Lonely Shoppers Give Life Back to Brick & Mortar Stores

Thursday, February 28, 2019

by Carly Montecalvo '19

While studying at the University of Westminster in London, Brent Smith, Ph.D., professor of marketing, would often visit a shop on Oxford Street. Over time, he developed a friendship with an in-store sales person.

“We got to know a lot about each other, so when new merchandise would come in to the store before it went to the rack he would let me know, so then I had the early access to things that were going to be sold, but were not available yet.”

Thinking back on those times, Dr. Smith realized the scenario aligned with his research interest in understanding what makes consumers tick, especially as they deal with life experiences.

Smith, who teaches graduate level courses in the Haub School of Business, explored the effects of social loneliness and its relationship to shopping in a study published in the Journal of Business Research.

“Looking at loneliness, my co-authors and I had discovered that most of the research in this area was on elderly people and adolescents, but it’s really a pervasive condition that affects everyone from childhood all the way up through old age,” says Smith.

The study found that 72% of Americans are lonely, an increase that can most clearly be attributed to technology in the form of social media.

“We find that people tend to use social media a lot,” says Smith, “The more people are using social media, the more they may experience or realize feelings of loneliness. So they may use social media more to create social connections or maintain the ones they have. One is the cure for the other, but it’s also the cause of the other.”

This need for human contact beyond a screen suggests that the future of competitiveness in retail will not just be driven by lower prices or faster shipping times, but by face-to-face interaction.

“Things that people might not be willing to share on Facebook, they might share in that one-to-one conversation with the in-store sales person,” says Smith. The study finds that kind of connection to be imperative to a store’s success.

Smith is a leader in the field of sales-based research on loneliness. His work also includes a co-authored study of India’s lonely and socially isolated consumers, which was published in the journal Marketing Intelligence & Planning in 2018.

“In retail, what’s unique is that they have to always adapt,” Smith says. “Psychology has given a lot of attention to loneliness, but sales has not.”

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