professor John Sherry explores the postmodern retail theater
and discovers that marketers want you to see God
by Matt Golosinski
talks like a ghost. It's not just the generally hushed-yet-husky
tones of his measured cadences that create this impression;
most suggestive are the casual phrases the Kellogg professor
of marketing employs to describe his brand of postmodern research.
by training, Sherry speaks about "inhabiting" what he terms
"servicescapes"-- retail structures whose architecture and
design work to create in the consumer feelings of "peak experience."
Examples of servicescapes he's inhabited include Chicago's
Nike Town (NTC) and ESPN Zone.
former instance, Sherry compiled a detailed table explaining
how Nike created a retail theater with myriad elements that
suggested analogues ranging from an open-air market to a theme
park to a cathedral. Sherry charted NTC's "mythopoeic merchandising"
scheme, assigning every element -- windows, door handles,
mood music -- to categories along a continuum from the "natural"
to the "supernatural." Among other findings, his study concluded
that "not only is the superfluous stuff of consumer culture
fetishized at NTC, the retail inscape of NTC works to invest
all objects housed there with enduring cultural values."
manages to turn the usual into the unusual, it's partly due
to the influences that have constructed the lens through which
he explores these locales. Walk into Sherry's dim office and
it's covered floor-to-ceiling in books. Hardly surprising
for an academic, but what's different about this library is
the variety of texts. Foucault lies alongside Bachelard's
Poetics of Space; Gary Snyder's beat poetry shares
a shelf with The Cultural Life of Intellectual Property
and Stephen Brown's Postmodern Marketing.
works well for Sherry, who finds time to write his own poetry
when he's not asking consumers how the ludic structure of
a retail space affects their consumption patterns. His research
paradigm owes much of its success to the ethnography favored
anthropology does that other disciplines don't," explains
Sherry, "is it makes the familiar strange and makes the strange
familiar. As anthropologists, we go out into the field, then
come back and report on all these bizarre behaviors and tell
how they make sense."
current research investigates the "experience economy," how
consumers interact with retail environments. "There's a lot
of hype now about the experience economy," says Sherry. "That
strikes me as interesting, because as an anthropologist I've
been aware that we have always been living in an experience
economy. It's only lately that the disciplines in marketing
consumer behavior began paying attention to experiential behavior."
in research, Sherry hypothesizes, has to do with broader developments
within marketing and advertising whose conventional focus
has largely involved the attributes and functionalities of
now interested in what the marketer's offerings mean," he
notes. "When products get about as good as they can, marketers
shift attention from functions to behaviors, concerning themselves
with how consumers behave."
are consumers behaving today? Sherry's assessment reveals
a tendency towards co-creation. That is, consumers no longer
passively accept the marketer's images; consumers instead
appropriate these images and add their own meaning. This process,
Sherry indicates, gives rise to a feedback loop between the
consumer and marketer. Each appropriates the other's images,
refashioning them to serve commercial or even subversive ends.
This synthesis may be seen in a television show like "The
Simpsons," loaded with winks at pop culture excess.
of what Sherry calls the super-mediated condition of contemporary
life, consumers are swimming in a sea of images. As a result,
they discover that they can pick-and-choose from this vast
iconic storehouse the images that best serve their psychological
now change our consumer self very effectively over the course
of a day," Sherry claims. "We select the images to convey
a sense of what we want to be."
consumers want to be is Michael Jordan and when Nike's retail
theater offers people a chance to approximate that numinous
experience, the results reveal what Sherry calls the "profoundly
sacred aspects of consumption."
-- and fortunately -- a lot of our transcendent experiences
in contemporary culture come through commercial venues," he
says. "If your brand is able to produce a ŚNike experience'
for consumers, you've got a wonderful, powerful brand.
also got a culture that's seriously in need of rethinking