BrainTrust Query: Tell ’em Where to Go!

Oct 12, 2010

Commentary by Herb Sorensen, Scientific Advisor, TNS Retail and Shopper

a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an abstract from the
white paper, Tell’em Where to Go; Tell’em Which to Buy!,
from TNS Retail and Shopper. Click here for a copy of the white paper.

With 80 percent of shoppers’ time wasted in the store,
why do retailers generally ignore the importance of the speed of shopping?

The "typical" shopper comes through the door looking to buy a few items
and faces the problem of 30,000+ items scattered across a large sales floor. "Where
are those items?" "How will I know which of the hundreds offered I
should buy?" These twin time wasters also represent large opportunities.
Simply tell:

  • The shopper where to go.
  • Them what to buy.

The first of these opportunities – creating a single clear path for the shopper
through the store. Most stores offer overwhelming options, thousands of possible
paths for the shopper to navigate around the store. But even with all the options,
retailers can create a single dominant pathway. Hint: It’s easier for both
the store and the shopper to manage one path than thousands.

Since the U-turn
is the natural tendency of shoppers
every self-service retailer should guide shoppers through such a trip, in subtle
and effective ways.

Compare, for example, shoppers’ routes in a store with diffuse
paths (e.g., Safeway) with those in a store with a single "U-turn-type" path
(e.g., Stew Leonard’s).

This Safeway is a typical multi-aisle store, with
a nearly unlimited number of path possibilities. The U-turn is the most common
form in this store, but it is diffused across multiple aisles, essentially
multiple U-turn possibilities. The diffuse trips are reflected in the diffuse
trip lengths, in the five to 20-minute range. Such stores typically achieve
$15-30 million in annual sales. Contrast this with Stew Leonard’s, where most
shoppers have similar trip lengths, 15 to 30 minutes, on an identical "U-turn" path
delivering $100 million in sales. Stew Leonard’s converts a portion of that
80 percent wasted time to purchasing instead of worthless (to the retailer)
and frustrating (to the shopper) time spent wandering about the store.

An effective
U-turn path at Costco delivers similar outsize results — as much as one million
dollars per day in their top store. The selling results for four stores are
presented here for comparison:

The data show that although Walmart and Costco
have similar "average" trip
lengths, Costco has something like five times the basket size as the Walmart
Supercenter. Costco achieves this by selling at a much higher speed. For Walmart,
the few items most shoppers will want to buy are buried in an indiscriminate
sea of options, with no clear path that connects those products — no clear

With similarly broad category lines as the two stores, Costco manages
to sell a dollars worth of merchandise in a scant 15 seconds, while Walmart
Supercenter takes 73 seconds, nearly five times as long, once again confirming
that the faster you sell, the more you will sell. And a prominent U-turn can
play a role in that.

Discussion Questions: Are single-path store configurations the optimal selling
model across retail channels? Is "speed of shopping" as important
a metric regardless of channel? Where do you see store configurations heading
in the future?

Join the Discussion!

10 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Tell ’em Where to Go!"

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Dick Seesel

There is a lot of mixed evidence on this subject. Single-aisle formats may be less appropriate than racetracks for different kinds of stores…especially department and discount stores selling a variety of categories. Single-aisle doesn’t necessarily add to the simplicity and ease of shopping experience that some customers are looking for. There is also evidence that abbreviated store visits may detract from the size of the average purchase, so the merits of the argument are qualified at best.

Dr. Stephen Needel

To suggest that the faster you sell, the more you will sell is both silly and scientifically unsupported. Prices between the two stores are not comparable – on a package basis, Costco is much more expensive (because it’s sizes are larger). You need to separate grocery from general merchandise. Costco is much more likely to be a stock-up experience (due to fewer locations) whereas Wal-Mart is amenable to a quick trip for just a few items.

This does not mean that moving shoppers through an environment in a retailer-controlled path is a bad idea – it works for Whole Foods, Stew Leonard’s, IKEA and a number of other retailers. But anecdotal evidence should not be couched as science. This is especially true because the ability to scientifically test the hypothesis is a technique we have in our marketing research toolbox.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
6 years 10 months ago

This is an interesting discussion that highlights the complexity of isolating the key factors involved in driving 4-wall volume.

