Mission Control

When you ask people how much of a supermarket (how many aisles) they visit when they go shopping, a large proportion will tell you that they visit nearly all of it. In fact this is far from the truth. We know this from studying shopper behavior in supermarkets using CCTV video footage to monitor shopper traffic.

In fact when we enter a store we generally navigate a route around its perimeter and dip in and out of the central aisles according to our needs. This perimeter or “race track” is designed to have a wider walkway both to accommodate a larger amount of footfall but also to encourage our behavior since we naturally tend to migrate towards open spaces and avoid confinement. Retailers know this and make sure they position their key products, the things they know most people will buy, such as meat, produce and bread on the race track so that as many people as possible are exposed, and end up buying from these product categories.

For the manufacturers of branded products such as baked beans or soft drinks the race track is also a desirable place for their products to be positioned in order to gain maximum exposure to shoppers. As such this space is highly sought after and brand owners must propose attractive discounts in order to secure this space for even a short time window.

The central aisles of the store, because they are less widely and frequently visited by shoppers actually account for proportionately less of the sales of a typical supermarket than you might think. Most of the products in the store, those in the central aisles, actually do not sell in high volume and consequently the aisles in which they reside are said to have a lower “sales density”. This lower volume majority of products are what is known as the “long tail” of the product offering. However it is not to say that the long tail is inconsequential. Whilst relatively few units of an individual product in the long tail may be sold, these products do serve the purpose of catering to every eventuality and in doing so also give us, as shoppers, a sense of variety which drives us to choose that store over another in the first place.

Because shopping occurs in a variety of circumstances and for different objectives the same store may be used in very different ways from one trip to the next.

So on one occasion a shopper may visit a store with the aim of buying a lot of items, perhaps to stock up the cupboards for the week or month ahead and may visit the store to do this when there is more time such as on a Saturday, but consequently the shopper may also have other family members in tow. In these circumstances the shopper may visit more of the store and penetrate deeper into the centre aisles and be more inclined to look for deals, make discretionary purchases and when the cart is full, may well approach the checkouts at a point further away from the stores entrance.

On another occasion the same shopper may need to pick up the specific items needed to prepare a meal for the evening and so be visiting the store on the way home from work. There may be the added pressure of having to get to a child minder before being charged for a late pick-up and after a hard day at work the shopper may not be in the mood to do the shopping at all. Armed with a hand basket he or she may not venture so far into the store, choosing to shop only the fresh and chilled sections closest to the entrance and be on the lookout for the shortest queue in the interests of saving time.

On another occasion again the shopper may visit the store late on a Saturday afternoon, having just realised that they have run out of herbs for the dish that’s being prepared for the dinner guests who are due to arrive at 8pm. While the pans as they bubble away on the stove, only the quickest trip will prevent everything from being ruined. Whilst on the emergency run for herbs the shopper may forgo a carrier altogether but yet journey deep into the store looking for the one item on the list.

How the store itself is laid out, the signage, position of products in secondary locations away from a main category aisle and configuration of checkout banks all impact differently on the shopper’s experience from one mission to the next, dictating how efficiently she can go about her business and what she buys.

Observing shoppers en-mass in these different circumstances, evaluating where they go in the store and how they use their time can provide valuable insight enabling retailers to develop better store environments which both improve the shopping experience and lead to stronger profitability across all or selected target missions.

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