BrainTrust Query: Four Reminders About Effective Store Design

Aug 27, 2010

Commentary by Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor

Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail

Organization of a store is crucial to building sales because
the merchandise can only do so much with clever packaging.

A few weeks
ago, I started a business makeover for a client about an hour outside of Manhattan.

approach any project as if I were a new customer because they have fresh eyes.
They don’t
pick up what the owner feels is obvious. If a store has gotten sloppy in how
the merchandise is organized, it will show in the way customers walk through
the store (and walk out quickly). My overriding philosophy in
my customer mindframe: "Don’t Make Me Think!"

The following
are a few tips:

1. Follow the natural traffic patterns. For a typical
store in North America, customers naturally walk in and turn to the right.
That means the best and brightest "wants" should sit to the right.
Not at the back of the store or off to the left. If stores don’t do this
and put the counter on the right, at the very least it will cause commotion.
Putting sale items up front on the right will only depress profit margins.

2. Keep
it easy on the eyes.
 Just because there are 256 colors of markers
or ink doesn’t mean a store should use them all. Signage should be simple
and a quick read — not clever or tricky.  The model should be a
freeway billboard, not an ad in Martha Stewart’s Living.

3. Make a cohesive display. Merchandise shouldn’t just be stuck
on an end cap. The customer should be made to feel smart about seeing what
items go with other items to enhance their purchase. The whole store should
be displayed, not just one product.

4. Take steps to maximize upsells. What
should be put at the register? If it’s weird, cheap stuff that customers
have to ponder ("Who
buys this?"), stores will be missing the easy money. Instead, register
items should be products anyone could use. It shouldn’t require much
signage either. Think: "Don’t forget the glue!" not "Glue
sticks $1.99."

Discussion Questions: What are some of your pet peeves around store design
and merchandising? Are there any tips you would add to those given in this

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17 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Four Reminders About Effective Store Design"

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Susan Rider
Susan Rider
11 years 8 months ago

Some of the obvious ones are:
1. Organization – If the consumer can’t find it, they’re not buying it.
2. If you are putting together a total look display–whether it’s picnic supplies or outfit for school. Many times the retailer will put the display where one item is and the consumer has no idea where the rest of the items are. Give directions; make it simple and easy to buy!
3. Make it interesting and compelling to go into. Stark designs with a COLD feel are not conducive to staying around long. Make it warm and inviting. On the other hand, don’t make it so busy or crowded that it’s overwhelming.

David Biernbaum
11 years 8 months ago

One of my pet peeves about store designs is not so much on the practical side but more on the aesthetics. My comment is that most of the competitive retail chains within each channel look and feel almost exactly alike both outside and inside the store. They all use the same schematics, the same neutral colors, the same types of signs and shelf markings, etc. I still have a problem with Walgreens having a red logo! I long for the days when Walgreens signs and store interiors were “green” and Kmart had the big gaudy logo and sign and that unique Kmart feel inside the store. Come on retailers, get unique again!

Dr. Stephen Needel
11 years 8 months ago

My pet peeve in grocery stores is a lack of signage pointing to where product categories are stocked. Publix, usually one of my favorite stores on most dimensions, is especially bad at this. Each aisle has two sets of signs, one by the register end and one by the back end. The back end sign is too far away to be seen from the front (with my aging eyes).

Shilpa Rao
11 years 8 months ago

Color Coding: Without using too many colors, certain things could be conveyed through colors–perhaps low fat or organic

Customer Decision Tree – It is essential to understand the customer decision making process in the store and arrange the store keeping in mind the nature of the trips – Milk run, weekly trip , top-up trip and others.

Clear the clutter – Remove obstacles and displays that make it difficult to reach the products. Stores should invite opportunities for discovery and enable customers to spend time in the aisle.

Green Retailing – Maximize natural lighting, reflective roof, recycled carpets, high efficiency heating, ventilation and others could also help create and environmental friendly and energy efficient store.

Designed for you customer – If most of your customers are teenagers, the store design needs to be engaging, where as if your store caters to the aging population, then perhaps, the signs need to be bigger and bolder and the aisles need to be elder-friendly.

