In order to make life easier for shoppers Tesco recently announced that it is going to experiment by
putting certain food products in different positions within 50 of its stores, something it calls Project
Reset. The company suggests this could mean putting snacks like peanuts and crisps near where
the beer is positioned because these products often get consumed together. Tesco has also
mentioned that a similar idea is likely to be tried with Indian food: Rather than have the curry
sauces grouped with the other sauces while rice is many aisles away and naan bread lurks in the
bakery section, all Tesco's Indian food will be in the same place. You may think this is something so
trivial that it doesn't warrant any further thought, but it indicates one of the key issues in retailing
today – in trying to sell us more and more stuff, retailers waste an enormous amount of our time,
so convenience stores are anything but. This is something that is blatantly obvious to online
shoppers who are used to being able to quickly find what they intend to buy.
Let me explain the story so far: every day roughly one in seven of the population in the western
world visits a grocery supermarket blissfully ignorant of the enormous amount of thought that has
gone into how and which products are displayed where. This lack of awareness is partly because
for the last 50 years supermarkets have conditioned us psychologically and practically to subsume
our needs so that they can manipulate the choices we make, as well as our total number of
purchases. We thoughtlessly push shopping trolleys up and down the aisles like rats in a maze as
we search for the items we want to buy, (which are frequently moved) whilst being deliberately and
craftily exposed to products we might be tempted to buy on impulse. But as ever more of us
become accustomed to the convenience and speed with which we can buy our groceries online we
can’t help but be aware of all the dirty, delaying tricks played on us when we visit supermarkets.
Online, all the goods are laid out logically and clearly because the retailers want us to be able to
find what we need as speedily as possible lest we get distracted and log off. So we are able to
instantly compare and contrast various foodstuffs and choose exactly what we want, at the right
size and price for us. A huge difference to the physical retailers’ usual tactics of doing everything
possible to extend the customers’ dwell time in-store to prolong their potential buying time.
The concept of capturing shoppers to increase their potential buying time is called retail
merchandising and, as so much money is at stake, the placement of goods on a supermarket shelf
has become a pseudo-science. Visual merchandisers have always had a strong hand in trying to
get us to buy more products when we shop in any retail environment. But in the last few years a
combination of the threat from the discounters, who follow the maxim of pile it high and sell it
cheap, and the ruthless use of psychology and “big” data has taken the manipulation of customers
to much higher levels. Tesco is no different from any other supermarket group in its desire to
promote possible impulse purchases over usability. Most supermarkets have evolved their layouts
into a common pattern based on some very simple theories. See the typical super market layout
above. Flowers are always at the front of the shop and one of the first things you see as you enter
a store. This position, so the psychologists explain, is designed to make the store look attractive
and at the same time smell fresh, and it is unlikely that Tesco will end up moving the flower section.
But will Tesco be adventurous enough to go against the fundamental precept of supermarket
layouts which positions staple foods like bread, eggs and milk in different places deep within the
This is such a golden rule in grocery retailing that I don’t think Tesco will ever put these three
products together, though apparently they say they will listen to ideas from their customers who
want to make life easier for themselves. These three staples: bread, eggs and milk, are used in
many recipes so putting them together would make sense. And because they are generally
included on most people's shopping lists (real or imagined) it would also be much easier for the
average shopper if these goods were positioned at the front of the store. However, this is the point
where what Tesco says, and what they will actually do, is likely to be different. When it comes down
to a choice between usability and convenience for customers against the chance of enticing more
impulse purchases, you can bet your bottom dollar on what will be sacrificed.
Tesco is in a grim place financially primarily because of a poor decision to expand into the United
States that wasted over £2 billion. With a new manager in charge, and having sold their very
profitable Asian grocery chain, the company is now almost on an even keel financially. So they’re
lowering their prices a fraction and hiring more staff to “improve the shopping experience” in the
U.K. This is because their market share of the population’s shopping baskets has fallen as British
shoppers have migrated more than a quarter of their shopping to the German discounters Aldi and
Fifteen years ago, around the turn of the century, I used to have to explain the meaning of usability
to clients. I would say that usability was putting the milk in the front of a supermarket because it
was the most frequently purchased item, marketing meant it was positioned at the back of the
store. So usability means that you make it easier and faster for customers to find what they want
and pay for it, while marketing dictates you sneakily increase the time that customers have to
spend within the store to extend that valuable potential “buy time”.
Today, it is easy to measure the number of people who visit a specific Web page, how long they look
at it, and how many of them do, or do not, progress to making a purchase. Making these
observations in a physical store is far more difficult, and expensive, to measure, so it rarely gets
done. As a consequence supermarkets have very little idea of the sales they didn't make as they
only measure those that go through the cash registers.
