I’ve never felt truly comfortable with the expression “retail therapy”. 

Of course I love it when my friends suggest that we get together – shopping gives us a reason to meet, to talk and to laugh.

It also gives us a place and sometimes a purpose too – essentials to be bought, new living rooms to be planned.

What I don’t love is the interpretation of retail therapy as bad medicine – a temporary upper to lift a long-term low mood. It’s disingenuous to every stakeholder in our industry and a misrepresentation of the retail experience.

High street shops are so much more than just a place to buy goods, and shopping itself should never be dismissed as shallow consumerism.

“We sit at the heart of every community and have an important role to play in many of our relationships”

As retailers we sit at the heart of every community and have an important role to play in many of our relationships. If retail therapy makes us more cheerful, it’s not only because of the things we buy but more about the experience we have and the people we do it with.

As we try to navigate our way through the numerous and very real challenges faced by every high street retailer – not least of which is how to complete with the choice, convenience and costs of online retailing – we should all take a moment to reflect on our unique advantages and find a higher purpose beyond just selling more stuff.

Get talking

Meaningful social connections are essential for human happiness yet studies have suggested that we’re one of many nations in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness – somewhat ironic when in this digital age we’re better connected than ever.

Perhaps the key here is “meaningful” social connections. Staggeringly, two-thirds of people recently surveyed in Northern Ireland said they were lonely, with 16- to 29-year-olds feeling the most isolated.

We should be concerned: these are our customers and our colleagues. In addition to affecting mental health, research has shown that loneliness can also decrease life expectancy by as much as 10 years.

Some experts are saying it’s a crisis on a par with obesity. Not talking to each other is literally killing our customers!

“The deeper and more frequent customer interactions that will result are genuine moments of joy for customers and colleagues alike”

We should all make it our business to help combat loneliness. Discuss it in your team meetings. Make it a KPI for our store colleagues to have more conversations with customers. Get them to share their best conversation starters and then the stories about the customers they meet.

Give this higher purpose to your staff. The deeper and more frequent customer interactions that will result are genuine moments of joy for customers and colleagues alike and something that you don’t get when you shop or work online.

There are numerous ways you can help facilitate these conversations – something that John Lewis has fully embraced with its new store in White City, Westfield: its most experiential and service-led shop to date.

From the Experience Desk you can book a beauty treatment, personal fashion styling service or even a yoga class. They’ve added personalisation services too: design your own rug or sofa, as well as its well-established services such as made-to-measure curtains.

In addition to building more experiences into our collective in-store marketing calendars, we can create more conversation opportunities simply by product sampling, gift wrapping or making it easier for our customers to try more garments on or take products for a trial period, to mirror the benefits that Klarna offers online retailers.

As the conversation quotient rises, so too will brand advocacy, customer happiness and their lifetime value to your business.