In Conversation With … IORMA Board Member: Cathy Barnes

Cathy BarnesMember of IORMA Board

in conversation with



Pandora Mather-Lees, Director IORMA, Pandora Mather-Lees
March 2015
Pandora Mather-Lees 3




Why do consumers buy certain products and why do they shop in particular ways?   What is the impact of product marketing, presentation and packaging on their senses and emotions?  What is affective engineering and how does it trigger our propensity to buy?

This is the world of Professor Cathy Barnes, Professor of Retail Innovation at Leeds Beckett University, Director of The Centre for Retail Excellence, former manufacturer and nuclear submarine engineer.

Cathy could be described as a shopaholic extraordinaire given her incredible background of commercial projects working with suppliers, brands, retailers and consumers in a mission to understand how innovative techniques such as biomimetics, using nature to innovate, and new retail technologies shape and even invade our shopping landscape.  As IORMA welcomes Cathy to its Advisory Board, we explored some of these ideas.

PML: Cathy, it is wonderful to have you and your expertise on the IORMA Board, what was your motivation to join IORMA in the first place?
In this country we are good at looking at what happens in the UK and attempting to replicate that around the world.  The UK is special case of consumer society and what attracted me about IORMA was its global outlook and the way we do things across the globe, but in a way that makes sense to each individual economy.  I am therefore looking forward to extending my reach around the world through IORMA, especially with those with such similar interests in the future of the consumer.

PML:  And IORMA and Leeds Beckett University are joining forces so that IORMA can offer courses too through its Academy, so this is an important collaboration.
I am excited to see education and training opportunities appear on IORMA Academy, working with business to identify the skills gap to support businesses through the distribution of relevant degree and master’s degree courses across retail, marketing, human resources and other areas of commerce.  I would also like to see where we could take training into businesses and how we can offer accreditations for master’s degrees.  There is the opportunity for bespoke tailored courses on Omni-channel strategy and digital marketing which is where I see a big skills gap.  I believe that IORMA and Leeds Beckett University can pull together those people with the skills very quickly.

PML:  Indeed, especially with our latest connections in Africa and the US.  How else do you feel IORMA and academia as bodies can collaborate effectively?
Universities are a huge source of knowledge but from a business perspective they are an underutilised resource on many topics such as being able to research into how people interact with digital retail, what makes a great customer experience or how you get baskets working well online.  However, what universities are bad at is making that research relevant to businesses and communicating it effectively.

PML:  So you are talking also about the Knowledge Transfer concept that so many universities attempt to do?
Yes, we are good at publishing – in all the usual journals but not at sharing it in the right places or making it relevant to a wider audience.

PML:   In academia the focus is on output, exposure and ultimately recognition through the number and quality of papers and research propagated!
This is true and the focus is on what is expected of you within the university environment to meet academic requirements and expectations. However I am passionate about making my work relevant to industry and delivering commercial innovation to the business community.

PML:  Speaking of research, though, this is nevertheless an important aspect, what research are you currently working on?
CB: I head up the Retail Institute where there are 3 key areas we research:

1.  The consumer of the future.  This is where omni channel really comes in – what will be different and where are high streets going?

One project just finished involved working with our local market, which is famously where M&S started.  We have been working with traders to bring them into the digital world.  They can now offer out of hours click and collect from that market so working people can have the convenience of fresh produce from a market without the inconvenience of having to get there during their working day.

2.   The second area is in product and packaging innovation where the questions we are asking are “How are products going to evolve as they are sold through the different retail channels?”  Some of our research is into packaging and how will this change in the new world, novel distribution and supply chain models,  how we will interact with new technologies and what does the sensory experience mean in a digital world. For instance, this may mean working on ideas for how people interact with packaging through touch and how we can use this to drive purchases online.

3. The third is retail business growth.  We are looking at business models of the future – how will these evolve and grow through different retail channels?  We are working on the opportunities in Africa for product and packaging innovation together with  new consumer channels in Africa to grow their business.

PML: What do you mean by the new consumer channels?
I’m really talking about the increasing consumerist society, the rise in income of many of the people and their needs.   They want consumer products in a similar way to the west but how should we do it sustainably and better rather than the same way as in the west?

PML:  IORMA has recently seen what SAP is doing in this area during the Board’s ‘Away Day’ whereby they provide the technology alongside other organisations so that software and hardware are provided to vendors to enable them to supply and transact out in the field with secure, flexible, remote banking procedures.
This is very interesting and all part of the new consumer channels that are evolving.

PML:   I am very interested in the area of sensory design and touch.  Could you expand on this and explain whether or not this relates to the digital domain or physical products?
It really involves both digital and traditional bricks & mortar.  Its most prominent manifestation is in the luxury sector.  One thinks about it applying only in the store, but if you buy for instance a handbag online, you have to make a decision on the screen.  Your first sensory experience of that product (in terms of touch) is when it is delivered to your door.  This is the first time you touch it.  It is a very tactile experience.

PML:  And does this relate to what you have written about ‘Affective Engineering’?  It is an intriguing term!
Yes this does entirely relate and it is a term we coined some years ago applied to cover the whole sensory experience.  I was working with a Japanese researcher who was investigating Kansai Engineering.  This was all about emotions and feeling during the process of purchase.   He developed the concept of linking physical products to emotional experiences.  This can be translated into what we call New Product Development in the UK, but before it had only been done on large scale developments such as new cars. What I was working on was looking at smaller products, grocery products and the like to understand how the essence of the ‘Brand’ was designed into the product with a sensory execution.

PML:  You have worked on the perception of ‘fresh’ in grocery retail.  In the light of the furore around the publication of Lymbery and Oakeshott’s  ‘Farmageddon’ revealing the appalling consequences of the development of mega-dairies, battery hens and the sharp decline of the quality of our food and animal welfare, what is your perspective on customers’ understanding about the end product they are consuming.
I am not working on this right now, but I have in the past.  I have investigated how consumers take ‘cues’ from the store and the packaging in front of them.  I was fascinated to see today that Morrison’s have taken away the mist that they wafted over their fresh fruit and veg.  The perception was that the mist somehow made the food ‘fresher’!   Perhaps they have reflected on the incongruence of the retail cues and the messages they are giving out.

Producers use visual and other cues on packaging to communicate to the consumer that food is good and fresh.  They show idyllic farm scenes with the sun rising over a green hill on battery egg cartons.  How does the consumer reconcile this in their minds?

PML:  Indeed, someone pointed out to me the other day that are consumers being duped because M&S sells a chicken sandwich with ‘free-range egg’, but the chicken itself is battery hen.  It makes a mockery of us!
How do retailers do that and how do consumers know what they are buying?  Research shows for instance that if something is coloured green, it is perceived to be healthier!

PML:  On a lighter note to round off, please tell us something that you are excited about in the future for the Retail Institute?
  What I love about my work is that I never know what will be happening in the future.  We apply for many grants and work with business all the time so I cannot predict.  However, my colleague is working on an exciting product called Oculus Rift technology.  This is a virtual reality headset which is predicting the next step into immersive shopping online.  It is using gaming technology with ski-type goggles utilising a full 3D panorama.  It is fascinating to see what the serious games technology will mean for the shopping experience.


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