In this episode:

Wendy Liebmann interviews Dr. Gayatri Devi, a nationally recognized neurologist, attending physician at Lenox Hill Hospital/Northwell Health, director of New York Memory and Healthy Aging Services, and author of “A Calm Brain: How to Relax Into a Stress-free, High-powered Life”.

You’ll learn:

  • How the current pandemic has changed not only relationships with families and work but also retail experiences.
  • What shoppers are missing and now long for.
  • The importance of creating emotional engagement at retail now.
  • The new vernacular to rebuild trust with shoppers.
  • The power of retail in a world where everyday personal connections are now limited.

Wendy Liebmann: Hello, my name is Wendy Liebman. I’m the CEO and Chief shopper of WSL Strategic Retail and this is Future Shop. This is where I have a fast and furious chat with guests about the future of retail and what companies need to do to envision that future. My guest today is Dr. Gayatri Devi. She is a neurologist and director of the New York Memory and Healthy Aging Services. She’s affiliated with Lenox Hill Northwell downstate University consults to the NFL and is the author of “A Calm Brain – How to relax into a stress-free, high powered life”, a book that I keep beside my bed.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. A calm brain in stressful times.

*Dr. Gayatri Devi: Our brain is wired for two things. It’s wired for us to be people in a pack. We are wolves in a pack, and our brain is wired for safety and trust. But we are in an urban world where we are increasingly lonely. Loneliness is the primary health problem. in the developing world, we are increasingly in a world where we are less and less likely to trust the people we meet because we don’t have a longitudinal history with them. I don’t know any of you have I need hundreds of people in a day our brains are wired really to just know 100 people 150 people and grow up with them and die with them. Yet we are in this world, in this increasingly chaotic, increasingly distrustful world, and we’re asked to trust strangers.

That’s a clip from a presentation Dr. Devi did with us at our big business of Well symposium last December. Talk about prescient right? seeing the future. Well, here we go.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking even more about stress and mental health, even before COVID-19 and the financial and social crises we are now immersed in. Americans told us in our how America shops research that stress was the number one obstacle to living a healthy life. Stress was more of an issue to them than being overweight or smoking or chronic diseases. It was bound up in a non stop work life, often financial pressures of juggling several jobs and a constant connection to technology and social issues that resulted in loneliness. As Dr. Devi mentioned, here we are today dealing with a heightened level of stress brought on by a global pandemic, which has changed family work, financial and social dynamics and challenged who we trust. Oh, yes. And of course it’s impacted how we shop. And that’s what Dr. Debbie and I are going to talk about today. How we can deal with all of this.

Welcome to Future Shop. Thank you for doing this. I hope you’re well I hope your daughter as well, I hope the dogs are well, I hope your staff as well.

*Thank you very much. That means a lot, you know, to be able to, to inquire about family and friends at this time because we really have very little contact. And that’s devastating, I think on multiple levels.

That I would say is a wonderful starting point. Because when we saw each other six months ago, we were talking to a business community about how do they juggle all the things in their lives? And how do we think about being well, and here we are six months later. And what strikes me is the question I want to ask because how has the pandemic informed your thinking and the way you’re advising your world.

*We as human beings need to connect with other human beings. We need to trust other human beings. We need to be a part of the lives of others. Not just in a virtual way, but in a visceral way, in a way where we can taste and touch and be with and smell, and all those very primitive sensations, so for the sensation of touch, the sensation of smell, the sensation of, you know, those, those early sensations are far more primitive than the later sensations and the ability to be rational and thinking beings were first feeling creatures. So that’s been shattered by the pandemic because we don’t know who to trust. We don’t know who has the virus. We don’t know. You know, if someone’s wearing a mask if they’re too close or not, we don’t know if they’re wearing the right kind of mask.

*And in my practice, particularly, it’s been very hard on my patients, some of whom are older. And we all know as we get older we have even when we’re young, we have trouble paying attention, but when you’re older and you’re speaking to someone with a mask, and you can’t hear them very well and yourself speaking to them through a screen, it becomes that much more hard to connect. So connecting has become an issue. And so the idea of how do you truly connect with someone?

