A Caveman’s Shopping Journey in the 21st Century


We are fortunate to live in an era of unrivaled retailing diversity and prosperity. People have unprecedented access to goods and services within their local communities and across the world. In truth, shoppers have so many options that the shopping experience can be both exciting and daunting.

I am often approached by clients for the latest developments in techniques and research to segment shoppers and to improve the shopping experience. Over the past decade, I have been intrigued by research efforts outside of traditional market research and the efforts’ potential reapplication to shopping and retail.

Modern science continues to provide us with deeper insights into how our mind and body work. These scientific advances have highlighted that we are functionally extremely similar to our early ancestors. Our brain structure, information processing, and cultural behaviors are identical to human beings living 10,000 years ago. When I speak on this topic, I usually note that all of us are here today because we had ancestors who were clever enough and hardy enough to survive the perils around them in prehistoric times. We are, in many ways, cavemen living and shopping in the 21st century.


Our ancestors survived in a complex and oftentimes dangerous environment because of several key characteristics:

  • The brain’s ability to scan the environment and identify threats
  • The brain’s natural inclination to identify faces and focus on children
  • The role of the eye
  • The ability to hunt and gather to acquire food and clothing
  • The role of speech
  • The role of community

Let’s look at each characteristic’s impact on today’s shopping environment.

The brain’s ability to scan the environment and identify threats

In prehistoric times, we were a lot lower on the food chain! Often we were the snack or main shopping trip for predators. Our brains are uniquely focused on scanning the environment for threats. We tend to scan horizontally in the environment, and our brains actually spend a lot of time deselecting. Our brains take in information from our senses and assess if the stimulus needs further attention or can be ignored. We ignore the majority of the information we receive. Because of this hard-wired deselection process, we need to be clever getting shopper’s attention.

The brain’s natural inclination to identify faces and focus on children

In concert with our need to identify foreign threats is a need to understand the intentions of the human beings around us. Are they friendly, angry, or dangerous? Telling the truth or deceptive? Our brains are very focused on faces, and when a face comes into our field of view, we automatically turn our attention to understanding the person’s intent. In addition, we protect our vulnerable community members. The brain naturally turns its attention to children and tends to keep them and the surroundings in focus in case there is a need to protect them. We can use our understanding of this focus to create shopper marketing combating our automatic deselection instincts.

The role of the eye

Within the animal kingdom, the human eye is relatively weak. Our eyes have two types of visual acuity – foveal and peripheral. Foveal vision starts at the pupil and forms a cone about 15º wide with excellent focus. Our peripheral vision is outside that cone and is equipped to capture motion. Our eyes note movement and change with peripheral vision, and the brain directs the foveal field of view to anything “interesting” that requires a focused review. This eye motion is fully aligned and supportive of the brain’s environment scans. The implication for retail environments is we can improve shopper engagement and reduce deselection when we design environments that change with motion (or apparent motion when a shopper walks through a store).

The ability to hunt and gather to acquire food and clothing

A critical skill resulting in our survival which is still deeply embedded in our senses and nervous system is hunting and gathering. The biometric math was very straight forward – we had to gather more calories for consumption then we burned in the gathering. Fail and we starved or were left exposed to the elements. We inherently try to minimize our energy expenditure when we hunt and gather.  Hunting and gathering are complimentary but different skills as we can see in the table below:

Hunting Gathering
Simplify the hunt – event focused Continuous
Minimize the danger Sort on color, shape, and size
Minimize the energy expenditure Flexibility
Highly focused at key juncture Right time and right place constantly shifting

Men tend to have physical advantages in hunting, taking advantage of more muscle, a higher proportion of rods in the eye for distance differentiation, and slightly more spatial/geometry processing in the brain. Women have gathering physical advantages to include more cones in their eyes to deliver better color differentiation (colors are critical for determining if fruits and vegetables are ripe or dangerous) and more frequent right brain to left brain communication to compare ideas with the scene they are observing. The shopping implication is we must recognize shoppers want to expend the least energy as possible during the shopping experience. Male shoppers will put a premium on having a shopping environment easily lead to the hunt, and women are naturally attuned to the use of color, shape and comparison.


The role of speech

Speech was a critical factor influencing our ancestor’s survival. The ability to speak allows one person to pass their knowledge and experience to others (“Watch out, there’s a sabre tooth tiger around the next bend of the river!”) and eliminates the need for everyone to gather all knowledge individually. Recognizing and understanding speed is highly prioritized in our upper order brain functions, and functional MRIs demonstrate our brain uses nearly as much energy processing speech as processing information received through our eyes. And much like our visual processing, the brain is trying to conserve energy and will take short cuts and deselect information to conserve energy. If I had to select one “caveman characteristic” which will have a disproportionate influence on retailing and shopping, it would be the role of speech and processing in our shopping behavior. Behavioral economists and behavioral psychologists are continuously expending our understanding of the functional and often quirky ways we take in and process information. Retailers and manufacturers which incorporate behavioral psychology and economic effects into their shopper marketing efforts will have a distinct selling advantage and better sales and profitability than competitors which are not modifying their marketing to include these effects.

The role of community

Community was critical for survival. Numbers provided physical security and helped divide labor for critical task. Belonging to a community, contributing to a community, and depending on a community are both physically and emotionally built deeply into human beings. People have an inherent instinct to connect to other people. They willingly connect with other people who have similar interests. Shoppers desire to be part of community, and this provides a means for retailers and manufacturers to create new relationships and propositions to change shopper behavior. Retailers and manufacturers will also need to monitor changes in their shoppers’ behavior indicating realignment to new priorities and needs.

Conclusion:  Modern man’s environment – the new challenge

Many historic physical threats are removed from our environment. We have complex systems that deliver food, provide shelter, help us maintain our health, and generate knowledge at a rate unparalleled in the history of humankind. In a sense, the environment we’ve created is now our greatest threat. We have too much food, too much information and consequently too much choice and stress. Tremendous innovation is underway to change the shopping experience and make it better for retailers, manufacturers and shoppers. The retailers and manufacturers who recognize and adapt for the “caveman” in all of us will lead the way on the 21st century shopping journey.