology and Data

In our second conversation with Sheri Blattel, we take an even deeper look at retail research and the role of the metaverse in the way we interact with brands. We discuss the ways in which companies use technology to individualize the customer experience and use data for a more seamless experience between the physical and virtual worlds.

About Our Guest
An associate principal at Cushing Terrell, Sheri Blattel serves as co-director of the Retail design studio. Her design work prioritizes user experience that embodies the culture, values, and unique aesthetic of each client. Sheri seeks out holistic views that consider context, sustainability, resilience, health, safety, and happiness; and she is a member of the Retail Design Institute, International Council of Shopping Centers, Urban Land Institute, and Shop! Association.

Beyond the design practice, Sheri manifests her passion for advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion by leading Cushing Terrell’s initiatives in this arena, but is likewise invested in the larger AEC industry, which she sees as vitally important for the next generation, including her two daughters.

Episode #203 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Much of what we talked about in the last episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts centered on how technology has been used to respond to modern shopper concerns and requests. I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode, we will once again chat with Sheri about other ways in which technology has moved us into the future of retail. The goal is to make use of technology in the shopping experience that’s responsive to each individual’s needs and desires. Think of it this way: Whereas you may feel more comfortable in the self-checkout line where you can move quickly and get on with your day with limited human interaction, someone else may prefer that person-to-person touchpoint of a traditional checkout experience. Whatever the case, a store needs to accommodate the preferences of a diverse community of shoppers.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Sheri Blattel 01:19
Hello, I’m Sheri Blattel. I am a associate principal here at Cushing Terrell. I also co-lead our retail practice across the entire firm.

Sarah Steimer 01:31
Well, Sheri, welcome back. Thank you once again for joining us on Good, Thoughtful Hosts. As we mentioned last episode, we were going to talk about technology, we already started to get into it a little bit, but starting very broad. Sheri, when we are talking about technology, and retail, I really want to start by talking about — we discussed this on a separate chat, you and I — the idea of virtual omni channel. What does that mean? I know, I know, we talked about omni channel with media and things like that. But what does omni channel mean in the retail space.

Sheri Blattel 02:10
So what that refers to is, you know, you have physical brick and mortar space. And then you also have this buying activity that’s occurring online or digitally or virtually. And so, you know, for a lot of years, it was you know, brick and mortar and digital, and then you know, lots of different names. But this omni channel experience is that you are in fact shopping on a couple of different channels. What is interesting, and what’s happening right now is that we have physical space, we will always have physical space. I think in our last episode, we talked about experience and experience will always be important. We’re humans, and we live together and we live experience. And so physical space will always play a role. But then there’s also the significance for the convenience, or the research capability that can happen when you’re looking for products and your action occurs online, or what we call virtually. But then there’s that next place that you go. And it’s the metaverse and it’s, you know, virtual reality, and it’s creating the shopping experience or the shopping environment, virtually. And so whereas it’s much like playing a video game, but you’re going shopping instead, you know, there’s a couple of retailers that are starting to use that space. And what’s really brilliant about it is it’s the ability to test out environments, test out products, all within this virtual setting, without having to invest a bunch of product cost or material cost, all you’ve invested is the cost of what it is to create that space. And we’ll come back and talk about that in a minute. That ties back to your original question. You know, I think I can speak to you know, one brand that’s doing it really well right now, because they’re they’re out there on the forefront of it. But Nike it’s a way to kind of debut different shoes and different colors and different styles and different designs and all kinds of different things without any big production costs and find out what consumers are preferring what they’re drawn to. And then they can go put that stuff to the production line and it can show up back in the metaverse or it can show up online for online digital virtual shopping. Or we can go into the physical brick and mortar space. And so there’s this traverse across all three of these environments where you’ve created this rich buying experience because you have this option to be doing these things and all of these different environments. We talked for years and years about meeting the consumer where they are, well, those three phases I just described. I think we can pretty much meet almost all the consumers we would love to have right now in this space that we’re in across those three spaces that we will be working in once you know that Metaverse really becomes much more adopted, but it really is being used outside of retail and a lot of different spaces as well. You know, we talked about modeling different things or you know, studying different things or kind of r&d things. And usually in simulations you’re only looking at one data point or two data points but when you have what we call a digital twin you create it in this Metaverse space, you can test as many data points as you would like. Because you’ve created that entire project environment space, whatever it might be digitally in this Metaverse space.

