'In Conversation with Huw Thomas'

Our ‘In conversation with Huw Thomas’ series is written by blogger Bethan Williams, alongside PMC. Based on conversations with our Managing Director, Huw Thomas. Bethan is an anthropology graduate turned dance teacher turned blogger and writer. This series takes snippets of the conversations between Huw and Bethan, where their interests and areas of knowledge overlap, and turn them into pieces which are relevant to retail and business in general.

Well, this is the final piece in my triage of blogs about ‘Omni-Channel Shopping’. This elusive but vital middle ground between the online and high street shopping experience may well be in sight. The technology is being devised and tested by companies like PMC to bring together the challenges of personalisation, loyalty, mobility and choice to name but a few. In my first piece I looked at the possibilities and challenges of a truly integrated system where both retailers and customers have access to the best possible service. My second post was my own theorising – with a little help from my conversation with Huw of course – about what the multi-channel experience might look like in different situations. How aspects of online and digital retail could be integrated in real-world scenarios. This final article is about what it means to be a consumer in this changing environment. How our identities are shaped by our interactions with retailers and the way we chose to shop. We exist, as consumers, as both a human being and a collection of information in a database. So, in this situation; who are we?

Much like with media and information outlets, the internet and the development of new technology has democratised access to items for consumption. This means that content – in the context of retail, products –are now more important than accessibility. New ideas and innovation are now the driving force in progress. The technology needed to create a truly integrated shopping experience is in development. In this environment, businesses can no longer afford not to implement a multi-channel approach. Logically, customers who shop both online and in-store are the most valuable kind of customer and, as such, brands have to be present and consistent across all channels in order to engage with this demographic.

Our consumer power – our Omni-Channel Consumer Power if you will – is strong right now! Consumers hold the key to a successful retail business and, I believe, this shouldn’t be underestimated.

However, existing as a consumer in this new multi-channel world is complex and we are in a continuous cycle of inventing and re-inventing ourselves. Marketing ourselves and adding to a huge database of information about our preferences, purchases and general shopping habits. One purchase is no longer disconnected from another. The move to online, and the increasing personalisation of the high street shopping experience, means we have a ‘data identity’ as a consumer on a level vaster than ever before.

There are two anthropological theories which I’m going to draw on here. The theory of Embodiment suggests that our very identity is woven into the physical environment we interact with. The things we own and the places we visit. The same goes for our digital environment. Our social media interactions and statements make up who we are in a very real way. I suggested before that our digital selves are reminiscent but unrelated to our physical selves. I am contradicting myself now because I think the two are deeply connected. Being a consumer means gathering items which build, project and reinforce our sense of self. The interconnectedness and personalisation of digital and physical shopping enforces this process. As I have explored before, we exist, experientially, in a world of entirely our own creation.

The move to an integrated mode of shopping makes this process even stronger. If every purchase we make – be it online or in-store – is logged, the amount of data on each individual customer grows and grows. This only reinforces this notion of a consumer as a strong aspect of our identity.

I am suggesting that, in this changing environment, consumption isn’t something we do but something we are.

The notion of Intersectionality is usually used in the context of discrimination. It explores, for example, why women of colour and white women do not experience the world in the same way, regardless of their primary means of identifying themselves as being a woman. Our identities are built from the multiple categories we fit in to; gender, ethnicity, class etc. I believe the same goes for our identity as a consumer. The places we chose to shop, our disposable income, our preference for branded or non-branded goods and the devices we use while shopping all make for a uniquely personalised consumer identity.

Social science theory is notoriously dense but provides a really good framework for where my exploration of omni-channel retail has led me (and I would love to hear your opinions on this) which is to an understanding of consumption as an identity rather than an action. Our lives on and offline are more intricately woven together than ever before. Therefore, embracing a multi-channel approach is incredibly important for brands and shops to stay alive because it enables customers to build their identity in this new way. The data-level shopper is not merely a reflection of the human-level shopper. They are one and the same. 

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