*When our core brain our reptilian brain is telling us this is all just make-believe it’s all just on screen? How do you do that? I think that’s, that’s the big problem for our high bandwidth world, which also wants flexibility and wants the ability to be able to choose where to work and how to work which the pandemic has allowed us to do, right, we can now work from, you know, the beach in Australia in a bikini. And as long as we’re wearing a scarf, no one needs to know where we are. But at the same time, are we truly connecting how do we make that two connections with a person on the other end? That’s going to be the bigger question and why.

One of the things I think a lot about now as from a business sense, and, you know, here we are, we’ll all end up talking about shopping again. But this in this world, you talked a lot about, you know, we’re not lone wolves. And you’ve talked a lot in your book and your work about the sense of community. And I hear this sort of yin and yang, I hear people in the business sense talking about, you know, now I actually am home or with my family, I have been traveling all the time. And now I’m actually sitting at the table having lunch with my family, or I’m seeing my team or even though it’s virtual, we meet every morning so it’s sort of this, on the one hand, is sort of longing for the old ways and yet this finding that these little pleasures right in this new world, so how do we how should we be thinking about stress, talk about blowing our heads off, right? juggling family, kids, work everything in the same room. How do we need to think about this now differently as people, as business people?

*What you say is very important is that a lot of people have talked about how this has been a wonderful way to reconnect with family, and kind of establish a life where you can have breakfast and have lunch and have dinner with people that you care about. And choose when and how to work does not become paramount, that work is not the driver of your life on a daily basis. It’s not the schedule. However, you know, I find for myself, it’s very important that much as I love being with my family and being at home. It’s just as important for me to be at work and be with my patients.

*What I have found in my practice, is that patients have started coming back in to see me because it’s important for them to connect with me physically, even when I’m able to do much of my evaluation now, via telemedicine and there’s the convenience of telemedicine, but there are times and places where we really need to be physically proximate to one another. And the way I think about the new world is definitely going to change. That’s a no brainer. But how do we change the new world so that it enhances our core brain, makes it calmer, while still pandering to our rational new brain, our core neocortex, our frontal lobes?

*I think the pandemic if we can allow our stress to dial down and believe that there will be a future that we are going to enjoy. I think the pandemic is a great time to catch up on sleep because people are traveling a lot less. I think it’s a great time to take up some of the things people want to do, but never had time to do like gardening, because commuting, which is a big chunk of time in many people’s lives has is no longer the case. And communing with families has also become quite, quite wonderful in this time, sometimes not so wonderful as we’ve you know, some families spend a little too much time together. But I also think that is there a way for us to now be more deliberate about spending time with our colleagues? Is there a way for us to spend more time more real-time rather than time? Could we have some meetings online and have other real retreats together? That’s something to think about. Because maybe we’re not commuting as much. Maybe we could have more retreats provided our business is profitable, but it’s hard these days. Because many businesses are not as profitable as they used to be.

*So it’s a juxtaposition of stress, how to deal with the stress, but it’s an opportunity to redefine and redraw schedules because schedules were crazy. Schedules were ridiculous. Yeah, you know, people were sleeping four to five hours a day or less. This is a time to catch up.

Yeah, it’s interesting. You say that too, and about the sort of physical and virtual connection. One of the things I found so interesting is it was two things really in our how America shops research is this desire or using the shopping experience, the retail experience where I had to go to the grocery store, if I couldn’t get online or I had to go to the drugstore or whatever, has this level of personal engagement.

*You know, seeing those people not just as frontline workers who are doing essential things stack stacking the shelves, dropping mission but also as people and the conversations that I’m seeing when people at least get to the checkout now, of Hello, how are you this sort of retail experience, which has always been fairly, either functional or highly emotional of, oh, what do I do today I go shopping, becoming a much more intimate experience as people look to the to this outreach, so I’m thinking about that as a way to think about retail. Right? I do believe that there’s a role for that.

*I mean, for example, one of my mentors who I adore, just went to [store] and she bought herself eight new outfits a couple of days ago. And one of the main reasons she did that, in this time of the pandemic was when no one’s buying nice clothes anymore, because where are you gonna wear it too, is because she has a personal relationship with the clerk at the store. And so she goes there because she is spending more time at home alone. And because she wanted to reach out and really engage with someone. So if we can make that experience, less the sultry, more caring, more real, more connected, then I think that there’s an upside to all this because people are reaching out and they may want to be able to reach out in contained environments like that. They may feel safer.