Sarah Steimer 05:13
I want to pause on the Nike example for a moment, though, because I mean, that’s knowing that sneaker heads have long really taken advantage of the internet. And a lot of brands, including Nike have learned to then tap into that online market to really drum up some excitement about their products, this and that, can you tell me a little bit more about maybe what their process is, when it comes to Nike in the omni channel universe? You know, what, what are they doing to touch on both this digital space and the overlap with the physical retail space?

Sheri Blattel 05:52
Well, I’ll start a kind of come at it from the physical space and then go over to the online space, in the space of what we refer to for several years, experiential retail, Nike went all in the space in New York, they have a basketball court, and they have a small track where you can test out the shoes. And there’s others that are doing that as well, REI and a number of others. But they’re creating those experiences in the store. But they also quickly recognized that this idea of you know, you can go in a store, and you can stand there and digitally create your shoe there in the store. But they transferred that experience over to the ability to do it online as well. And there’s a lot of other retailers that are doing that same kind of thing, you know, you can, you can now go on. And you can try on clothes virtually in that space like that, or you can you know, test out makeup colors online, there’s all kinds of things that you can do that you can also do in the physical space, but you can do it online, the process of that I can honestly say, I don’t know all the details of the process of that. But what I know is about is the experience of that. And so what’s really important for a brand is that, that in store experience, and that experience of you sitting at your computer doing that or on your device doing that is that brand has to be consistent, that experience has to be consistent. If your experience online is very different from the experience you have in the store, then that brand authenticity and that loyalty that we created that we talked about in our last episode, you’ve lost it, because bad experience online or the experience doesn’t match, then you lose the trust in the brand. And you’re moving on to a different brand. And so I think that’s the important piece of understanding the connection between those two spaces is the consistency of the brand experience.

Sarah Steimer 07:41
So before we jump into, and maybe you can just wrap in how the metaverse kind of plays a role in all of this, you know how, as a design-thinking firm, how do you kind of think about that digital space when you’re thinking about the retail space? And vice versa? How does that kind of come together? From your point of view when you’re doing your work?

Sheri Blattel 08:02
You know, we really are pioneering a lot of that for ourselves now. And we’re and we’re learning a lot and we’re investing a lot to understand it. Again, I’ll say designing an experience or a space or an environment, the same considerations go into that as they would go into creating a physical space, you know, you’re still creating architectural elements, you’re creating space, you’re creating an ambiance, you’re picking lighting, you’re selecting materials, you’re considering sound, all of the same considerations have to come into play, whether you’re dealing with a physical material or space, or whether you’re creating it over in the metaverse, what the trick is, is having the skills and the talent to work in that Metaverse space. And I’ll be the first one to say I don’t have that experience. But I know we have people within our firm that do and they’re working in that space. And like I said, we’re still discovering that but the fact of the matter is that there’s still a whole lot to learn. There are different worlds in which those things happen. And you know, some are more popular than others. And so you’re still kind of on the cutting edge of learning about all of those things. But I think the key takeaway for me where we are in our practice right now, is that, regardless of where you’re designing that environment, the same processes and theories apply, you go through the same steps with your client, to create that environment based on their needs and their desires in very similar ways.

Sarah Steimer 09:24
When I think about data collection, I’ve thought a lot about, you know, the retail space online, how they’re able to oftentimes pull a lot of information about their customers, you know, the data is there. Yeah. Well, these questions about cookies, things like that. Have you seen a situation where you’ve been able to use that sort of data process that sort of data and apply it to the physical retail space?

Sheri Blattel 09:51
Yes, we actually have a lot of retailers, you know, in this space before the pandemic, there was a lot of plans and there were a lot of retail leaders that had a lot of different ideas or things they wanted to explore. And the pandemic really became an accelerator for that. And there were so much data that was needed to understand how all the things were happening in that space. But also that was happening before then. But now there are so many companies that are out there helping with retail data analytics, or their retailers have developed those data analytics themselves. But they really are drivers of how they’re bringing products to the market, how they’re understanding how much space they really need for their products, what things sell and don’t sell how they should be sold. Data is so super significant in retail now, at every juncture in grocery and in boutique retail and luxury brands and day to day brands and discount stores. Everybody’s using data analytics, because it tells them so many things. And I think that what’s interesting is there’s so much data at our fingertips that we sometimes don’t even realize, then there’s this idea of data security. And so, you know, there’s there’s a lot of things that are happening in that space. We ourselves use data, we really believe in research driven design. And we’re collecting data, and we’re looking to research to help us better understand how to educate and help our clients build the very best projects that they can to meet their goals and their objectives. But again, data comes back into play because you know, you learn from that information. And it continues to evolve. And you update and you back check yourself but you learn continually everyday from that data. And retailers have come to understand that and they rely on it heavily.

