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Designing the Most Profitable Retail Space

I suppose the first thing to admit is that designing a ‘perfect’ retail space is as close to an impossible task as you could devise. Massive department stores and supermarkets don’t always get it right; even with all of their resources and without the space constraints that smaller retailers often contend with.

Big stores can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds with retail psychologists trying to understand how people move around shops and how they interact with displays. And although you can only get a full picture through detailed and painstaking observation, there are some accepted and documented principles that you can use to improve the effectiveness of any shop. Here are a few.


1. Know When People Are Really In Your Shop

When somebody enters your shop they’re likely to start by looking up, trying to find clues to guide them towards what they were looking for. Their vision will be highly selective and they’ll take in a small percentage of what’s in their field of view. They’ll also carry on walking. Anything you place to the sides immediately inside the shop entrance is likely to get ignored.

Retail psychologist Paco Underhill (whose studies informed much of this article) talks about  a ‘decompression zone’ immediately inside the shop entrance where shoppers adjust to their new environment. Tactics to reduce the effect of this are bold vertical displays immediately inside the entrance to make people pause, or displays slightly outside the entrance - as you often see with shoe shops.


2. Put Shopping Baskets Where People Need Them

Shopping Baskets

People buy more when they use a shopping basket. This happens for a very simple reason: they only have two hands with a very limited capacity. Observations repeatedly show that people will stop shopping when their hands are full but they’ll carry on if they have a basket.

The style of basket also seems to make a difference, particularly if it’s appropriate for the type of merchandise. Ikea didn’t come up with the slingy over the shoulder shopping bags by accident – research showed that they were appropriate for the shopping experience and improved sales. That’s why wicker shopping baskets work better than wire ones if you want to create a natural or ‘organic’ shopping environment.

Placing shopping baskets immediately inside the shop entrance might not be the most effective location (see point 1); they might get missed and customers might not immediately see the need.

Why not experiment with placing shopping baskets in different locations around your shop to see where they get the most use. The ideal location might be just at the point where somebody’s hands get too full for comfort. Every time you can get somebody to pick up a basket they are almost certain to spend more than if they didn’t.  

Using a stand will lift the baskets, making them easier to see and avoiding the need for your customers to bend down to pick them up.



3. Remember Lines Of Sight

We walk straight ahead. Which means that a large part of our attention is also normally focused straight ahead.  Rows of products placed to our side mean that we end up walking slightly sideways, distracted by things ahead of us (like obstacles and other shoppers) in our peripheral vision.

The more flexibility you have for creating product displays, the more opportunity you have to place products directly in front of shoppers where they get their full attention.

Free standing, floor-mounted stands, for example, might allow you to turn shelves into a herringbone array so that they are face-on to your customers. This is slightly less space efficient, but if it means that more of your high margin products get seen, it might be worth the trade-off. Again, experimentation is the best way forward.

Display space is always at a premium. Having fewer of each item on display can cut down on the amount of shelf space you need. This can also reduce ‘visual overload’ and allow customers more space to circulate around your shop and see everything you have to offer.  Display stands with baskets rather than fixed shelves mean that you can quickly remove and restock the baskets without having to clutter up the sales floor while you do it.



4. Know Your Congestion Points


It also helps to understand where people tend to stop and congregate in your shop. The cash desk is an obvious candidate. What does this mean for the visibility of special offer signs and key products if there’s a queue or crowd of people in front of them?

For small and medium sized retail spaces, display units that can easily be repositioned so that you can find the most profitable configuration are likely to pay big dividends. Unexpectedly low sales of a particular product often indicate that it’s simply in the wrong place or that there’s something preventing people from seeing it. It is harder to do anything about this if you have heavy or fixed shelving.

Pay particular attention to what people see when they are queuing to pay. They have stopped actively searching and will possibly be looking for a distraction while they wait – perfect conditions for an impulse buy. Experiment with different products in counter-top displays at the point of sale to discover which ones are most attractive.



5. The Quality Of Displays Makes A Difference

Ladder Stand


Psychologists have proved that the same wine from a more expensive looking bottle or served in a room with subdued lighting ‘tastes’ better. Similarly the quality of retail display units you use will make the goods you sell more or less appealing.  

Shoppers will tell you this isn’t the case and that they make rational decisions based on the intrinsic value of each product. This is what we would all like to believe but it isn’t how we behave when we buy things.

The environment, lighting and the way things are displayed have a tremendous influence on behaviour and ultimately on margins. We put a lot of care into the design and finish of our retail display stands for exactly this reason.

In practice, retail space planning is always a bit of a compromise. But understanding the psychology and having display units that offer maximum flexibility will always help you make more profitable use of the space you have.


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Posted in: Shop Display