Yeah. The other thing that struck me that that made me think about something you talked about in December, this sort of notion of the brains wired for survival. One of the things we saw in our latest research and it’s held up through the whole of the pandemic is this sort of pride that people have in managing through the pandemic. We serve about one out of two in the national populations, shoppers say they are proud of how they’re managing. And I found that reassuring. And talk to the strength of survival that you have talked about before. Can you talk a little bit about that?

*I, we all want to feel competent. And we want to feel we’ve made the right choice. And we want to feel happy as we make the choice. So surviving the pandemic, and making the right choices, or feeling like we’ve made the right choices whether or not we’ve had made the right choices. Some people feel they’ve made the right choice. And they’ve been out partying and not wearing a mask during the whole pandemic, as we will know. And there are other people who’ve been very careful and feel like they’ve made the right choice. So having made having that sense of making the right choice is so important, I think in this situation because there are so few choices.

*We can make many of the choices we used to make, what do we wear? How much lipstick do we put on? You know, it doesn’t even matter anymore. You’re all those things have been, are being made for us, you know, we where do we go? We can go anywhere? Where do we go on vacation, guess what your backyard? So those kinds of things, those so the less the fewer choices. It’s very interesting, this Paradox of Choice, which has been written about quite a bit, which is the fewer choices we have, in funny ways, the happier we are. So there’s a way that we can take this time where we have very few choices, and allow that then to make a few informed decisions. You know, I’m going to survive through this pandemic in a way I’m proud of, then that makes a difference.

*I think from the retail perspective if you can make that interaction between the customer and the purveyor a good one, happy one… At that moment, the value of that is much, much more now than it ever was. Because the number of interactions is so much fewer. So if you can enrich it, you’re probably going to create more dedicated customers than you ever were before. This is your opportunity to really foster customer loyalty, I think, and build upon that base down the road.

It’s interesting too because you’ve talked about trust. And that whole notion we’ve been evaluating what we call caring, and who do people believe care for them now, and who do they care for, and the the the assessment of that beyond you know, friends and family, to essential workers, you know, to MIT for professionals on the front lines have been really interesting in all of that, and the people who we don’t trust. So that notion of trust is, is being challenged as well, a lot of the moment. Right? And you know, trust, the way I assess trust in you, is based on what my poor brain my reptilian brain decides about the way you look. And whether your eyes and the way your eyes smile, align with the way your lips smile and move.

*So a decision is made at a very primitive level, which then your rational brain begins to justify. So if you don’t like someone based on this paradigm, which your rational brain knows nothing about, you’re going to then rationalize it by saying, Oh, you know what, I really don’t like her because her hair the color of her hair reminds me of my high school teacher who always was very bad, very tough grader or something like that. So you began to rationalize now because of masks and because of social distancing, and because of screens which can be altered, right so that the image may not necessarily reflect the person who’s speaking or, or communicating becomes hard for the core brain, the reptilian brain to really make a decision about trusting.

*Do I trust the salesperson do I trust, I don’t really know anymore because I can correlate their smile with their face with their eyes. These are very, very basic, hardwired, millisecond decisions that our brain makes. Unbeknownst to us. We don’t even know about it. People who don’t have a brain, you know, they’ve done these studies in in anencephalic. Babies that happen to survive, and adults have felt like they can distinguish happiness in someone else, even though they don’t have the higher brain, just the reptilian brain is able to make that determination that tells us how powerful emotions are.

*People who are cortically blind, in other words, people who cannot see, it can’t distinguish a square from a circle, you put a circle with a smiley face on it, they’ll tell you, they’re looking at his happy face, you put a circle with a frowny face on it, they’ll say, oh, they’re looking at someone sad that you put a circle and a square and ask them to tell you which is a circle and a square, they can tell you, that speaks to the depth of the ability of the brain to make a determination about emotion. And that is what is being ravaged in this pandemic, you know, that we’re not able to do that, you know, with, with all of the restrictions in place needed restrictions, but yet, it’s taken a toll on trust.

*We’re in the point of a business successful business practices, how can you have and this is something I struggle within my practice, right? Because I am a practice where we see patients who many of whom are older, and we have to be able to create an environment of trust, but yet they need to be able to do so while I’m wearing a mask. How does that happen? And I think it is a multi-system effort on the part of everybody in the staff to make that to create that feeling that environment of safety, where the person feels that the people seeing them truly care about them. And this is where I think it matters if you do really care because that comes across in so many little ways.

