Fighting For Attention

Fighting For Attention

In our contemporary age of distraction, no experience seems immune from interruption. Even people deeply moved by works of art engage just briefly.

A 2016 study found the average amount of time people looked at artwork in museums was a mere 21 seconds—and most of that was spent reading wall text and, increasingly, taking photos of the artwork itself. So-called “Arties”—selfies taken with artworks—occur in approximately 35 percent of interactions. Meanwhile, at the Louvre in Paris, researchers found people look at da Vinci’s Mona Lisa an average of just 15 seconds.

Now, consider that the Louvre has 35,000 artworks, while the average American grocery store contains nearly that same amount of different product SKUs, 38,900.

So what are the chances your store is more engaging than the Louvre?

Today’s evolving media landscape does require that brands pay more attention to our changing patterns of attention.

This article explores attention and distraction in retail, and explains how brands might capture more of our fleeting attention through captivating experiences. To be clear, this is not another death knell of real world retail—after all, even the Louvre and its 15-second masterpiece attracts over 7 million visitors annually. However, today’s evolving media landscape does require that brands pay more attention to our changing patterns of attention. What can we learn from how non-retail experiences deal with distracted people, and bring that to bear on retail? Because if we fail to evolve, we run the risk of that worst possible fate: being forgettable.


Shopping and consumer behaviors are highly patterned and often repetitive. At Shook Kelley, we have learned over time that environment affects behavior. That gives us the tools to potentially reshape behavior patterns. But what if people are distracted while shopping? What might an environment do to impact, negotiate or grab the attention of today’s distracted consumer? How might we anticipate this and create opportunities for new patterns?

The general problem might be called an epidemic of distracted shopping. Fewer people, the argument goes, arrive at retail destinations with the intention of truly exploring and engaging with the carefully selected products on offer. 

At the grocery store, for example, more shoppers seem to be seeking efficient pathways by simply peering down center store aisles, without actually walking down them. 25 percent of Millennials call the center store a “boring” part of the store. That prevents them from even looking at, much less engaging with many of the thousands of packaged goods on offer there. And as a result, many CPGs are experiencing stagnant revenues while retailers face a decline in their most important financial profits engine.

In our contemporary age of information floods, sensory inundation and media overload, grabbing attention commands a premium value these days. Just reading a full sentence is a luxury for some people.

Shopping and consumer behaviors are highly patterned and often repetitive.

There are theories out there that characterize our collective state of distraction, suggesting it has even made a permanent dent into economic productivity. The hypothesis is that one of two things, or perhaps both, are happening. The first is that new networked technologies are consuming so much of our time that we’re left with fewer hours for work and other activities. So we’re getting less done and we have less time. 

But the second theory is a bit more frightening. It suggests that these new technologies are directly impacting our brains and psychological composition, reducing our ability to focus, think, reflect and engage. “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.” 

This new psychology might then cause us to fundamentally rethink how people engage with products and shop a store. With this challenge in mind, and accepting this new reality, we should turn to the ways that certain kinds of experiences shine through. They may point to new and valuable forms of customer engagement.


So what kind of experiences are grabbing attention today? Immersive, interactive and multi-sensory environments that can tell a story are certainly one of the more compelling places to look. And at Shook Kelley, we often like to consider realms outside the industries we work, in order to spark some new ideas.

Take the Museum of Ice Cream which is neither a museum nor an ice cream shop. It is a series of interactive themed exhibits, all brightly colored and highly photogenic, laid out as a maze of rooms containing odd landscapes such as rock-candy caves, unicorns and swimming pools of rainbow sprinkles. Visitors take a lot of selfies, which they then post to social media, further promoting the so-called museum. It’s an immersive experience seemingly dedicated to saying, “I was here.”

Maryellis Bunn, the Museum’s founder, was previously a design and business strategy consultant, and head of forecasting and innovation at Time Inc. She claims to have found inspiration for the Museum of Ice Cream in the shifting retail landscape: “I see retail as a dead industry. There are billions and billions of acres of retail square footage across America, across the world, that have nothing. No one has a solution for it.” Note that while Bunn has vastly overstated the “billions of acres” figure, she nonetheless raises an interesting argument about what most retail environments lack today. And of course, like so many other so-called prophets, Bunn predicts all retail will move online, replaced by vaguely defined “experiences.”

But before we get defensive, maybe retail brands need to consider how to learn from this museum. Because in many ways Bunn is right. Many retail environments do represent functional and tedious chores, even if or when they provide people with essential things of great value to their lives.

The Museum of Ice Cream, on the other hand, is a highly memorable space, a special event. It is not a place to consume, but a place where visitors are invited to interact. And it touches on all of our physical senses, it is a highly tactile environment. At every turn, this Museum seeks to disrupt our expectations and surprise us. Further, this museum is not trying to focus our attention on appreciating the artwork or the environment, but rather allows visitors to find new forms of engagement—particularly in the ways it connects visitors to others outside of the museum environment.

Some studies today are showing that real life retail experiences may still capture attention effectively for people, including younger Millennial audiences.

