Influencing customers with store layout

29th Aug 2016

In thousands of supermarkets across the country, shoppers are greeted not with the bread, milk and everyday essentials they came to buy, but with flowers.

Placing flowers, and often fresh produce, at the entrance of a supermarket creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the impression that everything in the store will be as fresh and natural as the flowers themselves, even if the store has more cans than cabbages.

This is just one of the ways that stores use layout to influence customers and drive purchases.

Store design is about far more than visuals. The best store layouts use clever psychological factors that influence customers on many levels. This overriding principle is what store architects have in mind when they draw up the plans for the shops we frequent every day.

What kind of theory goes into store layout?

The overarching theory behind retail design can be seen as an offshoot of a persuasive technique known as ‘nudge theory’. This theory is all about ‘nudging’ the public in a way that encourages them to do something, even though they may not necessarily know this is happening.

Store designers have used nudge theory for years to inform their decisions about store layout, subtly driving customers to make purchases.

How can store layout influence customer decisions?

In some way or another, almost every single retail outlet controls the customer’s journey through their store. Every element of a store’s layout has been thoroughly thought through. There are three main types of store layout, sometimes called ‘Guided Flow’, ‘Grid Flow’ and ‘Free Flow’.

A guided flow can be as simple as having separate ‘Entrance’ and ‘Exit’ doors at the front of a store, or as complicated as taking the customers around the store in a very specific route.

Guided flow is mostly used in furniture stores, but it is also used in stores that rely on impulse buying. IKEA stores, being furniture stores that encourage impulse buying, use guided flow to an extensive degree.

As Professor Alan Penn explains in a University College London lecture, IKEA’s guided flow disorientates the shopper in the initial showroom section, making them far more likely to make impulse purchases when they reach the more open marketplace section.

Even if a store is not as intricately architected, guided flow is helpful because it forces shoppers to view every product in the store before they leave, thus increasing the likelihood that they will buy something they didn’t know they wanted.

Grid flow is perhaps the most common layout used in retail design. Corner shops and supermarkets use grid layout to allow shoppers to take their own path to find what they want easily. In a similar way, fashion stores use free flow layout to allow ease of movement, and to encourage customers to feel comfortable and look around the store for a longer period of time.

The risk with these layouts is that customers will leave without seeing something they may have bought. To address this, other retail design theories and techniques are utilised.

How store layout brings products to customers

In stores where the customer journey is less strictly guided, it is important that the right customers see the right products. Store designers can do this by thinking carefully about where they want products to be, and how people will find them.

If a store with a grid layout places its most popular items at the back, customers will see many other items that they might pick up on their journey to find them. Supermarkets place bread and milk at the back, office supply stores place paper and cartridges at the back.

By doing this, these stores manage to maintain control over the customer experience without drawing attention to their guiding hand.

The placement of products on the shop floor is not the only important part of store design in product positioning. Their physical position on the shelves is another factor that can drive purchases.

Child-friendly items placed at a child’s eye-level are some of the biggest-selling products in most supermarkets and other retail stores. In this scenario, even though the parent is the one spending the money, the children have enough influence to make the purchase happen.

On the way out of a supermarket, checkouts are often lined with sweets, crisps and other tempting snacks. It doesn’t take a store layout expert to realise these items are here to turn children (or your inner child) into unsolicited salespeople for these snacks, urging you to buy them as everyone grows impatient in the queue.

Even though some chains have banned sweets from their checkouts, perhaps anticipating government legislation, they have replaced them with similar snack-type items with a lower calorie count, thus having the same effect on the buyer.

Through these techniques, stores all around the world influence customer behaviour in a powerful yet almost invisible way, making sure their customers get the most out of their stores, and that their stores get the most out of their customers.