Retail Design May Be The Hardest Kind Of Design

Some important things first.

First of all, yes, I work in the retail industry. However, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own. They’re not those of my employer, nor do they reflect my time working for them. This shouldn’t be considered a professional analysis of the industry by any means, as the opinions expressed here are those of mine as a customer that, for better or worse, also works in the industry. This article is inspired by some of my recent experiences shopping at a retailer that recently completed a major renovation. While they make good use of their space from a business perspective, from a customer perspective, the new space is depressing. It’s dark, it’s cramped, and most importantly, it’s no longer welcoming.

The saying goes, “The customer is always right,” but are they really?

Whether you like it or not, at some point, a store you shop at is going to undergo some kind of major change. Sometimes it’s a change to keep up with the times, like modernizing checkout so you’re not stuck in queue forever. Sometimes it’s to combat shrink, like cutting back on the quantity of a specific product or cutting back on the varieties it comes in. Sometimes it’s as simple as changes to a lease agreement (not that leases are even remotely simple.) Ultimately, I would almost guarantee that the change will be billed as, “to better serve you,” but the harsh reality is there was a business need, usually decided by someone higher up the chain than on the store level. While a retailer may tell you they appreciate your feedback, almost no one actually reads it, especially if they’re a large corporation. Your feedback only gets read when it trips certain triggers in a system, and even then, it’s usually summarized by a machine before making it to a human.

It’s intentional that you can never find anything in the store.

If you’ve ever walked in to a store and thought products are never in the same place, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. While the grocery industry is likely the most guilty for constantly moving product around, they’re far from the only ones doing it. Any smart retailer will keep a close eye on item movement – its the competent ones that can figure out the trends behind them. If you think the ends of aisle change the most, you’re right. We call those “endcaps” in the industry, and advertisers will pay big money to have their product featured there.

That said, when things move around in stores, it’s usually not an entire department, but it’s not unusual for an entire department to move either. Any retailer worth their salt is going to be constantly evaluating customer flow, not just to make sure the inside of a store doesn’t become a parking lot, but to maximize sales.

Yes, you’re being tracked. With Facebook-levels of tracking.

When was the last time you completed a receipt survey? Did you do it because it offered something in return? That’s one very easy way to entice a customer to return, and your answers are worth a lot more to a company than the small amount of shrink an offer creates.

But now here’s a more important question: did you think they were anonymous? Well, they’re not, especially if you belong to a company’s loyalty program or have their credit/debit card.

Those numbers that look like they’re randomly generated usually are not. If you’re lucky, two or three of them actually are random, but the rest absolutely are being used to track you. It’s very common for them to identify the store you went to, how much you usually spend, what kind of product you buy, and what specific lane you checked out at. If you really want your survey to be anonymous – well closer to anonymous – don’t use a loyalty card and pay with cash every time. Even if you don’t have a loyalty card, if you pay with a credit/debit card, your survey can still be linked to that. While cards just passed card numbers in the magstripe days, they pass a lot more data now with chip or even contactless. It’s not just your card number getting captured any more: it’s your full name and address too.

But back to how those surveys are worth the small loss from a discount to a retailer. Surveys are a really easy way for a retailer to know what’s working in a store and what isn’t. Produce moldy again and multiple customers complaining about it? Time to change suppliers. Cat food still out of stock and it’s been reported for weeks? Time to increase the shipment allocation. Can’t find that special diet, organic, non-gmo soup? Time to eliminate the naturals section and just grow the soup aisle.

Just because the data says to do something, doesn’t mean you should.

What distinguishes a retailer from one that actually cares about customer experience from one that just cares about profits is when they decide not to act on data. Just because the data shows room for more product doesn’t mean more product should be crammed into the store. Likewise, just because you can downsize doesn’t mean that you should.

Yes, there is a lot of wasted space front of the house in most stores, but a cramped, dark store is not a welcoming store. Sure, a customer might be happy to be able to get everything they’re looking for in one store, but they’re unlikely to be one to stick around and explore a new department if they can’t easily get to it or it otherwise looks uninviting. Offer curbside pickup? Good luck ever making an impulse sale again if the interior of your store looks like it’s in a basement, even when its on the ground floor.

You want more signs? But how else are we supposed to make sure you intentionally get lost?

Perhaps the single most difficult part of retail design is signage, but signage is a struggle for any industry, especially public transport, although I would put designing signage for retail in a very close second. Advertisers are constantly trying to be the highest bidder to make sure their product stands out the most, but that advertising becomes a huge waste of money if a customer can’t find it. Looking for a store directory these days? Good luck finding a print one, especially in a single-floor store. Directories are now ad space. It’s far cheaper and easier to maintain one that is only in an app, especially when you have even more ad space with an app – and more oppertunity for customer tracking.

There’s a reason it’s very rare for an aisle to list everything in that aisle. It’s the same reason department stores have as little directional signage as possible. If you know exactly where something is, how likely are you to browse other areas on the way, let alone make an impulse buy from one of them?

Everything in retail is about balance. What matters is how that balance is allocated.

In short, retailers probably know a lot more about you as a customer than you might think. It’s very likely there are design choices you’d like to see a retailer make, but more often that not, there is a valid reason they won’t implement it. A good retailer is one that acts on data, but not all data. Balancing the needs of the store against those of a customer is definitely an art, but how much of that balance favors the customers rather than the company or its investors says a lot about the kind of company you’re shopping with. Just because you could be a store that carries everything doesn’t mean that you should. Yes, retailers intentionally move things around on you and try to make you get lost. I hate it too. Finally, think about how much you are giving up in return for loyalty offers; they’re designed to make you spend money, not save it.