Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
            - Philip Larkin

If you read last week’s Insiders, you’ll know that on Cyber Monday the Future Commerce team watched Jasper Mall. As Phillip addressed the future of digital places, he notes about the Jasper Mall: “The tenants and customers alike seem to have an element of hopelessness and despair… they fear the unknown, but the unknown is exactly what a customer craves.”

This resonated with me. If you’ve been following Future Commerce, you’ll know that I love shopping—especially holiday shopping. And yet as I completed holiday shopping this year, I felt very little joy in my purchasing process. Normally I’m excited for BFCM, like a kid the day before their birthday or a fantasy sports nerd the day before their draft. 

It’s the Great American Retail Holiday. 

Not that long ago—after eating and drinking more than any other day of the year—people used to wake up at an ungodly hour on a date when the temperature was sure to have recently plunged (thus often bundled in coats or even tents) and line up for hours with their friends and family simply waiting to shop. It was a more massive event than our most anticipated movie openings. It was holiday fun—friendship, chaos, consumerism, gifts, mall holiday music, Americana nostalgia, and family holiday tradition all baked into a single early, early, bloated, and woozy morning.

Shopping is the Worst

This year, Black Friday felt like a chore. I was alone, scrolling and clicking for hours. Or if I was with people, it distracted me from them. I spent way too much time scrolling through product listings. I also spent a significant amount of time shopping for myself. I avoided Amazon as much as possible because it felt so oppressive. It felt like the Jasper Mall + QVC: uninspired, boring, and loaded with junk. In fact, that’s how most of the shopping on BFCM felt to me—a long slog through junk, at best like the 5-mile swamp run that Phillip talked me into that one time, and at worst a digital TJX treasure hunt nightmare inspired by watching Vivarium, Jingle All the Way, and Greener Grass all on the same late, lonely Thanksgiving night. Hasta la vista, days of shopping therapy past. Hello there, premium mediocre knockoff digital jungle hell.

Yeah, it was worse than a chore. I basically hate online shopping now. In Insiders #062: A Call To Nurture, our Creative Director Jesse Tyler lamented similar feelings on shopping. “I was getting tired of buying things” he confessed.

And do I even have to mention how much we all want to avoid in-store shopping these days? As Phillip noted in Insiders #036: Freaky Friday, online shopping has switched places with in-store shopping as the preferred method.

Shopping has become depressing. We used to shop for people and with people. Now it’s isolating, overwhelming, annoying, and everything feels the same. Jasper’s hopelessness and despair.

It’s true, I’m over-romanticizing Black Friday of years past. It was a bit of a commercial disaster. A lot of the things we stand against at Future Commerce are present in the day. 

In many ways, BFCM was already on the road to where we are now. I’m not even sure which year I last shopped in person on Black Friday morning. By 2020, we had already created a new efficient world where price shopping, discovery, and checkout were optimized to death. What I’m afraid retail has lost in all of our optimization is opportunities to build relationships with people that we interact with on a daily basis. That was the true magic of Black Friday: we shopped together. Even the poor saps who hated shopping (and early mornings) that were dragged along every year have lost the chance to be their curmudgeonly selves and the opportunity to lovingly complain about the people who made them go.

I want the complainers back. I want to drag people along to experiences that they’re not exactly interested in. I want to have stories where we get stuck in BF traffic and sing carols until dad (that would be me) can’t take it anymore. I want us to pass through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gumdrops, and then walk through the Lincoln Tunnel.

But we can’t have adventures anymore. At least not ones that involve other people.

Mental Health Crisis

As we come to the end of this year, Jasper Mall’s vibe fits in well with the rest of our descriptors for our current state of affairs. Burnt out, depressed, tired, stuck, overwhelmed, jasper malled… it fits.

Getting extra real—we’re well into the holidays now, which are known to increase stress and aggravate pre-existing mental health issues and we’re seeing even larger COVID case spikes and more stay-at-home orders or additional restrictions.

When we came out of the last stay-at-home period, we saw one of the largest mental health crises in living memory. During late June about 40% of American adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Forty. Percent. And it’s only increased since, with Mental Health America reporting in October: “The number of people screening with moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety has continued to increase throughout 2020 and remains higher than rates prior to COVID-19.” From April to September, 70% of people who were screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression “reported that loneliness and isolation was the top contributing factor to mental health issues”. 

I’m certainly not a mental health expert but I can only imagine that being separated from friends and loved ones over the holidays is continuing to impact our psyches. I know it has for me. And if you know me well, you know this is no small feat—I’m incorrigibly optimistic.

