CPGmatters: S.C. Johnson Promotes ‘Reinventing’ Center Store of Supermarkets

Jan 13, 2009

By Dale Buss

Through a
special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current
article from the monthly e-zine, CPGmatters.

At industry conferences
lately as well as within his own company, David Milka, consumer insights
manager at S.C. Johnson & Co., is advocating nothing less than a “reinvention” of
the struggling center store based on shopper insights.

Mr. Milka points to the
stark contrast between what has been going on at the perimeter of the supermarket
with what hasn’t been happening in the center store. Thanks to initiatives
such as deli expansion, produce-department enhancement, and the addition
of sushi bars, the real estate along the outer rim of supermarkets has
been buzzing with improvement and excitement for several years. “Stores
perimeters have become warm, inviting, exciting, genuine and diverse,” Mr.
Milka says.

But the center store,
where S.C. Johnson brands reside, has remained “cold, obscure, boring
and non-differentiated,” he adds. And it is “really cluttered.”

In addition to retailers’
lack of focus on the center store, he says, there are at least two other
reasons it is struggling. For one thing, consumers can buy packaged goods
at so many other outlets, ranging from drug stores to dollar stores to
mass-merchant discounters. And, says Mr. Milka, consumers don’t have time
to browse the center store on a brief shopping trip.

What’s needed, he adds,
is a good understanding of category management and its evolution, with
an eye toward converting consumer and shopper insights into effective “reinvention” of
the center store.

One tactic that embraces
aspects of all three pieces of a center-store reinvention strategy is a
layout that alters the straight aisles of the area in exchange for a sort
of zig-zag layout like that found in many boutiques. Products would be
merchandised more clearly in highly related categories using pods and interactive
kiosks and creating many aisle adjacencies to tangential products and categories.

In general, design principles
for a “reinvented” center store should include broadening the
shopping experience by challenging norms, by rationalizing SKUs and by
establishing solutions-based merchandising, Milka says. He offers an example
of effective execution of this kind of design from the perimeter of a store:
a display that says, “Warm up” with some French-onion soup. All
the ingredients are right there, along with a recipe
– making everything easy for the shopper.

Milka says that retailers
and suppliers can “improve the shopping experience with visibility,
traffic flow and adjacencies.” Visibility concerns
“the comprehensive overview” of an area, while better traffic flow
can improve shoppers’ ability to shop. “And adjacencies integrate the
experience so you have everything in one easy location.” Breaking up
the shopping pattern, he says, can stimulate incremental spending.

Discussion Question:
What solutions do you have for improving the center aisles for supermarkets?
What do you think of Mr. Milka’s “zig-zag” layout concept? What’s causing
the struggles in the center store?

Join the Discussion!

12 Comments on "CPGmatters: S.C. Johnson Promotes ‘Reinventing’ Center Store of Supermarkets"

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James Tenser

I must say I believe discussions about the display configuration in Center Store largely misses the point. I think the revitalization (or continued relevance) of the Center Store must center on two core issues: comprehensive space and assortment planning, and store capacity based planning.

With the expansion of emphasis on the perimeter departments, it’s a given that the Center Store is facing a squeeze on space. This causes a complex of issues for merchandisers. Smaller categories must either trim assortments or days of supply. The former tactic risks loss of sales, and the latter changes the rhythm of replenishment, with negative consequences for implementation labor costs, effectiveness, and out-of-stocks.

A comprehensive capacity-based planning discipline is needed to address this: Get the space allocations right first, then tackle the related issues, such as shelf compliance, case pack size, shelf labor management and display design.

On that last point: supermarket displays must be designed for shoppability first, stockability second. Long straight gondola runs may seem unimaginative, but they are space-efficient and easy to navigate. Zig-zag layouts would only bring greater pressure on available space–and probably annoy decision-stressed shoppers.

Liz Crawford

I think the question for CPG manufacturers is how to increase dwell time in the aisle. Perhaps zigzag gondolas work for produce and other hunt-and-peck irregular items (check for freshness and smell), but might not work so well for uniform packages of goods. These goods are often simply re-stocking one’s cupboard, rather than carefully selecting unique merchandise. She probably would get frustrated because she would need more time to locate her regular products. (Turning the aisle into a maze.)