The analysis, however, has a certain amount of “apples vs. oranges” comparisons that don’t, in my view at least, drive the conclusions. Comparing Costco (fewer locations, broader categories, higher average ticket, etc.) to a neighborhood Safeway doesn’t make much sense to me. Ditto with Stew Leonard’s, comparing a 4-store chain in relatively high income markets with national chains.

This is, however, a great discussion to have for all 4-wall retailers and can indeed improve performance. The best approach is probably the simplest–try different configurations out within the same chain and pick the one with the superior results.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
6 years 10 months ago

Like “What Makes Sammy Run” we continually ask ourselves, “What Makes Retail Run–Faster that is?”

Herb poses some every interesting observations and statistics, which are well addressed by our colleagues above, so I will defer to them. But are there any constant answers to how to retail better? Costco does its thing well. So does Stew Leonard’s. But if everyone duplicated their processes would more goods be sold? Let’s hope so. It would guarantee to keep us counselors involved.

Connie Kski
Connie Kski
6 years 10 months ago

Many consumers actually find Stew Leonard’s very frustrating. Frequent shoppers pride themselves on knowing the shortcuts and cut throughs off the single path to avoid the tourist shopper and the big basket shopper and get from milk to veggies to checkout, in a single bound and bypassing the logjam of the meat department!

Steve Montgomery

I agree with Steve–the comparisons made may be mathematically accurate but I question their validity. The items, prices points, the rationale for the shopping trip, etc, are not the same in the two competitive sets. As I have heard it said many times correlation does not equal causality. That does not mean the concept is invalid but does mean the research quoted does not prove its validity.

Bernice Hurst

Coincidentally, I’ve just been looking at some stories about IKEA whose method of directing consumers around their premises (aka locking them in so they can’t get out without passing EVERY department even though they may have to go somewhere else to get the items they choose). I have no idea which other retailers are mad (stupid? brilliant?) enough to follow a similar path but apparently it works. See IKEA: an empire built on self-assembly

Also see: Tenth of all furniture bought in Britain is from Ikea for more plus some of the other reasons why this company is so very, very profitable.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

If all consumers conducted their shopping trips in the same manner, then we could find one optimal configuration. Since there is no one shopping style for all consumers, retailers need to find a configuration that best fits multiple styles. Creating one configuration of aisles and shopping path perpetuates the copy-cat mentality. Determining how your consumers shop will make it possible to configure a path that suits them.

Herb Sorensen
Ten years ago we showed that 80% of shoppers’ time is wasted, in a single supermarket. Since then, this has been confirmed with millions of shopping trips across dozens of stores, as well as a detailed study at Wharton–referenced in the supporting documentation. At that time I pointed out that there had to be a huge potential for increased sales from all that wasted time. Much of the past years I have spent looking for ways to recover the lost sales, and have identified (and published) multiple examples. At retail, there is virtually no such thing as an apples to apples comparison. Indeed, Dierbergs in St. Louis is the most consistent chain from store to store that I have ever seen, but still there are plenty of variables–demographics of neighborhoods, street traffic, etc., etc. So I heartily agree that “the research quoted does not prove its validity.” But “prove” is a variable quantity, and juries don’t always agree. But there is a more serious problem here: after being presented considerably more data than discussed here, a senior executive at a top 10 global chain told me, “The time doesn’t matter. All that matters is the price, and whether it was… Read more »
Rick Boretsky
Rick Boretsky
6 years 10 months ago

I totally dislike the IKEA format where you must be cattled through the entire store in a zigzag format in order to get to the ONE item you are looking for. It makes no sense. Lucky for IKEA, which has good products at great prices, that I still venture into their stores on occasion. I think it is best to have well signed stores, with clear directions to get you to the exact area you are looking for, when you are looking for that one specific item in a large format store. If I want to browse, then the up/down aisle format is fine.

I think the same is true for smaller specialty stores. These can be equally frustrating with hundreds/thousands of items to go through. Stores like Banana Republic, Abercrombie, etc, have lots of merchandise. Shirts/sweaters can be scattered throughout the store. Well-marked areas, based on type of merchandise, fashion type (or label), and even price (i.e. regular, discount, heavy discount) might be helpful.


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