Pi Attitude Zone: Flexibility

Understanding the Supermarket Maze

Supermarkets are supposed to promote “shopping convenience”. So why does their layout resemble an obstacle course or a maze?

A penetrating analysis in The Economist has revealed key clues to this apparent contradiction. There is nothing random about supermarket layout and design. We are being guided by an invisible hand, which knows more about consumers’ peculiarities and foibles than we imagine.

Psychology is deployed in different ways depending where in the labyrinth we are. The first area we encounter is known as the de-compression zone, which mentally calms us down before we get exposed to exciting new stimuli. Visitors to Wal-Mart will encounter a “greeter”, who makes us feel welcome and powerful, and at least in theory diminishes our urge to shop-lift.  (It’s harder to steal from nice people, apparently).

Easily-distracted shoppers then find themselves drifting over to the racks of good on the left, where a “chill zone” will tempt you to browse aimlessly through DVD movies, music, books and magazines. The idea is to enhance the receptiveness and relaxed feelings of shoppers who stray into this area.

If you instead march smartly from the entrance straight to the front, you will find yourself in amongst the fresh fruit and vegetables. For the shopper this makes little sense. Filling the bottom of your shopping cart with lettuces, grapes, peaches and bananas first, before you load in the heavy bottles, tin cans and crates of beer, risks squashing all that soft and vulnerable fresh produce to pulp. Surely it would be logical if they located the fruit & veg at the end of your circuit of the store, not the beginning?

Far from it, it’s deliberate. Studies show that attractive and colorful fresh foods uplift the spirits, and make shoppers feel less guilty about buying ‘naughty’ indulgence foods later in the same shopping trip.

Why are daily staples like milk, butter and eggs always at the back of the store, usually in the far corners? Simple, dummy. It means you have to walk past all the stuff you didn’t know you wanted in order to get to the stuff you can’t do without. For the same reason, the in-store pharmacy is nearly always located at the back. They surround the line waiting to fill prescriptions with aspirational items like hair colorants, to tempt you while you wait.

High-demand items and special offers are placed at the half-way point on an aisle of otherwise uninteresting wares.  So if you want the goodies, you have to walk past a welter of purchase options that would otherwise never occur to you.

Pi says: what suggestible creatures we “hard-nosed shoppers” turn out to be!

Zone: Flexibility Country: Multiple Geographies Product – Retail