It could get worse. Financial issues play a significant role in mental health, with nearly 24% of those screened in the MHA study saying financial concerns were a top three contributor to their mental health problems. With labor markets slowing, still no additional stimulus confirmed yet, and 5.8 million Americans facing foreclosure or eviction in coming months, financial stress may cause even further mental pressure, anxiety, and depression. 

Help Your Struggling Customers

In 2020, a significant portion of your customers were depressed, maybe even more than 20% of them (depending on your demographics). Some of them severely so. Own it. If you want to build a future you’re proud of, you need to recognize the role you play in the lives of many people who are struggling with mental illness. 

So then again in 2021, a significant portion of your customers will be depressed. Probably even more than 2020. Now is the time you as a brand should be asking what you should do with the space you have in your customers’ lives, be it small or large. 

Here are some practical thoughts on what you can do:

  • Listen to your customers. It’s unlikely many will tell you directly but it’s quite possible you’re contributing to their anxiety. Not all that long ago, I spent nearly two uncomfortable weekend hours away from my family in a store waiting for customer service issues to be resolved—including 45 minutes on hold with their customer support line. We’ve all bumped into situations with brands where their buying experience, products, support, etc cause us to stress out. Make sure your customer-facing teams are equipped to capture and respond to customers by empowering them and giving them the tools to do a good job. 
  • Make sure your employees are as much of a priority as your customers. If you’re not taking care of your own people, they’ll struggle to take care of your customers.
  • Consider a partnership with an app targeted toward destressing like Calm or Headspace. Kleenex offered over 100,000 customers a free three month subscription. Lincoln offered its customers a 12-month subscription with purchase. Give your customers tools to relieve their stress.
  • Hire a Chief Health Officer, giving your customers’ (and employees’) health a voice in your organization. We actually podcasted about the upcoming role of CHOs back in January for our Vision 2020 report. On the subject I said “consumers are going to have expectations that things they buy are going to play into their health, whether it be their physical wellness or their mental wellness. Health is one of those places where brands and retailers are going to have to assist consumers in the things that they're trying to pursue, goals that they're trying to hit, and boundaries they’re trying to set for themselves.” 
  • If you’re not at scale to hire a CHO, consider introducing some health-related KPIs into your targets and assign those KPIs to someone within your org.
  • Invest in better understanding the role of your brand in your customers’ lives. IMO this requires first party interaction with your customers with pre and post purchase surveys, or even direct interaction with reps. Don’t assume that just because someone bought products from you that their life was automatically better. As Jesse wrote, make sure you’re a nurturer and not an exploiter. 
  • Make sure your returns policies and processes are customer friendly. If someone bought something that was unnecessary, didn’t address their needs, or didn’t work - nothing can be more stress-inducing than not being able to or having a hard time with a return. Leverage tools like Happy Returns to make it easy for customers to return items on their own terms.
  • Look ahead to emerging technologies that will enable integrated (aka not just Zoom or Discord) live digital shopping with friends and family - as opposed to being stuck in a singular scrolling and clicking bubble. Is Wormhole too far fetched? Maybe, but get ready for more live video shopping with friends.

A New Dawn

Isolation is breaking us down. Remember this for your customers in 2021. Find ways to bring your customers closer to the people they miss so much. Perhaps with vaccines on the way we’ll come out of this peculiar state of existence we’re living in and have the opportunity to avoid some of the dead ends we were marching towards as an industry. I think about Jasper Mall and its sparse halls filled with empty shops and outlet stores full of second rate products and I worry that sort of future is actually preferable to the isolation we were, and are, on a trajectory towards. 

In order to avoid that future, brands must be mindful that customers bring their attitudes and emotions to the table when making a purchase. Therefore they must be thoughtful about the contexts in which their products and message arrive.

I did have a few good shopping experiences this holiday season, but they didn’t happen on BFCM. My favorite: the City of Enumclaw set up an open-air, socially distanced holiday market in our downtown. My family purchased our 1yr old nephew a handmade stuffed animal, and then we roasted marshmallows at one of the firepits. We had a wonderful evening and made memories that I hope last our children into their adulthood, and that I’m certainly locking away for when I’m old. 

And when I’m old, I hope my Jasper Mall isn’t sitting on my couch, endlessly browsing and scrolling on my phone, occasionally peaking at Facebook notifications, with Netflix passively running in the background. That’s a fate I wish on no one. Let’s build a better shopping experience before we all get old.

You’ve heard me say it before but Enumclaw is the best.

It was windy and cold but we had a cozy fire.