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The Art of the Layout: Everything You Need to Know about the Science of Store Design

It DOES make a difference in store sales.

by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (March 23, 2009)

Store planning and design has consistently been at the top of our list of things retailers need to do well in order to have a successful store. Merchandise will sell itself when a store's design is good, but when it's not, even the best product can sit on your shelves gathering dust. The purpose of your store's design is not merely to look pretty, its purpose is to create an environment that attracts customers, entices them to spend time in the store, and encourage them to purchase impulsively while they are there. It's a tall order, but it's easier than you might think.

That's because much of store planning is time-honored science. Professional store planners know that every single square foot of your sales floor has a specific job to do; you will, too, after reading this article. So whether you are opening a brand new store or perking up your existing one, these ideas will keep you on the right track:

Inside the Front Door

The first thing shoppers will notice inside your store is your décor package; we say package because all of the elements - walls, flooring, primary and accent colors, fixturing, signing, wall striping, etc. - must work together to tell a single story.

There are two kinds of colors used in store décor: Primary Colors (neutrals) and Secondary Colors (bold accent colors). Primary colors are used in 80% of the store's décor to create a relaxed atmosphere for customers to shop. Accent Colors are used in 20% of the store's décor to make it pop. Think of accent colors as attention grabbers.

Once, after a presentation on store design, a retailer approached us and asked if we'd take a look at photos of his newly remodeled store. His newly remodeled RED store. Instead of a store planner, he had hired an interior designer with wild ideas. The floors were shiny red, the fixtures were red, the walls were red, the checkout counters were red – you get the picture. Red is a dominant color, and exposure to that much color makes most people antsy. It's a great accent color because it stimulates shoppers to make quick decisions, but as a primary color it's a bust.

So we asked the retailer to place an associate at the front of his store for two weeks to clock how long customers stayed in the store. Just as we suspected, customers didn't stay in the store longer than they had to, and the retailer had to re-do his entire store to get sales back on track.

Which Store Layout is Right?

All store layouts are affected by the shape and size of the sales floor, but the common goal is to expose shoppers to product and to gain maximum traffic flow. There are three layouts that are typically used in store design, the Grid Layout, the Loop (Racetrack) Layout, and the Free Flow Layout.

In a Grid Layout, fixtures run parallel to the walls, so customers typically grab a shopping cart, start in a front corner and walk each and every aisle. Grid layouts are easy to shop because they offer clean sight lines throughout the entire store. Another plus: Grids allow for maximum End Feature exposure. Grid layouts can be found in grocery stores, but you will also find them utilized in many big box stores.

A Loop Layout offers a clearly defined main aisle that circles through the store like a race track. Fixture placement in a Loop Layout differs in different parts of the store: The perimeter fixtures run perpendicular to the wall, and the fixtures in the center of the loop run parallel to the side walls. In a Loop layout shoppers typically flow to the right and move up and down the aisles in a serpentine manner. Loop layouts offer maximum product exposure because the perimeter walls are just as important as the end features the layout leads customers to the wall each time they go down an aisle. Target and Best Buy are two good examples of stores that utilize a Loop layout.

Small and specialty retailers typically use a Free Flow Layout because it allows for the most creativity. In a Free Flow layout, there are no set aisles or straight lines. Instead, fixturing is placed at angles, encouraging shoppers to easily move throughout the store, where they will find new merchandise displays at every turn. This layout offers many opportunities to romance the merchandise and create lifestyle display vignettes.

If you already have a blueprint of your store, then you are ahead of the game. A blueprint will help you determine choice of layout and appropriate locations for merchandise departments. If you don't have one, don't worry! Get a large piece of paper and draw a schematic of your own. Measure both the sales floor and non-selling areas, carefully noting all the nuances including columns, doors, bathrooms, service areas, etc. Next, mount your schematic to a piece of foam core board, and overlay it with transparent tissue paper. Now, you will be able to merchandise and re-merchandise your sales floor on paper before you ever touch a fixture!

A Word about Fixturing

It's dangerous to fall in love with your store fixtures. Keep in mind that the true purpose of your fixtures is to house merchandise: you aren't supposed to see them. Target Stores come to mind as a good example of correct use of fixturing. When you think of Target you get an image of great product; what doesn't come to mind are the fixtures housing that great product. That's because Target makes the merchandise the star. The company uses basic gondolas and pegboard to maximize dollars per square foot, and display techniques to make the merchandise pop. Yes, you will find specialty fixturing peppered throughout the store, but they are used as features, not to house basic merchandise.

Fixture placement will depend upon your choice of layout. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires a minimum of 3'.6" in between fixtures. (Visit the ADA website at http://www.ada.gov for more information.) 3'.6" just makes sense; anything smaller and shoppers will be uncomfortable. Grab a shopping cart and maneuver the aisles. Can you do it easily? Do the same exercise with a wheel chair, a stroller, and a motorized scooter. If customers can't comfortably shop, they can't buy.