The capacity for retail to tap into this type of experience has not been fully realized, but the opportunities are certainly there. As counterintuitive as it may sound, some studies today are showing that real life retail experiences may still capture attention effectively for people, including younger Millennial audiences. The reason is perhaps simple: When people are immersed in an experience (no matter which generation you come from), assuming we’re enjoying or finding value in the experience, we tend to find focus. And from focus we might rediscover genuine engagement.

The opportunity for retailers is to create environments that tell stories that resonate. Instead of customers saying, “I had to go there,” how can we get them to say, “I was there”?


Assuming your organization has already figured out retail best practices, mastered efficiency and has a strong grasp of operations, it’s now a great time to stop focusing on retail best practices—and get imaginative. What if you could think more like the distracted shopper who’s already walked too many retail stores? How might you distinguish your brand experience?

Look, it’s not that people completely lack attention or that social media has completely destroyed our mental capacities. It’s just that shoppers frankly find most stores boring and retailers continue to resort to appeals that worked well in the past, like sales promotions and in-store advertising.

So what can we learn from some non-retail experiences in order to change the way we think about retail, and maybe transform your retail environment into a kind of museum of everyday life?

          Interactive Immersion

When you enter a museum, you step across a boundary, and enter into a different kind of mental zone. It’s a space where the objects in the collection are a little more special, or sacred even. The overall picture has to all work together and each detail matters, which is something more retail environments should be aware of. And increasingly people don’t want to just be a viewer or consumer of these works of art, they want to somehow be part of the actual experience. That can happen in a number of different ways, of course, because it’s not always practical to put your customers to work. But demonstrating transparency and breaking down facade is a not a bad way to begin.

Draw Attention

Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, there are going to be certain stars in the collection. Not all products or services are going to get the same amount of attention, and that’s okay. Being famous for a handful of special products or attractions can keep people coming back to explore further. But don’t let up on those special attractions, maintain them meticulously and continue building them up and building around them


To curate is to select, organize and look after the items in a collection or exhibition. In the art world today, curators are mediators for the museum audiences. They take the vast and seemingly chaotic world of artistic production and organize disparate works into narratives that may tell a story, or alternately may stir debate and challenge audiences. Just as the museum needs curators to carefully select artworks and then arrange them in meaningful ways, retailers need to become more aware that they are necessarily offering a curated selection of products. Another retailer will always be offering a wider selection at a better price, and for most marketplaces, that retailer will probably be (or soon become) Amazon. Knowing that you can’t offer everything, there is actually a lot of value in parsing down selection into something more manageable, interesting and relevant to customers. The value of curation in retail used to be a background role, just part of supply chain sourcing. But that’s no longer necessarily the case. Today at the museum, curators are taking a more prominent role as storytellers and shapers of art history. Retailers can do something similar for customers’ everyday lives, building trust or creating excitement around the sourcing stories that take shape in the store: Where did this product come from? Who made it? Why is it being offered now? How did you decide to carry this product? Why do you like it? In this way, curation and product editing can potentially drive a unique kind of engagement for customers.

A Genuine Story

Museums are not absolute escapes from reality. They put real life on display or they allow us to think about real life, but now from a different perspective or on a different level. People visiting the Museum of Ice Cream are still who they are, but now they’re in a different place, a different context. And it’s usually a context that they had not yet imagined. Similarly, to grab attention, a retail space needs to build actual relationship to real life and things of value in people’s lives. Some degree of fantasy and mythology is great, but these are stories we want to explore in our own lives, not a fantasy escape. Find a story that resonates both with what your brand stands for and what your customers are seeking in their everyday life. Beyond the functional purpose of a retail space, how can you help people imagine what they could become or how their life might unfold?

“I Was There” Moments

It seems that engagement behaviors have fundamentally changed in recent years. In the past, engagement could probably be best represented by picking up a product and reading its label, stopping to think about that product or maybe trying it or trying it on. But today, engagement is often more like a type of an awareness. People are not “appreciating” artwork at a museum and trying to take away something meaningful, they’re more likely to take a selfie and then move on. They enjoyed the experience. Now they’re looking for the artwork to give them something back. In the store, consider how to create opportunities for people to pause and reflect that they are present, they are here. Are there a few places where you could imagine people taking a photo, or stopping to talk with someone, a friend or even a stranger? Additionally, how might you get customers to either imagine or actually integrate selected products into their everyday lives, beginning from the store context?


Admittedly, the above ideas are more abstract principles, rather than a new era of best practices. But that’s just one more struggle in the shift towards a new retail imagination: you need to customize solutions for your store, your product mix and your brand. Keep trying new experiments, like Yankee Candle’s experiential pop-up shop. Build on what’s appropriate for your brand and your organization. Test your limits.

Don’t rely on you or your leaders to do this alone. You’ve got a lot of great ideas, but not all of the great ideas. Ask your team, and maybe even your customers. Or follow them, to see how they behave in your store, and discover what other experiences outside of your store resonate with them strongly.

And of course, you can always call us at Shook Kelley if you need some help. For over 25 years, we’ve been creating great brand retail experiences for clients that captivate, excite and convene.


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