Ed King: “You have to be insatiably curious about why people act the way they do.”

With a curiosity towards the science of human behavior and a passion for storytelling, Ed King is a creative strategist constantly searching for innovative ways to improve the retail experience.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

6 min read

We can’t answer the question “What’s the future of retail?”, without first understanding the different emotions and influential factors behind customer experiences. 

Ed King harnesses retail experiences by understanding consumer behavior, and fully engaging in the target market and today’s consumer trends. And while emerging technology is revolutionizing the customer experience as we know it – making retailing in the digital age more complex, King seeks out innovative solutions designed to move forward through both a strategic and human lens.

Co-Founder of HighStreet Retail, his business approach focuses on in-store traffic and innovative customer experiences through expanding the margins of brick-and-mortar.

We spoke with Ed about the importance of crafting innovative experiences and atmospheres that draw in consumers and keep them coming back for more, as well as the importance of evolution in the marketplace and seizing key opportunities. 

Tell us about your childhood and upbringing?

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, lived there for 25 years – my upbringing was fairly normal. Always gravitated toward the creative side of things. I had an epiphany in tenth grade when I went to art class – which, I loved art – I always did. And one of my teachers was doing freelance work, making a logo in the classroom. And it was a logo for a funeral home. Then he started to explain what the logo meant and why it was there, and the different fonts – and he said that he got paid money to do this. He said to me, “this is how you make a career in art – graphic design”. That changed everything for me. So in tenth grade, I really started to focus on the graphic design side of things and translating my fine arts passion into stuff that would actually give me a paycheck. That’s when I decided to go to art school. I went to a trade school – University of Akron and got a 2-year associates degree. I couldn’t wait to get into the real world, so I went out and got a job and started as a graphic designer, then art director, then creative director… and I got into this crazy business. 

What was your first job?

My first job was as a photo stylist at American Greetings – the greeting card manufacturer in Cleveland. I helped them take pictures for their catalog. You’d take pictures of things and then mock them up, and I remember this was when Photoshop just came out. I’ll never forget how poor the processing power was back then, so it was all this freehand work – and that was my first gig.

Has anything from the beginning of your career helped shape you into the experienced professional you are today?

It’s all work ethic and “getting it right”. I learned that from my dad at a young age. You always go to work, and you always do it with quality. I did well in school and got good grades, but my creative brain was always on. I was always seeing things in a very creative way, so I knew that’s where I needed to be. That started in school and went into college, then into my first couple of jobs. 

Do you have a label for yourself that describes who you are?

Definitely customer experience. I do think in a creative way, but I learned fairly early in my career that there were better graphic designers than me, better illustrators than me… so the true art form, I was not great at. But what I gravitated towards was the strategy and approach –  really understanding the consumer and target market. So slowly over my career I did less “design” and more “strategy”, but I always did things in a creative manner. My niche is that I can look at a challenge and solve it differently than other people. Crafting experiences that people are drawn to and that people crave – that’s the weapon I wield. In this business, we have to be business people first and artists second.

Have you had the opportunity to create an ultimate customer experience?

I have not yet created my masterpiece – there are building blocks that have gotten me to where I am that have consisted of a lot of little wins over time. Do I expect it to happen? Absolutely. There are things in my career that have worked and things that haven’t, so I just carry those experiences with me. Hopefully every project I do is a little better than the last one and is able to solve the problem a little more efficiently than the last.

“It takes a while to marry wisdom with passion. Never lose the passion.

Do you have any advice for a young creative person – maybe 1-5 years into their career, who is designing in a commercial business environment?

That’s a great question. I would say, maintain your passion for what you do because that’s going to carry you throughout your career. Just know that at this point you’ve probably acquired less than 1 percent of the knowledge you’re going to need to create your own masterpiece. Be patient – it’s going to take years of a lot of observation. You have to be insatiably curious about why people act the way they do, why the world functions the way it does. It’s like a puzzle. Every time you take note of something you’ve learned, you put that in your back pocket, and you’ll realize that those little pieces of information at age 25 turn out to be three pieces of an a thousand page puzzle. You don’t know what the end game is going to look like, but as time goes by, you start to put real chunks together, and you become more efficient. You become more enlightened and insightful, and stuff just becomes second nature. So my advice – be patient. It takes a while to marry wisdom with passion. Never lose the passion. Do something creative in the evenings or on the weekend, even if it doesn’t make you money. Just so you exercise that creative muscle. At some point, it’s all going to come together. You’re going to get that gig, or that project, and you’re going to pull on that passion and from those years of wisdom that you’ve accumulated. 

