Why store design is crucial for retail success

Ever wonder why milk is at the back of the supermarket?

Supermarkets are seen as the canny operators to study up on how their store design shapes what people buy. It all starts with where they put the milk.

“They know milk is a staple. They put it at the back of the store so they can engage with the customer all along the long walk to the milk,” Kangan Institute interior design teacher, Kate Carroll, told The Pulse.

Carroll has honed her skills in visual merchandising and interior design for 15 years, working with the likes of Ikea and Freedom Furniture on their store designs.

She says why supermarket operators can design their stores so effectively is thanks to their heap of customer data.

“With all the scanning technology, they’re really drilling down into what type of customer profile they have. They can tell from a shopping basket if you’re a mum, a single male or a student,” she said.

Small business owners may not have multimillion-dollar datasets to fall back on, but there are still small ways to use data and research to attract people to their stores and keep them there.

WATCH: 5 ways to attract customers to your store (and keep them there)


Grassroots data and “store blindness”


“In a small space, you can be watching the store overall and monitoring who’s activating certain spots and why,” said Carroll.

“Is it price driven? Is it because it’s easy to get to? Why aren’t they going to certain spots in the store? What’s missing? It can as simple as lighting sometimes.”

She said one of the bigger mistakes store owners made in store design and analysing how customers are using the store is that they get “store blindness”.

“It’s quite common when you go into that same space day-in-day-out you get tunnel vision. You lose a sense of perspective of your own store,” said Carroll.

“That’s why in larger chains you’ll see staff members moved around so they’re not locked into a certain layout. They can start to appreciate the layouts of other stores.”

One way to avoid store blindness is to ask others with no connection to your store about how they found shopping at your store.

READ: More resources to help retail businesses succeed

“Find some customers willing to share some time with you and their experience,” said Carroll.

“Focus on a certain thing each time.”

“Talk to people about how they found walking around the store. Was there was enough room? Did they like the colour scheme? A series of questions that pinpoint answers you need.”

She said the most important thing a small business owner could do when evaluating how their store’s design is working (or not) is to step into their customers’ shoes.

Many of the mistakes she sees business owners make come back to this fundamental point.


Function over form (but form’s still important)


Carroll said a common mistake people make with designing their store is getting caught up in the aesthetics. A space’s function is more important.

“The first thing I think about as a designer is the people who are occupying the space and for what purpose. Who’s using it? If you’re not thinking about that, you’re disregarding quite a lot in the design process,” she said.

She described a common problem, even among design students, is where they design a café and it looks wonderful – but there’s a catch.

“It will look great – they’ve considered the furniture. But they haven’t considered that people need room to move their chair out, physically get up and have people walking around,” said Carroll.

“That is a design choice that affects your customer’s experience with your store.”

However, she agrees that making your store look as visually appealing as possible and changing things up often was especially important now that more shoppers choose to shop online.

“Gone are the days where you do a fit-out for the next five to ten years and a huge amount of money is spent,” she said.

“It’s now more like a theatre set where it’s designed to be interchanged – because people get bored.

“People want more interaction in stores, more experiences – particularly because a store is competing with online where it’s way simpler to alter that customer experience.”

Whether thinking about form or function, she says what’s most important is focusing from the customers’ viewpoint.

“At the end of the day we’re all consumers, and we all have that retail experience,” said Carroll.

“We all know what kind of spaces we like and which ones we don’t – use that.”