The questions seem to be these: How to increase dwell time? How to grab attention for new products and line extensions? How to generate “excitement” in low-involvement categories?

We have seen end cap displays, shelf talkers, in-store radio ads, in-store TV ads, and cart displays, among others. How about borrowing from other categories? Sampling with demonstration and a coupon (from food). “This aisle cleaned with Swiffer.” The use of fragrance technology to cue behavior for room fresheners (from bakery). Sample pieces of fabric cleaned with one detergent over another (modified from hair color swatches dangling at shelf). Innovation can increase dwell time, without frustrating the consumer’s attempt to locate her product.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
8 years 8 months ago

Zig-zag layouts would make it extremely difficult for the night crew to stock shelves and clean the floors. Think of all those corners to strip and wax! And consider the new security problems created with all the resulting hidden areas.

A layout that was tested some years ago by Kroger was the wheel & spoke, in which the fresh departments were all located in the center of the store with CPG aisles radiating outward. It positioned clerks to serve in more than one fresh department, but it was too difficult to connect them with all their behind-the-wall needs such as prep areas, ovens, freezers, and coolers.

Anne Howe
First off, I give a lot of credit to Dave for being a tireless advocate for center store category focused thinking that at the very root of it, is all about pleasing the shopper. Fundamentally, the shopping experience offered in grocery center store aisles, just doesn’t give shoppers anything at all to get excited about. Personally, I’d love to test an inside perimeter concept, with many test stations. I’d set up a section that’s all about time management, with perhaps the top 100 SKUs all merchandised for a true “quick trips” as Herb Sorenesen advocates in his research about the Big Head! And then, as Dave suggests, in a more meandering inside perimeter set up, I’d try to set up “solution” concepts for shoppers. What about an ECO area, with all the green household products and an information resource included for learning if you have time or desire to explore. Or even a low sodium section for all packaged foods that meet the guidelines we really do want to follow…so we don’t have to read every label every time we shop…. There truly are endless shopper-inspired “solution” concepts to test. Let the shoppers help get it right…think how involved shoppers… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel

The discussion questions assume there is a problem with the center aisles–I’m not sure this is true or that there is as severe a problem as the article suggests. Much of the center aisles are long purchase cycle products–especially the ones marketed by SCJ. Putting bug spray on a zig-zagged display is unlikely to get anyone to buy it, unless they have a bug problem.

What struggles there are in the center aisle of grocery stores is that grocers may have overestimated the value of one-stop shopping. While we have heard for years about convenience, lack of free time, shoppers in a hurry, etc, they are still willing to go to Walmart for much of their center aisle needs. The only way you’re going to compete with that is on price, and you’ll lose as a grocer on that basis.

What’s the solution? Worry a little less about the center aisles, merchandise them better, clean up the assortment, look for meaningful variety that may trump Walmart’s price advantage.

Doron Levy
Doron Levy
8 years 8 months ago

There is a general lack of focus on the center aisles and the reason for that is 2 fold. Firstly, margins are really low on most brand-name household SKUs so as a manager, why would I spend time on an area that isn’t as profitable as prepared hot or bakery? Secondly, customers are generally bored of walking down aisles and looking at shelves. If you look at traffic flow of your average supermarket, you will see congestion on the outer boundaries of the store. Areas such as fresh produce, fresh meat and bakery will attract more shoppers than aisles will.

Another reason could be environmental. Anything green and new will come with a displayer or some other merchandising tool. I have always liked zigzag formats as they break up the general monotony of straight aisles. If I had my way, I would say kill all the aisles all together and go to a pod format. Customers who can see the back of the store are more likely to travel through the center of it.

Michael L. Howatt
Michael L. Howatt
8 years 8 months ago

I’m thinking I will align myself along with Steve. The center store concept should be made up of items that people want to find. They know they want it, then they will know where to get it. Do you think Kroger is going to spend millions of dollars to make baby powder more exciting?

