Retail Futurist Howard Saunders: ‘Shoppable Content Is A Stepping Stone’

Shoppable content has been around for centuries, starting with booksellers that published catalogs a few decades after the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago. Since then, marketers have steadily adopted the latest technologies to mix content and commerce, turning audiences into shoppers.

Shoppable content has evolved to include home shopping networks, native advertising on websites, and social media posts linked to a digital checkout, helping brands generate online sales as more consumers shop from mobile devices, connected TVs, and smart-home appliances.

Media companies ranging from traditional broadcasters to social networks have either added shopping features or are testing them to connect merchants with target audiences. For example, NBC last year started testing shoppable content in shows, letting viewers point their smartphones at their TV screens to buy featured products. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and newcomer TikTok are among the social media companies that have added E-commerce support in the past few years. Google, too, has added shopping features to its search engine, and YouTube is letting consumers buy products they find in search results or see in videos.

Howard Saunders, a retail futurist who presides over consulting firm Twenty Second & Fifth Ltd., has plenty to say about shoppable content. He recently shared his ideas about content strategies for retailers amid a shift in consumer attitudes about what they buy. Smartphones provide instant gratification with online ordering, but consumers also want to feel that their purchases have a higher purpose, he says. And environmental concerns and social-media pressures are supporting a “post-stuff era,” according to Saunders, who also discusses the role of storytelling in creating an emotional bond with customers.

Magento: Can you talk about the recent history of shoppable content? Does anything stand out?
 The day the smartphone landed in our palms, more than a decade ago, it changed everything. It was almost a biblical moment, arriving within a year of the global financial crisis that shook people’s faith in governments, politicians, big business, banks, and even capitalism itself.

Amid this catastrophe, we were gifted this little black slab of glass that granted immediate access to all human knowledge from almost anywhere, and to all the stuff the world has to offer. We’ll look back on that moment as immensely significant. I talk about the condensed history of human technical achievement as being, “fire, wheel, smartphone,” and I’m not entirely joking.

We have just enjoyed the first decade of access to everything, while brands and retailers have worked hard to make the experience as frictionless as possible. Instant access followed by instant gratification.

Magento: Is shoppable content more convenient for consumers?
 The Instagram generation has become the “Instagrat” generation, giving people instant gratification. What started as an image-sharing app with a menu of cool filters to improve picture quality is being transformed into a driver of shoppable content.

This is all incredibly convenient, but there is a problem. A decade of access to everything has left us feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

We are entering a new era. We now already have everything we need: Our wardrobes are full, our bathroom cabinets are overflowing. In simple terms, we have enough stuff. Add to this a great big helping of eco-guilt, and we are now in the “post-stuff era.” We’re only just coming to terms with this.

Magento: In light of this, how can brands target shoppable content to key audiences?
Well, you simply cannot sell purely on convenience any longer. Retail is shifting, and our economy is shifting from one based on function to one based on feel—how we feel. While there is always an opportunity for an impulse bargain, the only way a product can truly appeal to us now is emotional. Today it’s all about how products make us feel.

This is the new retail landscape, both online and offline. It means the Instagram generation must be seduced with emotional, creative content, and with storytelling and immersive and engaging ideas.

Magento: Does that mean brands need to have a narrative to tell a story?
 Storytelling is how humans add meaning, purpose, and value to our lives, as historian Yuval Noah Harari explains beautifully in his book “Sapiens.” We’re now at a point when we desperately want more meaning in our lives, and you can see this in the things we buy or aspire to own to furnish our lives.

It’s also a natural filtering mechanism. We can access anything and everything—[that’s] no longer the issue. Connecting with us emotionally is the key, making storytelling central to the new retail landscape—in fact, to our whole economy.

The new economy is much more complex now. If you’re in business, you’ve got to be actively creative, thinking of new ways to engage people with wit and intellect. It’s a very demanding but incredibly creative time for brands.

Magento: It’s been said that the “three C’s” of online retailing are content, commerce, and community. What are your thoughts about the community?
 People don’t buy in emotional vacuums. Imagine shopping in a department store completely alone, with no other customers or even staff there whatsoever. It would be spooky, right?

We need community—the right sort of community—around us to reassure us that we are shopping in an appropriate space, for appropriate products with the appropriate social status.

The online environment isn’t any different. That’s why influencers, vlogs, comments, feedback, social groups, and recommendations play such a key role. It’s another filtering mechanism to help us locate the “right” stuff.

Magento: Social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and YouTube have prioritized shopping features in the past couple of years. How will their efforts drive shoppable content strategies?
 Ultimately, what we call “shoppable content” is a stepping stone to a completely seamless, fully connected world in which everything is tailored for us and instantly shoppable.

We are clearly heading for a world in which a combination of all our personal mobile data, our home voice systems, and home entertainment systems are all working together to tailor things for us and [say], “Touch the screen during the latest film to order the jacket on the actor to your specific size.”

This is all very achievable, very soon.

Magento: What trends do you foresee with shoppable content?
 The big question is: In a world in which everything is selling to us, how we will react? Of course, there will be a backlash. Ad-blocking software is getting increasingly sophisticated at screening out unwanted ads, while personal digital assistants have their own way of filtering content and curating what we see.

But we’re also witnessing the rise in demand for the “inaccessible”—limited-time offers for goods that sell out within minutes. Expect to see many more limited-edition product ranges, special editions, and limited-time promotions.

Magento: How has instant-access technology changed consumer behaviour?
Now that we have [smartphones] at our fingertips, we each know that we are at the centre of the universe. We want products that are tailored specifically for us. We want to feel special, but we also want to belong and fit in with our peers. It’s complicated.

Howard Saunders is a retail futurist who has designed in-store experiences for over 25 years. He began his career at Fitch, an agency based in London that has deep roots in retail design. He has worked with clients including Westfield, CBRE, Claire’s Accessories, and eBay.