By comparison supermarkets selling online quickly learnt that if shopping for groceries on their
Web sites wasn’t really easy, then people didn't buy, so they make selecting items, organising
delivery or collection and paying, as simple and quick as possible. Currently no physical
supermarket presents its customers with a list of the items they bought last time as they walk in
through the door but, here in the U.K,. most major supermarkets supply online tools to create
individual shopping lists and instantly find the items you wish to purchase. Just add the
appropriate brand or type of milk, eggs, bread or whatever to your list and it will be updated.
These sites also suggest tempting recipes using seasonal or “special offer” ingredients which, if
selected, automatically sends those required into our virtual shopping trollies.
Next time you are suffering the baffled rat syndrome in a supermarket: where have they put the
d****d coffee filters? And there’s no one around to ask, look out for some of the other marketing
Since a public fuss was made the “guilt free” zone filled with chocolates and sweets displayed at a
child friendly height by the checkout has largely been replaced by mobile phone top-up cards or
displays of the latest DVDs to tempt an adult impulse purchase. The psychology here is that this is
a reward zone. The relief of having got through the retail maze with the week’s groceries means
you are more likely to treat yourself with a little something. These zones can also be placed in
standalone displays on the way to the checkout. In the trade these are referred to as “impulse
zones,” “grab zones,” or “checkout arrays.”
Be wary of the “shop within a shop.” In an attempt to increase sales at higher prices a cunning
change of ambience is used. Whether it is cosmetics, digital cameras or wine this is a tried and
trusted technique. The psychology is that having bought your mundane baked beans and other
common items that cost comparatively little, you are more likely to add a pretty bottle of hand
cream, a scented candle, a cute little camera, or a bottle of expensive wine to your trolley if you
temporarily inhabit a more upmarket shop within a shop. Look out for a change of lighting and a
whiff of pleasant perfume, or notice the mock timber flooring or wooden barrels or casks in the
wine area. Within this distinctive space, there will be few, if any, discounted items.
Talking of discounts, the savvy shopper needs to be very alert when passing the “endcaps” of a
shopping aisle, sometimes referred to as “gondola ends.” This is where we have been conditioned
to see the special offers displayed. But it is also an expensive bit of real estate which
manufacturers compete to buy to display their brands. But stores can often get away with higher
prices at the aisle ends, partly due to the conditioning effect - because we expect an offer in this
position, and partly because there are no other products in view that invite comparison.
For retailers and manufactures the old adage is eye level is buy level, so only premium products
that are profitable to the retailer go on eye level shelf positions, and naturally manufacturers pay
more money to be displayed there. Recent eye tracking studies have shown that in a shopping
aisle the centre of our gaze is a bit lower than eye-level and retailers have adjusted their charges
accordingly. So spend time exploring the shelves at different heights, particularly the lowest ones,
as this is where the lower profit margin products are likely to be located.
Also beware the bogof (buy one get one free) and the bogoh (buy one get one half-price) traps,
where spurious price comparisons indicate reductions which are non-existent. The tricks are
endless. The colours and typefaces on posters, placards and labels urgently exhorting buy now!
offers have been artfully designed to seduce, and the lighting throughout a store is an art form in
itself. Ever noticed that those inviting, brilliantly hued fruits and vegetables look their normal
colour when they’re revealed at home? Then there’s music – a slower, softer tempo lulls you into
walking at a more relaxed pace so you see more, and your defences are lowered. Add the salivary
stimulant of the tantalising smell of freshly baking bread, and perhaps offers of free coffee and
newspapers, plus those discount vouchers “especially for you” which are begging to be redeemed,
and you find yourself almost enjoying shopping.
I could go on but just remember the position of products in a physical store is never about your
convenience, no matter what the company says. See how the fresh fruit and vegetables are placed
near the front of the store, like the flowers, so the store appears to be full of fresh produce and not
industrialised products full of fat and sugar? If retailers even considered usability they would
know their customers don't want fragile flowers, soft fruits, salads and vegetables at the bottom of
their trollies under hard, heavy objects like tins and bottles. They don’t make life easier for their
time-poor customers, or really value them, do they? But then an old cynic like me can also see that
supermarkets place no value on nutrition, only on profits. They were driven to stock organic and
local fresh produce, but they sell it at a hefty premium. They pay the minimum rate to the farmers
for their milk and meat and the growers for their produce and use milk as a loss leader. In short,
as far as healthy food is concerned, it’s a matter of buying it cheap and selling it as expensively as
So Tesco, which started as a discount store, has come full circle with Project Reset. It may be
slightly lowering its prices (by 3%) and altering the position of some items in an effort to win back
customers who’ve deserted in droves for the discounters. But far it’s too little, too late. It’s rather
like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and we know what happened then.
...with analysis & insight...
All at sea?