Lake Front Property

Some areas of your sales floor are more important an others. Think of them as prime real estate or lake front property. As shoppers walk in the front door, they should be surrounded by merchandise; this is not the place for the checkout counters or other service areas. Professional store planners know that if you mis-merchandise these areas, it will cost you in sales. Here are the key areas you need to pay close attention to throughout your store:

The Decompression Zone

The Decompression Zone is the space that's located just inside your front door. The size of your DZ will depend upon the size of your sales floor, but it's generally the first 5' to 15' inside the front door. Its purpose is to give shoppers a chance to transition from whatever happened in the parking lot, to your store – it refocuses the customer on shopping. Your DZ needs to be open, inviting, and easy to navigate. Understand that shoppers will miss anything you place here, that's why the DZ is not the place ideal for shopping carts, baskets, or signing because customers will blow right by them. Instead place these items just outside your DZ where shoppers are more likely to see them.

Speed Bumps

Just past the Decompression Zone is where you place fixtures known as Speed Bumps. These merchandise displays work much the same way as speed bumps in parking lots work: they slow customers down. They also grab their attention and introduce them to the cool product for sale in your store. Specialty fixturing, such as slat board 4-ways, make great Speed Bumps. Small tables work well, too. Use Speed Bumps to feature new and seasonal items, and to tell product stories. And be sure to rotate the product on your Speed Bumps at least once a week.

Attention! Right Turn Ahead!

Ninety percent of the customers who enter your store will turn to the right, so it's important to merchandise this area with care. Walk inside your front door, stop just past your Decompression Zone, and look to your right. The wall you see is called a Power Wall and it's another one of those key merchandising areas. And because it's the first wall shoppers see after turning right, it's a perception builder. If you use this area to house basic product you are making a mistake. Put your best foot forward by using this Power Wall to display important departments and new and seasonal items; to create vignettes; to tell product stories; and to feature high-demand and high-profit items. (Note: Your store has more than one Power Wall. Stand in various places throughout your store and look around; the walls that stand out are your Power Walls. If yours are non-descript, then use slat board to crop the corners, and you will create instant power walls.)

The Front Right Is NOT the Best Place for the Checkout Counter

A common mistake in store layout is placing the checkout counter at the right front of the store, smack dab in the middle of your lake front property. You may argue that it's nice to have someone right up front to say hello to shoppers as they enter the store, but that problem can be solved by a Greeter on busy days. Your checkout should be located at a natural stopping point in the shopping experience: the left side of the store, close to the front, is good choice.

And your checkout counter should be designed to sell! Embrace these five rules: 1. Give shoppers enough space to comfortably complete their transaction. This means room for a female shopper to place both her handbag and her purchase on the counter. 2. Create an interesting display of product behind the checkout counter. You want customers to continue shopping, even while waiting to pay for their purchases.3. Make sure that your policy signing is friendly, inviting, polite and positive – nuke the "NO! NO! NO's!". 4. Load up the checkout counter with "I have to have this!" impulse items (and "shut-up" toys as in "Mommy, can I have a ball?" "No." "Mommy, can I have a ball?" "No." "Mommy, can I have a ball?" "SHUT UP! WHAT COLOR DO YOU WANT!?"). 5. Stock items customers need, but frequently forget, under the checkout counters. Then when cashiers ask, "Did you find everything you were looking for today?" and the customer says "No! I forgot X; I'll get it next time." The cashier can simply reach under the counter and grab it - instant add-on sale!

Merchandise Outposts

The next time you are in a grocery store keep an eye out for displays of product that are placed near or in the aisles. These fixtures are called Merchandise Outposts, and their sole purpose is to encourage impulse purchases. Merchandise Outposts make shoppers stop and think, "I need that!" They provide the perfect opportunity to cross-merchandise in a big way. Department stores jump start sales by loading up the aisles during the holidays with Merchandise Outposts. You should, too.

After you read this article, take a trip to your local mall and study the bones of each store. You will see how these universal store planning truths have been tweaked for each application. And they will work in your store as well. Whether you are gearing up for a new store, or just in need of a sales floor shuffle, remember that you are not alone. If you're not sure what to do first, give us a call, or email photos and we'll share ideas to help get you started. We'll even pay for the call!

(Note: Professional speakers, authors, and consultants, Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender are nationally recognized experts on customer diversity, marketing & promotion, and everything that affects and interacts with consumers in the retail environment. Each year Kizer & Bender speak to thousands through their "Retail Adventures in the REAL World™" keynotes and seminars. Their unique consumer insights are widely featured in the media, including the ABC National News special report, "How Stores Hook You." Their book, Champagne Strategies on a Beer Budget!, has helped thousands of retailers improve their bottom line, and their "Retail Adventures™" Blog is visited by tens of thousands of readers each month. In 2004 they were named two of the "Most Influential People in Retail Today," and their popular magazine column, "Georganne & Rich on the Road," won the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Award of Excellence in 2004 and again in 2006.)

You'll find thousands of strategies, tactics, tip and techniques to help you grow your business on our Retail Adventures™ blog: http://www.kizerandbender.blogspot.com. We really mean it when we say to call us if you want to talk about your store. We know how tough it is right now, and we're happy to brainstorm ideas with you – we want you to succeed!



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