What needs to be done is that for categories where there is choice, let’s make these areas more consumer-driven. Make manufacturers provide POP, price breaks and other “exciting” elements to draw people to these categories. No, not interactive kiosks (they are a waste and the kids will break them in no time and then they are useless) but give people what they want…good products at a reasonable price and suggestions on how to make their lives easier and healthier.

Barton A. Weitz
Barton A. Weitz
8 years 8 months ago

There are good reasons for supermarkets using the traditional grid layout rather than a boutique layout. The grid layout maximizes the amount of merchandise that can be displayed and makes it very easy for customers to locate what they want to buy. Most supermarket shoppers do not enjoy the experience of grocery shopping and want to get the task completed in as little time as possible. A zig-zag layout might encourage more time spent in the “center section” but might also make it less convenient for customers. However, supermarket retailers could do a better job of merchandising the aisles in a grid layout. Sections could be devoted to problem solution areas, for changing presentations of new products, and for concepts such as ethnic foods or green cleaning products.

Marty Walker
Marty Walker
8 years 8 months ago

I too am a bit skeptical of the degree of “problems” with the center store. Yes, they are boring and redundant; also efficient and sustaining. I believe there’s a little display envy involved; a “me too” desire on the CPG part to have the same excitement that the perimeter categories bring. The difference is differentiation; bakeries, pharmacies, meat counters, produce sections, etc, are what separates supermarkets from one another, versus cleaning products, pet foods, and canned goods.

I could see a limited center store treatment with manned counters (another challenge) for cosmetics, specialty foods or the like; I agree it could generate interest as long as they pay back in differentiation and space/people investment.

As for the zig-zag, I’d be careful. Words like “browse” aren’t at the top of supermarket customer motives. This environment still holds deeply to time efficiency, familiarity, and speed of service. My guess is those boring aisles still pay the rent and keep the carts filled and moving.

Jade Ranes
Jade Ranes
8 years 8 months ago
Coming from a “shopper/consumer” perspective, I would be very annoyed at my local Kroger store if they switched to a zig-zag approach. I tried shopping at Central Market (zig-zag or maze approach to layouts) and it took me almost 2 hours to get through the store with my bi-weekly list–2 HOURS! I do not have 2 hours to spend trying to locate items and the exit. Central Market has more choices in fresh foods and hard to find items, but the time it took was not worth it for me. Walmart is not much better–I don’t want to have to cross the entire store just to get dog food & hair care items vs. basic groceries. I have been reading everyone’s comments for a few years now and we all seem to be missing the mark with category management. I believe we over think it too much. Give me a good price on items that I use. Have a good selection of items. Keep the store clean and well lit (same goes for the parking lot). Train your clerks/associates to smile and act like they enjoy being there. Do this, and I will continue to shop there.
Michael Murphy, Ph.D.
Michael Murphy, Ph.D.
8 years 8 months ago

Regardless of whether center store is shrinking or what aisle arrangement (grid, zigzag, pod) is used, manufacturers need to make tough choices about which products to offer. A strong approach to SKU rationalization will help manufacturers understand how reducing their SKUs influences the sales of other SKUs and where the optimal balance exists. While in-store tests of assortments are likely to be expensive, reliance on technologies such as virtual shopping can help manufacturers identify that optimal product mix, as well as understand the benefits of adjacencies and solution-based product organization.

Tony Burkardt
Tony Burkardt
8 years 7 months ago

Store execution still remains a major problem, not to mention the disconnect between department heads. To me, center store needs to be its own profit center with one manager in control who can work both GM and Food together, eliminating the red tape and confusion over who’s accountable.

Also, with self-service kiosks now offering touchpoints for product location, creating your own shopping list, RX, order deli, wine, pet supplies, gift cards, etc, it brings a whole new light to what the center store could be. It’s all about value-added services while minimizing the cost and making it easier for the consumer to shop for all of their needs. The one-stop shop, made easier.

Let’s not forget shopping online; whatever you can do in the store, you can do at on the retailers web site.


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