How did you become interested in retail?

I wouldn’t classify my passions and my skillset as “retail”–they’re more about place-based interactions and experiences. For instance, I’m very interested in neuroscience and the way the brain works. So several years ago, when I was between jobs for about 6 months, I decided that I wanted to make the most of my time.. so I became a student of storytelling. I wanted to train myself in the science of it. I looked at the top 20 viral videos that year and studied every frame. I broke everything down into a story and pattern, and the emotional roller coaster that happens from start to finish–why these videos ended in goosebump moments. I created my own cadence of where the story starts and ends. Which is not a straight line. Chemicals in your brain are released, leading you to that goosebump moment. Those were the types of things that have helped me leverage storytelling in everything I do, and it’s backed by science. If I’m going to tell a story of any kind, I first think, what are the emotions this person is feeling now? What is the emotion we want them to feel, what is that roller coaster of chemicals we need to pull out of them to get them there? And this is something I use every day in my practice.

“What is the emotion we want (people) to feel, what is that roller coaster of chemicals we need to pull out of them to get them there?”

Is retail the wrong word? Are we just talking about an engagement between a human and a brand and an exchange of value?

It’s all fluid commerce now. It’s ridiculous how much friction has been removed from the “retail” process. However, I tend to have an affinity for “place” because it’s a captive audience. It could be anything from a museum, a hospital, an airport, a store – that’s where the real fun lies. It’s the art of designing experiences. It’s not just an experience that’s behind your screen on your mobile device, it’s a physical experience in space and place. How do you do it, and what are the sensory things that go with it? You get to dictate all of the environmental things that affect somebody’s mood, and sense their emotion. You can craft the experience from a complete 360 degree, immersive perspective, versus through a digital channel. Understanding mirror neurons, how they work in the brain, and how certain experiences take over your subconscious and influence you to buy something that you’re experiencing. Creating immersive areas that are sensory driven and emotionally peaked is what’s going to sell more.

So do you think that for great commerce and retail to occur, there still–and will always need to be some kind of human element involved? Or can technology replicate it enough?

VR actually holds a promise. It tricks your brain into being transported to a different place, so I do have high hopes for virtual reality in the next 5-10 years. But it’s always a human thing. Technology – when used correctly, can enhance the human experience. In business right now, if you’re not removing friction, you’ll fall behind. But that’s not enough. You’ve got to be able to enhance the positive emotional feeling of the shopping experience, because that forms positive memories in the brain. And when that dopamine is released, that’s when people go back for more. That’s where the loyalty and advocacy come in. The fun part is putting together experiences so great that the consumer will never be able to dictate why it was so great. Chick-fil-a is a good example of that. It not only feeds your body, but your soul – by creating this atmosphere and feeling that you’ll want to replicate again and again. For those brands that consistently meet and exceed my expectations at every level – the ones that truly get it, they’re going to get all my money because I admire them.

I definitely think there is a need to celebrate the “crazy ones”

This is kind of a random question, but what’s been bugging you lately?

(laughs) What’s bugging me is corporate culture and how it has poisoned decision making inside corporate America. How many retailers have we seen that have gone out of business? How many have we seen that have consistently underdelivered when it comes to customer experience? Meanwhile, there are enlightened employees inside these organizations that know how to go forward in retail, but the culture doesn’t allow them to speak up and to say things. And there are senior leaders that get it, but they don’t encourage experimentation or innovation, and because of that, these companies will go out of business and thousands of people will lose their jobs. It’s a big deal. There’s obviously still a need for brick-and-mortar stores, but it has to change, it has to evolve.

What’s your opinion on Convrt and its initiative?

I definitely think there is a need to celebrate the “crazy ones” as Steve Jobs would say. Those are the people that are going to make the impact and make things happen. Take somebody like Glossier – where someone started as a blogger then decided to make a product line for her followers, and boom – all of a sudden there’s brick and mortar, and there’s a waiting line outside to get into the store. It’s a phenomenon. These are people who are seeing an opportunity in the marketplace and they’re trying to sell it. I love the idea of finding those people and celebrating them and showing the world that there’s a way forward here, and that people are doing it. I love the idea of the outliers, and the innovators and the different thinkers within non-retail environments that are rising from the ashes of what is the apocalypse of old retail and the renaissance of new retail.

A small image of two Convrt Awards side by side.
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