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Metaphysical Merchandising
Marketing professor John Sherry explores the postmodern retail theater and discovers that marketers want you to see God

by Matt Golosinski

John Sherry 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.

An anthropologist 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.

In the 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."

If Sherry 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.

Eclecticism 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 by anthropologists.

"What 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."

Sherry's 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."

This shift 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 a product.

"We're 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."

And how 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.

Because 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 purposes.

"We can 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."

When what 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."

"Unfortunately -- 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.

"You've also got a culture that's seriously in need of rethinking its priorities."

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University