Sarah Steimer 11:48
So you talked a little bit about some of the research that the firm has done. And I did want to ask about that as well. what are maybe some of the more recent articles, white papers, what have you, that you guys have really kind of explored in this space where technology has come into play, although it seems almost like superfluous to say where technology comes into play, because it feels like touches everything. But you know, I’d love to hear some of the more recent findings that you guys have, and maybe something that you’re excited about as it relates to this area,

Sheri Blattel 12:20
we haven’t really expressed that particular piece of the data out into our research, we recently just wrapped a survey, and we’re going through some of those initial findings, and kind of those directions that our research is pointing us to, to be able to talk about those things. But previously, we talked a little bit about experience per square foot. And again, everything is all encompassing in that space. It is using what we have learned or our data points that we have to inform those decisions. Because we can understand from previous experiences or surveying users, we also are investing time in what we call post-occupancy evaluations. Those are very technically oriented. But also we have for a particular client really also take the opportunity to survey the actual consumers in the space. And we’ve asked all kinds of questions about how they experienced the space, how they experience products. And that information was taken by the retailer. And it was used in the development of the next facility because they had real-time information coming from their actual current consumers. And it was used to inform design decisions for the very next facility that was going to hit the market.

Sarah Steimer 13:34
I would love to hear some examples of that if you could,

Sheri Blattel 13:37
Examples of the post-occupancy evaluations or those examples of those consumer surveys?

Sarah Steimer 13:42
The consumer surveys in particular, because that’s when you mentioned that you have the ability to do that real-time surveying, that real-time data, you know, how are they able to implement some of those changes for the customer experience?

Sheri Blattel 13:56
Well, of course, the first thing is getting that information and that data in hand. And this shows a couple of different ways to do that, you know, again, we talked about data that retailers can gather. And so you know, obviously, whether it’s through loyalty clubs, or people signing up for the various things, they sign up with retailers, they have an email list, and that is one method of how to connect to survey participants. There’s a number of other different ways, you know, the receipt has a little link on it, or, you know, there’s people actually doing one-on-one questioning, you know, roving reporter in the streets kind of idea, but those are the, you know, some of the examples of the various ways that you can collect that data and then you, you assimilate it, you sort of evaluate it and you understand in alignment with your brand. What is the best way to execute on that and deliver it? And are some of those data points, are they outliers, are they you know, consistently 99% of the people said the same thing, or only point 5% of the people said this thing here and so it’s understanding what are the most critical things to prioritize. And you kind of have a binary decision-making process of we know 99% of people wanted this thing to happen. But 5% said they wanted this thing to happen. And if we do this thing that has it affect this thing, and you start trade-down logic of understanding what the priorities are in that day that you found and how it translates back to the design.

Sarah Steimer 15:19
So you mentioned receipts, and you know, people taking the survey at the bottom, the receipt that oftentimes comes by way of a web address. But now a lot of times we’re seeing that QR code at the bottom of receipt. And we talked briefly about QR codes in the previous episode as well, you know, I was talking about how you can now return things by just using your phone, instead of having to print out maybe your own return label, things like that. Can you talk a little bit about those sorts of technology-driven experiences that are now really easing things for the consumer?

Sheri Blattel 15:56
Yes, well, QR codes are brilliant, I think that everyone knows you go to a restaurant now you can probably pretty much expect that you are not going to get a menu, you’re gonna use the QR code taped to the middle of the table. And then you’re actually going to pay for your meal on your phone. And those sorts of things are also translating to physical retail spaces. Your receipt comes via email, you’re asked if you want a printed receipt, or do you want an email receipt, I think largely people to your point, and I didn’t mention this earlier, but they are wanting an email receipt. And so then that within their email, there is that QR code. Everything is tied to a QR code. Even when you want to reset your Netflix account, if you want to reset your Netflix account, you have to scan a QR code or if you want to set up your TV, you need to scan the QR code with your phone and then set up the account. You know, QR codes are very widely used for many, many, many things. But there’s also data points that can be collected in those as well. But yes, I appreciate you bringing up that point. Because there are many moments where there can be zero human interaction. Most stores now have self checkouts, because there are a portion of the consumers that they want that frictionless experience, they want to get right to the line, they want to be in control of their own experience than the other consumer, they are okay with going through a line and talking to a team member or that brand ambassador or as we talked about earlier, and having that engagement. And so it’s really in the design space is sort of satisfying the two criteria in one moment, or one area of the facility. And so again, it there are these crucial design decisions that come into play because you’re trying to satisfy one or two different types of consumers based on the preference they have for how they want to engage with either their buying or their paying processes.