*And patients or customers, you know, in retail environments are more attuned to that they’re more scared and therefore more attuned to any breaks in that chain of care. They want that chain of care to be continuous and unbroken and very strong.

It’s interesting you say that because I think as we’ve moved many to a more digital shopping experience, as well as virtual experience, the value of that, you know, one on one connection, I see, as I say, I see it in my own supermarket. I saw it when I walked into a hospital for a checkup, and there was a security person and I said, Hi, how are you? Thank you. And I walked by to get to the elevator and she looked at me and she said, I’m smiling at you. And I said I said, very good. And when I walked out of the elevator, she was there doing something and I turned around, I said, and I’m smiling back at you. And so we both it was just the most fun…the whole experience even though we were you know, I’m smiling, I’m smiling as best I can kind of thing. So anyway, is there anything that’s really surprised you coming through all this?

*You know, there’s a silver lining to every cloud. And it’s, you know, and I think, for example, New York City restaurants have made lemonade from lemons, you know, we have a very festive outdoor environment with people dining outside, it feels sometimes like you’re in Paris, or, you know, as some, as my veterinarian said to me recently, if you flood the streets, you might think you’re in Venice with all the outdoor cafes. I think what surprised me in all this is the amazing resilience of the human spirit.

*The fact that people really need people that we will do a lot to put, you know, we may even put our lives at risk in order to connect with another person, and that I never quite realized how important that was until this pandemic. And if we can create safe environments where people can interact, be able to trust and satisfy our core reptilian brains, we may yet make something wonderful from this pandemic.

Thank you so much for this. I appreciate it.

So here’s the thing. As Dr. Debbie said, the pandemic has shattered our fundamental need to connect with other human beings, perhaps even more so than the way we think about our health and our jobs. As we’ve moved forward in this new world, we’ve learned or learning how to connect with our families and our work teams. But we also have to learn to reconnect with our shoppers, and how to rebuild their trust in this new and very different time.

You know, if I step back for a minute and put some context around this, what’s clear is that over the last 510 years, shopping has actually lost its emotional weight, resonance, so many and become you know more about efficiency and cost. It’s like, you know, I need to get it off the list, you know, and, you know, make sure it’s a decent price. But you know, I’m so busy, I have no time of no interest. You know, let’s just get it done.

In many ways, many of us forgot until now, the power of engagement, of connection that shopping can deliver. So here are a few things for you to think about. First of all, the retail experience now must be more personal, more caring, more trusting. Yes, it’s about safety, but it’s also about connection and intimacy, through the messaging, the stories you tell to the people you have in the stores, even the products you develop and sell, it has to have a different tone, a different voice.

Secondly, we need to help shoppers feel more competent, you know, proud of how they’re managing. We’ve seen that in our data, you know, that survival instinct, but Dr. Devi talked about you know, they’ve made the right choices, you know, whether it’s wearing masks or being brave enough to come to the store, we need to recognize that we need to say hello to thank them. I mean, thank you for wearing a mask and protecting all of us, we’re happy to have you rather than no mask, no service.

Third, because there are so few choices that we can make today because our world is so small. Because there are so few interactions, the value of the interactions becomes so much more important, have the opportunity to build longer-term loyalty, because there are a few of them. They’re special, the intimate, it’s a different way of connecting the sort of Paradox of Choice of less choice today.

And last with tools like telemedicine and online shopping have become so valuable, have saved us in many ways. I mean, technology, by itself, however, is not the only solution. As Dr. Debbie said, we have this answer animalistic longing for others, and that needs to be addressed now in everything we do. So e-commerce clicks and collect or in shopping in-store. Regardless of what method we shop, we need to humanize the engagement. As Dr. Debbie said, we need to build this sort of continuous, unbroken, and very strong chain of care. And that’s the opportunity and the silver lining now. So that’s the thing.

The pandemic has reminded us of the power and the need for personal connection and the role that retail whether it’s physical or digital, can play in delivering now, you know, you’ve may have figured out how to connect with your family and your teams and even your clients and suppliers. But you also now need to consciously think about how to create a new and more intimate connection with your shoppers. And you need to do it fast.

Thanks for joining Future Shop. It’s always a pleasure.

Don’t forget for more about WSL Strategic Retail, to sign up for our blog, our trend alerts, our weekly what’s up at WSL and see our latest How America Shops® research, go to our website at

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