Research framework: Servicescapes

3 years ago by in Research, The Fashion Retailscape

In the description given earlier of the (future) store landscape we have seen a lot of sub-problems and part solutions and a number of mantras such as ‘experience’. In order to view the developments, problems and opportunities in a more structured manner we need a research framework – one that distinguishes the relevant components, establishes relationships between them and comes up with hypotheses that can be tested. That research framework shall have to relate to the ‘service encounter’, the contact moment between customer and service, for which the way in which the customer ‘enters’ the moment is important (expectations, mood, state of mind, etc.) as well as how the service is orchestrated by the provider. From the point of view of cross-media, it is interesting to see what role the physical environment or store plays in relation to the strong forces of digitalisation and new media. The theoretical framework that we shall use for this from now on is the conceptualisation of ‘servicescapes’.

Bitner (1992) introduced the term servicescape. In her study, Bitner shed light, from a marketing perspective, on the influence of the physical environment on consumers and staff. To indicate this Bitner used the term servicescape: “All of the objective physical factors that can be controlled by the firm to enhance (or constrain) employee and customer actions.” (1992, p. 65). The most succinct expression of the role of the servicescape is in service environments such as hotels, restaurants, banks, stores and hospitals. These are typical service organisations where consumers and staff have direct contact in complex and decorated environments. The services are produced and consumed simultaneously and the consumers are, as it were, ‘in the factory’: a dental treatment, a visit to the hairdresser, eating out and going to a concert are examples of this. This is in contrast to services such as a self-service laundrette or filling station where, in fact, it is only the consumer that acts, and where services can be delivered reasonably ‘lean’ like the products sold on the market or a motoring breakdown service.

Servicescapes are about a space manipulated by people. That manipulation can take on many forms, for example, light, temperature, furniture, music, colour, room layout, symbols, artefacts, etcetera. According to Bitner, all of these different types of manipulations can ultimately be allocated to three dimensions:

  1. Ambient conditions. These are features of the space such as temperature, light, sound, music, smell and other aspects that have an immediate effect on our senses. Many studies into workplaces show that these factors have an influence on staff performance and satisfaction. Consumers are also influenced by these factors: the tempo of music in supermarkets influences the tempo of shopping, the length of stay in the supermarket and the amount spend; in restaurants customers stay longer and they drink more when the tempo of the music is slower. Familiarity with the music also has an influence: if customers do not know the music in a store they think they have been shopping longer than is actually the case. The same applies to a pleasant smell: consumers think they have not been in the store for as long as they actually have been and they also give a more positive evaluation of the store. Modalities also reinforce each other: a combination of a Christmas smell and Christmas music has a stronger effect than if they are experienced individually. This cross-modality is however complex: music that is or is not congruent with the product influences product recognition and the likelihood of a sale (also see Peck & Childers, 2008).
  2. Spatial layout and functionality. This is about the spatial arrangement of fittings (furniture, plants, etc.) and their mutual position. It is also about the support that the spatial layout gives to achieving specific aims. An example of the latter is, for example, whether the tills in a store are clearly visible and easily accessible for the customers so that they can pay quickly. The addition of plants and flowers in public spaces and benches for sitting on, sometimes has substantial consequences for the behaviour in that space. However, not much research has been conducted into the question about how consumers experience these types of manipulations. One example is a study into the behaviour of business people that travel regularly and often stay in hotels. They seem to make hotel rooms look more like home by moving the furniture until the arrangement is ‘like home’. Another trick they use to feel more at home is personalising the room by removing all objects and signs that refer to a hotel and replacing them with their own objects (Bardhi & Askegaard, 2011). It is a known fact that people in spaces where they have to follow a route, walk faster across the second section. This applies to museums (Van Vliet, 2009) and to stores as well: “In general, as shoppers get nearer and nearer the checkout they shop faster and faster – using most of their ‘leisure time’ at the beginning of the trip. The phenomenon is so pronounced and regular that we refer to it as ‘the checkout magnet’.” (Sorensen, 2012, p. 57/58).
  3. Signs, symbols & artefacts. There are all kinds of explicit signs present in rooms, from labels (name of a company, advertising) and directional signs (‘exit’) to signs that communicate codes of conduct (‘no smoking’). However, there are also all kinds of implicit signs, symbols and artifacts that say something about the space: white table cloths and dimmed lights in a restaurant represent good service and high prices; the size of the desk and the certificates on the wall influence the image that people have of the manager or therapist. This is a complex totality that cannot always be kept ‘under control’ or is interpreted as was originally intended.

These three dimensions are intended to describe the influences of the servicescape clearly, but they will not be experienced as separate dimensions by the consumer. The consumer will form a holistic image on the basis of all of the servicescape stimuli. Bitner calls this general impression the perceived servicescape. This perceived servicescape seems to affect how people experience the quality of the goods on sale and the service (Baker, Grewal & Parasuraman,1994). The perceived appearance of a store (‘atmospherics’) appears to influence the consumer’s (buying) pattern and shopping experience (Turley & Milliman, 2000).