Sarah Steimer 17:47
So I know this is something that’s been around for a while, but it just kind of popped into my head when I thought about the different technology touchpoints that a consumer may have as they move through the retail experience. But I remember years ago when Target added those scanners at the end like the end caps. And to me it was such a smart move. Because how many times are you maybe walking through filling your cart without thinking — maybe too much? And then kind of going, I think I need to put some things back. Maybe I should check how much I just spent already. So to be able to kind of cross check yourself that way. Or maybe it wasn’t labeled right. And you just want to check. I mean, those sorts of touch points makes so much sense. And it really does seem to ease the consumer journey.

Sheri Blattel 18:34
Yeah, you put the control back in the consumer’s hands. So that’s that kind of that space of individualization for your consumer, you’re creating the experience based on their terms.

Sarah Steimer 18:43
So are there any other examples of maybe those touch points within the you know, physical retail space, other ways that you’ve seen technology really ease the consumer experience, things like that, that you’ve maybe been working with, or that you’ve seen out in the world that you think is maybe going to kind of be the wave of the future a little bit?

Sheri Blattel 19:02
When you think about all the different kinds of things that are happening out there in the market, there are technologies that are camera-driven, where you never have to have any payment involved at all, it’s already programmed onto whatever device you’re using. You have an account, it knows you when you enter the space. It knows what you took off the shelf or what you put back on the shelf, and then you walk out the door. And those camera-driven technologies, they allow that completely frictionless, completely self-driven experience. So there is that technology out there. It’s showing up in a couple of different places. I saw one of those facilities actually in an airport on my travels last week. And so that really is all about using a technological device and putting the control of it in the consumer’s hands so you know they can come to that experience however they need to, but they have all the power in their own hands to have that experience and also the payment piece, they’ve already programmed their card in, and the payment is already connected to their accounts. And it just happens sort of virtually in the background.

Sarah Steimer 19:03
It’s funny that you mentioned that because the only time I’ve experienced one of those you-don’t-have-to-stop-and-pay situations was at the airport myself as well. And I don’t know how you felt, but it definitely felt a little bit weird to me, because you get the feeling of shoplifting. And yet everything at the airport costs like twice as much as it does in the real world.

Sheri Blattel 20:37
Well, you know, so that is an interesting thing. And that’s going to take us a completely off in a whole different area that we can come back to in a different segment. But you’re right. So there is actually data shown and information collected shown that that actually that experience that we just talked about, that’s really great for some consumers, and what you just talked about is a deterrent for others. They’re like, Ah, I don’t know about that. I feel like I’m stealing something, and I can’t have that experience. So therefore, I’m not doing that thing.

Sarah Steimer 21:07
I’ve read those studies, too. I absolutely know what you’re talking about. And I would love to come back to that sometime in the near future. Because the psychology behind shopping, of course, is one additional thing, and we just use the phrase frictionless experience. But if we’re then adding it back in well, not ideal. We’ll go ahead. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.

Sheri Blattel 21:26
Oh, no, I was just gonna say that again. You know, it’s that multi-level, individualism, individualization, because what works for one consumer is not going to work for the other consumer. And that comes back to that uniqueness thing that we talked about when we talked about experience per square foot. It’s the idea of making each consumer feel like you design that experience just for them.

Sarah Steimer 21:47
Awesome. Well, Sheri, once again, thank you so much for spending some time with us on this episode. Anything else that I, mean, I almost hate to ask the question, because of course, there’s so much that we could still talk about, but anything else that you wanted to mention about this, I mean, to say concept of technology and retail feels silly to say but anything else that you wanted to mention before we end our conversation today?

Sheri Blattel 22:12
Well, I just want to be fully transparent for the listeners out there because I know there are people very well-educated in this space. You know, conceptually, I touch on a lot of different things. And we’re still learning a lot about all the things I talked about today. So, you know, I’m sure there’s lots of folks out there that I can learn some things from, but we’ll continue learning together.

Sarah Steimer 22:31
Awesome. Well, again, thank you so, so much, Sheri. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

Sheri Blattel 22:35
Thank you.

Producer 22:44
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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