Steve Montgomery
11 years 8 months ago

Here are a few of the things we remind clients regarding store layout and merchandising:

1. There is a difference between a display and visible storage.
2. Displays are something to walk by, not around.
3. Size matters. If too large it is imposing. Too small, it is insignificant.
4. A few well thought out signs are better. Too many signs and people ignore them all.
5. Be aware of what categories are destinations within the store. Do try to stop the customer on their way there, but do place complementary categories on their path to the checkout.
6. Use the two step rule – people should know what you stand for two steps inside your door.

Chuck Palmer
11 years 8 months ago

These are tried and true rules that every retailer should remind themselves about on a regular basis.

Retail design can very complicated, especially when we are trying to present to consumers the store’s story, each brand’s story and making it all relevant to as many customers as possible.

Simple, straight-forward rules like these help keep the environment honest. As my Dad used to say, “It’s not rocket science.”

But you have to look at it through your customers’ eyes.

Joan Treistman
11 years 8 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t have consumers’ eyes, you can hire them by conducting research. Not every marketer has the intuitive insight that Bob has. However, even without those special eyes with discipline and focus on what makes sense to the shopper the strategy evolves.

Aesthetics don’t always create a satisfying experience. When you can find the intersection of satisfaction and sales, the rest takes care of itself.

It’s easy enough to follow a shopper and look at the facial responses and often the barely audible verbal reactions in front of a display. See how long it takes to make a purchase from one display versus another and again, try to understand the emotional connection with the experience.

Consumers prefer a path of least resistance in the store (as they do on a website). You want to be the retailer who fosters that sense of ease and satisfaction.

Dave Wendland
11 years 8 months ago

I love this topic. And one of my pet peeves concerns retail organizations that go through “redesign” for the sake of “redesign.” In other words, you need to start with a goal (outcome) focused on the consumer shopping experience and then put the necessary thought around steps to achieve the goal. Store remodels are very expensive–getting a return on that investment requires a thoughtful plan and very clearly defined expectations.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
11 years 8 months ago

The biggest peeve (and guaranteed sales limiter) is when retailers organize stores around what makes most sense to them instead of to their customers. Typically, you can easily figure out what the organization chart of a retail merchandising organization looks like by walking around a store. Ms. Buyer buys this category, so all of her stuff goes here. Mr. Buyer buys this category, so all his stuff goes here. This is not the way most customers shop. They come in for a solution.

The classic is “I want a hamburger”. First I go to the meat counter, then I look for the bakery, then I find the greengrocer, then I find the condiments. A study years ago attributed this layout to the growth of the fast food industry. Instead of going on this treasure hunt, the customer just went to Mickey D’s.

The only thing I’d add to Bob’s excellent list is “Force yourself to look at the layout like a customer.”

Marge Laney
11 years 8 months ago

I only can speak about store design from a customer point of view. So from that purview, I agree with Bob wholeheartedly. There is nothing more defeating to a customer than to walk into a store that is a cluttered riot of color with hand-made ‘clever’ signage. I always wonder if their presentation is that clueless, is the offering worth the price?

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 8 months ago

Store design and layout should follow the basic KISS rule. Make it easy for the customer to find not only what they are looking to buy; but also what they did not know they were going to find and buy.

Keep the display areas clean and neat. Don’t use the display racks for storage. Make it easy for the customer to find the size and color they are looking for.

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
11 years 8 months ago

Again the retail world ignores the real problems and fixes its focus on something the customer (you know–the one who’s spending money) couldn’t care less about.

I would suggest that retailers not focus on store design or redesign or resets. I would suggest that retailers allocate their resources to providing service. If you ask any consumer, they will tell you that their beef with retail is having to wait in line! Some retailers have addressed this issue via self checkout, but they can’t seem to keep the machines working. If you really want to do some meaningful redesign then redesign the stores for drive through.

