Chaos by design

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 10, 2013 19:33 hrs

Prevailing wisdom in retail design dictates that retail spaces should be organised well. Display should be orderly. Think squares, cubes, rectangles when it comes to laying out the shop floor. In short, the dyed-in-the-wool retailer will go any lengths to arrange the world for his consumer - make it neat and predictable, well-balanced and completely without surprises.

Like it or not, as a shopper you may be in for some big changes. Thanks partly to the new bunch of international retailers that have entered the Indian market, home-grown retailers are using new tricks to keep the shoppers engaged. They are tinkering with their shop format and store blueprint and are moving things around with unfailing regularity. The idea is to disturb the order a wee bit - to maintain sufficient predictability and structure, but not so much that the world becomes frigid and inflexible. The idea is to make sure there is just enough chaos so that the shopper is gently pushed to explore a little more, but not so much that she loses patience and walks out.

But why disturb a formula that seems to be working fine? The new thinking is: the shopper may actually find comfort in chaos.

Consider the average shopper today. She knows what she wants, puts it down in her list, and heads to the place where she will get everything under one roof preferably or to someplace where she will get all the stuff in the same vicinity. This type of shopper is possibly every retailer's dream as she visits your store regularly, say twice or thrice a month, and may even be on your best customer list. So what's the problem? (Click here for tables)

The problem is that she is extremely comfortable with your store and its layout. Hence, she is usually in the 'auto pilot' mode where she probably enters the store with a definite path to purchase in mind, steers her way around, strikes off the items on her list as she puts them in her trolley, pays and walks out. That's probably how she likes it, but is the retailer really happy? How does the retailer ensure she explores a bit more, browses previously unattended sections, finds out about the new brands/products, which the store has started stocking? Or simply about the new options she really has?

The issue boils down to one simple insight: The aisles are designed around the way that the retailers categorise their range rather than helping customer discover or browse. The solution is also quite simple. Stopping power is necessary to get noticed in-store; so adding a bit of chaos to your design may actually serve the end quite well. It may break the monotony for the shopper and add variations to her path to purchase.

"In such a scenario, secondary category locations as well as point of sale materials strategically placed near affiliate categories or other locations must be communicated clearly to the consumers to disrupt their normal path to purchase," says Rima Gupta, executive director, TNS Consult. "To influence brand choice (in the auto-pilot mode shopper's case), one needs to move beyond the run-of the-mill price offs and discounts etc," adds Gupta.

Stop them in their tracks
That retail is the moment of truth is undeniable. And sometimes, the best of brands may find themselves failing on the count: Audi needs no introduction. So one wouldn't imagine sales being an issue with the brand. Yet, the company found that less than 50 per cent Audi buyers came back a second time. The problem wasn't the product, it was the dealership experience. The company hired a specialist agency that suggested multiple features like giant screens for buyers to navigate through the car's features, small desks for one-to-one interaction with sales personnel, specialised stations for one to experience different materials and so on. The result is yet to be seen. But the idea is simple. A great product can get you a consumer. The environment where the product is sold may, however, be your make or break moment, where the consumer undertakes the journey to becoming a shopper.

That explains why shopper behaviour analysis has emerged as a serious area of study. Piyush Kumar Sinha, professor, retail and marketing, and chairperson, Centre for Retailing at IIM-Ahmedabad, puts the retailer's dilemma quite succinctly when he says, "The same person may be a consumer as well as a shopper. And yet, she may have a different persona outside the store as a consumer and inside as a shopper. Moreover, each time she takes a trip to your store as a shopper, she will come with a different agenda. The question before the retailer is how do you successfully marry her varied agendas with her shopping experience every time?"

A recent study, titled 'Shop Talk' by IIM-A, TNS, KiE Square and Ogilvy Action, compares shopper behaviour trends at two hypermarket chains, namely Big Bazaar and Hypercity at two ends of the price spectrum. The study has thrown up some intriguing insights into not just the shopper's approach in these two chains but also challenged the basic understanding of 'who' the shopper really is. Commenting on the study, Rahul Saigal, VP, retail, OgilvyAction, says, "It seems like shoppers in India find comfort in chaos; most people familiar with urban India shouldn't be surprised with this."

