Think Like a Shopper to Optimize Your Retail Space

If you want to boost sales at your own shop, get out from behind the counter and start shopping.
June 05, 2012

If you want to boost retail sales, you need to go shopping—in your store. Take time to walk through it like you are shopper. This is going to help you organize your retail space in a way that encourages shoppers to make purchases. Their first step may be your most important.

The Entrance

Your entranceway is a place for decompression. It's where shoppers get their bearings. Give them room while they figure out where they want to go.

Jeff Weidauer, vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom, a retail marketing firm that handles retail space design, says there are a couple things he notices right away:

  • Smell: "If it smells mildewy or stale, that's an immediate turn off for shoppers," he says. It's also why grocery stores have their own bakeries—to fill the store with mouth-watering aromas.

  • The floor: "People want to see a clean floor when they walk in," he says. It gives shoppers the impression that the rest of the store is clean, too.

  • Obstacles: "If it's cluttered looking, that's going to turn me off," he says. Some stores have a tendency to put inventory in the way to make sure shoppers find it.

The Butt-Brush Effect

That last point is important because of something Paco Underhill calls the butt brush in his essential book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Underhill explains what works in retail based upon observations of how shoppers behave in stores.

And what doesn't work are displays placed at the entrance. When shoppers stop to browse or select products, they often are "brushed" from behind by another shopper. Underhill writes that shoppers—especially female shoppers—don't like being touched and will move on without buying anything from the display.

Also, Weidauer says about 75 percent of brand decisions are made at the shelves. Think about that when looking at the space around shelves and displays. If shoppers aren't comfortable in those areas, they won't make those decisions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Suzie West, a retail consultant specializing in visual merchandising and retail buying, says to put the best items—products with the best profit margins or highest revenue—toward the front. Put the sale or low-priced products in the back of the store.

"It's what we like to call ‘the wienie at the end of a stick,’" she says. "Basically, you climb over a lot of other things to ultimately get to that inexpensive item."

Not literally. You don't want shoppers climbing anything because Weidauer stresses that you want them to find things easily.

He cites a study that says the average supermarket shopping trip is 23 minutes. "If you can give them a way to accomplish what they need to accomplish in 15 minutes, they're likely to spot you the other eight and look around for some other stuff," he says.

That means shoppers may allot 23 minutes for a shopping trip and buy more than expected since they have extra time.

Put It All Together

How you organize products can make it easier for shoppers to find what they want to buy.

First, there is what West calls adjacency—organizing products by type. This is rather obvious. Stock all the boys clothing in one department. Cereal gets an aisle. Make it obvious and clear.

Second, is cross merchandising. For example, Weidauer talks about grocery stores offering "meal solutions." Help shoppers create a whole meal by stocking the necessary ingredients together.

West calls it compression. For example, a furniture store creates "rooms" that bring different pieces together.

Does It Work?

These principles are based upon studies. But you need to keep an eye on your own sales numbers to tell if it really works.

Sales are an obvious indicator that your retail space encourages purchasing. But West also likes to track the amount of time inventory spends on display. If you have security cameras, take some time to watch how shoppers move through the store. See if you can uncover high traffic areas previously hidden to you. Those could be spots to put products with high profit margins.

It's important to remember that you're not just a store owner. You're a shopper, too. Act like one and see what you find when you move through your store.

Carl Natale is a recovering journalist who now blogs about how small business owners can develop and improve their businesses. He shares ideas and tips on and as @CarlNatale on Twitter.

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