Customers will react to the environment in a specific manner. Bitner also distinguishes these reactions into three dimensions: cognitive, emotional and physiological dimensions. The influence of the physical environment on the cognition, emotion and physiology can differ in strength and in ‘direction’ (positive or negative), where that influence is part determined by the personal and situational factors. Personality characteristics, such as ‘arousal-seeking’ indicate that some people specifically choose certain environments (bungee jumping, wild-water canoeing) and that they also experience these differently from what are known as arousal-avoiders (‘at home in front of the TV’). A person’s mood is also important: being tired after a frustrating day’s work instead of just returning from a relaxing weekend has an effect on how one experiences a busy restaurant. Bitner ultimately says that consumers can react to a space in two opposing ways: approach and avoidance. Approach is about wanting to stay in the space, investigate it and spend money in it and want to return to it. Avoidance is the opposite of that: want to go away, not wanting to return, having no interest in it, etc. Ezeh & Harris (2007) also incorporate this aspect in their definition of servicescape: “The design of the physical environment (with or without customer input) housing the service encounter, which elicits internal reactions from customers leading to the display of approach or avoidance behaviours.” (p. 61).

Incidentally, the servicescape does not just influence the individual behaviour, but also the nature, quality and the development of social interactions that take place within the space. The layout of the physical space has a demonstrable effect on communication patterns, group formation and group dynamics. Particular environments invoke predictable social behaviour and activate conventions about how to interpret the situation (Goffman, 1974). A theatre, a train compartment and a waiting room at the dentist all have their conventions and behaviours that are influenced by the specific physical layout of these rooms.

Figure 1: Bitner’s model of Serivescapes


Bitner’s model of servicescapes (Figure 1) is generally considered to be relevant (Eroglu & Machleit, 2008), but, strangely enough, the empirical research into the role of servicescapes is relatively limited (Turley & Milliman, 2000; Ezeh & Harris, 2007). Furthermore, the empirical research that has been conducted is often just about the influence of a single element, for example, smell or colour “…to the extent that little is known about the global configurations of aspects of the servicescape” (Ezeh & Harris, 2007, p. 79). Or it only focuses on part of the model, such as demonstrating that the emotional state of shoppers is a predictor of buying pattern (Donovan et al., 1994) or the discovery of irritating aspects in the shop environment (D’Astous, 2000). The research that has been conducted is still focused on causal micro-relationships and not on the ‘Gestalt’ or the visitors ‘holistic’ experience, in brief the ‘global configuration’ (Eroglu & Machleit, 2008).

Conceptually, there are also remarks that can be made about the Bitner model, for example with regard to the social factors. Bitner explicitly omits these as part of the servicescape and only refers to them as a resultant within her framework. Other researchers do postulate the social factors as a significant influencing dimension of the servicescape, because social interaction constitutes part of the space. In addition, there are also new research areas that have presented themselves and which Bitner could not have foreseen, namely those of the online servicescapes, which are also known as e-scapes. The assumption is that a different configuration is applicable here: “Customers do not move around virtual environments the same way in which they do around physical environments” (Shankar et al., 2010, p. 113) and a different experience (Novak, Hoffman & Yung, 2000). Not only do we have to regard these e-scapes as a separate phenomenon but we also have to place them specifically in the relationship of the physical space: the digital environment ‘in’ or ‘on top of’ the physical space. This has so far not been sufficiently researched in the context of experiencescapes.

Finally, the servicescape model is not elaborated further for specific ‘subtypes’ of scapes. Research into servicescapes often includes analyses of cases, such as a specific shop or shopping centre (Sherry, 1996). In the book Festivalbeleving (Van Vliet, 2012) it is proposed to characterise a specific subclass of servicescapes as experiencescapes. Experiencescapes are servicescapes that are configured towards the visitor experience. The layout of stores, museums, sports stadia, restaurants, shopping centres, city parks and tourist attractions no longer focuses exclusively on most efficient and effective service delivery but increasingly emphasises creating the experience. We no longer drink beer in a pub but rather in an Irish pub or the Hard Rock café, we don’t eat in a normal restaurant but rather in the jungle of the Rainforest Café and we shop in the Wild West themed shopping centres that promise a rich shopping experience’. Entire districts (China Town, Old Pasadena), cities (Las Vegas), regions (Merrie England) and even islands (Hawaii) consist of ‘cardboard’ nostalgia where we can re-experience the real, authentic China, England or whatever. These nostalgiascapes or retroscapes (Brown & Sherry, 2003) are only one interpretation of what we can more broadly designate as experiencescapes. Experiencescapes are specific spaces that are selected, designed and managed in order to create, support and correctly guide experiences. These experiencescapes are sought out by visitors with the specific expectation of an experience (O’Dell, 2005).

Within experiencescapes we can make further subdivisions into, for example, festivalscapes (Van Vliet, 2012), retailscapes and museumscapes. Recurring research questions for this will be: what is the ‘global configuration’ of an experiencescape? What relationship is there between this configuration and the consumer/visitor experience? What is the role of digital media in the experiencescape and when, how and to what extent does it influence the configuration of those experiencescapes and the experience? What are the differences between the subcategories of experiencescapes (festivals, museums, stores) and what relationship do they have with the experience? What is the role of social factors in the experience of experiencescapes? How can the analysis of experiencescapes contribute to a more refined value proposition for new services and products when developing business models?


Previous blog in series: The physical store in a cross-media context

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—- (Red.) 2012. Festivalbeleving. De waarde van publieksevenementen. Utrecht: Hogeschool Utrecht. (Cell Cahier #3)


Professor Cross-media at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

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