I think consumers would value a retailer who wastes as little of their time as possible. All of this marketing that everyone seems to be obsessed with doesn’t seem to be working, as every month we have a different solution to the problem.

Eric Waldbaum
Eric Waldbaum
11 years 8 months ago

I am reminded of an anecdote from my very early days in supermarketing. Penn Fruit (the Philly-based chain, with its iconic vaulted and arched ceilings) was the apogee in architectural and store design. So, inevitably, its founder, Sam Cooke, is reputed to have engaged some experts to produce the next store design. The experts asked shoppers for their opinion, learning, inter alia, “put ice cream and fresh produce at the end (so they’ll be on the top of the shopping cart and stay cold longer).” Following mindful execution of interior layout modeled on such consumer requests, Penn Fruit launched it’s next store… in which store gross profit percent dropped dramatically as compared with earlier successful stores. The rest is history.

Cathy Briant
Cathy Briant
11 years 8 months ago

Many great comments here, especially about store layouts being more about the category managers than the shopper and their needs. There’s a great salad dressing commercial that wonders why the dressing aisle is so far away from the produce (or the “fresh aisle,” as they put it). Why indeed?

I would also suggest that effective store design is not an end result, but an ongoing commitment by the retailer. I’ve seen (and experienced) store remodels that cost a lot in terms of expense, extra employee labor and lost sales during the remodel, yet the store maintenance was insufficient to keep it looking fresh for more than a few months.

Aisles were widened only to be filled with too many POP displays, and shiny new coupon dispensers were broken off the shelves by strollers, shopping carts and motorized chairs/scooters. Effective store design takes merchandising discipline, and a real knowledge of how YOUR shoppers shop.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 8 months ago

One of my pet peeves around store design is pundits who think they’ve got a handle on truisms. “For a typical store in North America, customers naturally walk in and turn to the right.” Oh, yeah? It depends on which of the two or more door locations are used. If a customer uses the left-most door, they’re unlikely to turn right and cut through the checkout area to begin their shopping. Also, many single-door supermarkets are purposely designed as left-hand stores, channeling shoppers through preferred departments on that side of the store first.

Like Stephen Needel, another of my store design peeves is overhead signage. Not only is placement often inconvenient, but often incorrect. In several Raley’s stores here in the Sacramento area, the Incontinence departments in the pharmacy areas have overhead signs reading “Incontinents.” You’re smiling. I know you are.

Jerry Gelsomino
11 years 8 months ago
Thank you M. Jericho Banks! I’ve been arguing against that inaccurate assessment for years. First of all ask any member of the Retail Design Institute (formerly the Institute of Store Planners) and they will tell you that a good designer can create a store that drives the customer left, right, or up the middle. Only the weakest stores with a strategic floor plan are obviously the only ones visited by individuals that customers are like cattle. Having been associated with and strategic counselor to the store design industry for most of my professional career, in my writing and speeches, here are the critical elements to be addressed by store design. I won’t go into details as there is a book in here. Storefront Image – Your enticementTraffic pattern, flow, focal points and highlights – Unfold like a story bookLighting – Can’t buy it if you can’t see itMerchandise PresentationCashwraps and Service Stations – Where the promise of service is testedAmenities – From interactive play stations, to fitting rooms, to rest roomsPromotions – How does a… Read more »
Thomas Herrmann
Thomas Herrmann
11 years 8 months ago

Enjoying all the great comments and had a few additional thoughts for the discussion:

Shopping Valleys: Making a cohesive display of like items within the same aisle is customer friendly and with tie-in items featured on the end caps of those aisles, you invite the consumer to explore your merchandise selection.

Pricing: Have you ever gone to a garage sale or had one yourself? If a customer does not know the price of an item they will not buy it. It is true that over signage can become confusing to eye and discourage the sale, but nowhere near as bad as no price at all.

At the Register: You can’t display the whole store there! Some retailers have so much at the registers that you feel claustrophobic checking out. New novelty and impulse items go by the register. Clean, clear, and welcoming get more sales in the drawer.

Cleanliness: All the design and merchandising in the world will all go to waste if your store is not clean!


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