One explanation for this could be the dominance of traditional trade in the Indian market and that a large chunk of shoppers have grown up with it. The local kiranas have almost made a virtue of thriving in chaos.

Another finding of the study has long-ranging repercussions for retailers. The average age of a hypermarket shopper is 32 years. And the youth (even from SEC B, C and D) are far less intimidated by hypermarket formats. They also visit hypermarkets as part of a casual outing or on an impulse.

The "casual outing" and "hypermarkets as entertainment options" are interesting notings in the study. It should explain, in part, the need for retail spaces to be slightly chaotic and, by that extension, sociable. Layouts that employ surgical precision in their design will achieve the opposite effect.

Look towards the hospitality industry for reaffirmation. For Continuum, a US-based firm specialising in design, one of their most important projects till date has been the reorganisation of the lobbies of 1,243 Holiday Inns to create a more social space. What the design firm did was arrange the bar and food areas so that they offered less 'open' spaces. Their reason: if people "bump" into each other, it would precipitate friendly conversations among strangers, lighten the mood and encourag guests to sit down for a drink.

How much is enough
Among the many pillars of retail design, adjacency analytics occupy a position of great import. Traditionally, adjacency analytics dictates that we place things like dog food next to cat food, wine next to beer and vegetables next to fruits-that is, allied categories should be close together. The low item-value in grocery shopping has been a key factor in keeping change at a distance. Then, there are retailers that have reimagined even what is common-sensical.

Take the convenience store chain, 7-Eleven in Japan. It has focused on clubbing associated categories according to the time of the day - for instance, the breakfast-type adjacency consists of fresh orange, milk, coffee, cereal and bowls, etc clubbed in one fixture. Buying groceries might not be an experience that people are willing to invest themselves in, but that doesn't mean groceries are low-priority. Retail consultant Brenda Soars explains in her essay on the subject: "Such time-of-day shopping strategy finds magazines first in flow in the morning; rice bowls at midday; and videos, beer and sake in the evening." Not strictly chaotic. But certainly not what the shopper is used to. It may be just enough to shake her out of the "auto pilot" mode for sure. Of course, Indian retailers are yet to take things that far.

They also understand too much of anything is never too good. And unabashed concentration on chaos may prove rather disconcerting for the average time-strapped shopper. Some of the retailers that The Strategist spoke to suggested disturbing only 25-30 per cent of the store to start with, an increasing the percentage gradually. The idea is not to alienate the loyal consumer.

Take this case quoted in an essay in the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management: "When Carrefour opened their first hypermarket in Tokyo, customers were quite happy to queue at first as it was a novel experience shopping in a hypermarket, but within six months they stopped shopping there, as they got tired of queueing and could not deal with the size of the store."

The essay goes on to highlight how people behave across a variety of retail environments and found that the store format tended to drive the behaviour more than culture, although culture did account for the spatial dynamics: "In the US, the spatial scale is different - shoppers are happy to drive a long way to a hypermarket to do all their shopping, whilst UK shoppers prefer to generally get most of their needs in five-six outlets - hence different behaviour to the US." Such understanding of shop floor-level specifics can help one understand the limits of chaos one can unleash upon shoppers.

While chaotic shelves may have a positive impact, one must keep aspects of design like the breadth of shopping aisles, number of check-out counters etc out of the ambit of chaos. The two are fairly different - one gets shoppers to buy more and push up their average time spent in the store whereas the other will bring down the shopping experience drastically. The reason is simple: nobody wants to bump trolleys all around the store or stand in serpentine queues.

But remember the rules of retail in India are far more different when compared to those abroad. So make a few of your own as you go along the way. Note this: hoteliers who lease their premises for exhibitions and conferences often get creative around closing time. They up the volume of the background music to drive out the stragglers. Similarly, as a retailer, all one needs is some relevant data and a whole dose of creativity.

More from Sify: