Grocery Store Design Is Terrible

It's almost like whoever designed the layout of the store is actually trying to trick us into staying inside of it longer.
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It's almost like whoever designed the layout of the store is actually trying to trick us into staying inside of it longer.
(Photo: ivenature/Flickr)

(Photo: ivenature/Flickr)

I hate going to the grocery store, and this is why.

Even if you walk into the store with a list of what you need—if you're smart, that list is written on analog paper and not hidden behind a smartphone swipe you have to fumble with every few minutes for access—those goals change during the shopping experience. You see a bargain too good to pass up, or suddenly remember the sour cream that's been festering in the back of the refrigerator since last August probably isn't good anymore. And only then, when you leave the dairy section and head to the fresh produce, do you realize you need to go back and get yogurt too.

It's almost like whoever designed the layout of the store is actually trying to trick us into staying inside of it longer. Rather than following a pre-determined path to obtain your items in an efficient manner, you criss-cross the same aisles over and over, over and over, until you finally give up and mope to the check-out where you have to make an immediate choice about the best line to get into—which, of course, it never is—or awkwardly pace and change your mind until the sweet embrace of death finally comes. One of those two options.

The point is: Grocery stores are the worst, and the problems have a lot to do with how they're designed.

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It's best to look at a supermarket not as one large entity, but as a bunch of smaller stores slammed against one another. A mall, but for food.

There's the dairy section, the meat and seafood counters, produce, the bakery, a section to procure flowers, and so on. All of these items end up at their final destination after being brought into the environment via a single area: the loading dock, likely in the rear of the store. After that, they have to be carried out to where they belong. The job of a grocery market designer, then, is to fit these pathways, these puzzle pieces, together in a way that makes the most sense. A lot of what they're being paid to do is make sure the path is an efficient one, at least for those that spend the most time at the store.

"In the past, supermarkets had this mentality of getting someone in the store and getting them lost in there."

"The biggest killer in grocery [profits] are labor and shrink," says Dan Phillips, from Phillips Enterprises, a design firm that specializes in supermarkets. Shrink is loss of product, ostensibly from theft, and labor is how much worker energy is wasted on non-optimal pathways. "If you're paying a person all day, you want to limit the amount of steps they take so they're most effective in their area." While designers stress the importance of workers having the most efficient paths, that worry does not always extend to the customer.

"In the past, supermarkets had this mentality of getting someone in the store and getting them lost in there," says Brad Knab of Mehmert Store Designs.

Consider the casino floor. There are lights and sounds that re-focus attention every micro-second, carpet on the ground to offer cushion for our feet, an open-flow space from the slot machines to the poker tables to the roulette. But what's more important is what's not there: clocks on the wall, bathrooms, escape routes. The reason is obvious—can't spend money if you're not present—and they point toward why supermarkets attempted to get their customers lost. While the mentality lingers, stores have become less about trapping their customers in mazes and more about directional coercion.

"If you enter a store and don't know which way to go, that's bad design," Knab says. Where you're supposed to go depends a lot on what the store wants to focus on. Some retailers that specialize in healthy foods want produce up front, to give the store the feel of a fresh market. Others want frozen goods in back, because it's the last thing someone wants before they head to the car. "You don't want to shop the store with a bucket of melting ice cream," Knab says. But more than anything, designers want to optimize the layout to give the customer an excuse to spend money.

As this brilliant post behind the psychology of grocery store design at the Frugal for Life blog explains, the flowers are up front to enhance the visuals, while the bakery is there to provide customers with luring scents. The back of the store is where the "quick trip" items—dairy, eggs, milk, meats—are positioned, in order to give customers more time to glance at other items as they travel there. This kind of design is in perfect conflict with the potential efficiency of a rushed customer.

How do we fix this? By blowing up the supermarket.

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The most obvious fix is going back to the old method of having a bunch of stores with shorter lists of items. You'd get your meat one place, and your bread elsewhere, and head to the market for your veggies and so on. This would cut down on the large numbers of people needing to be in any single space at once, and cause the shopping list to be less dramatic. But people love the convenience a single trip affords, so this isn't going to fly.

Instead, divide up the large grocery store into self-contained areas where people can pick up and purchase their single-category items. There could be a few registers at the front, sure. But also one in the dairy section, the meat section, the produce, and the bread, perhaps even in the frozen food aisle. Just tons of checkout options, so the single-category shoppers can get in and out without being forced into the muck of everyone else.

Beyond that, conformity could help: A standard map of which grocery departments are where would assist shoppers in getting in and out, particularly if the map was designed in a way that put the most-shopped-for items right up front. Or if you're one who enjoys the specific quirks of each store, keep the varied layouts, but use an algorithmic approach to the check-out process: A single weaving line that leads to a bank of check-out clerks, rather than the current free-for-all, could pay dividends. But beyond those tweaks, there's another aspect of the shopping adventure that makes the entire experience an unholy mess: having to push large, unwieldy pieces of metal.

As Gregory McNamee wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica:

One unavoidable facet [of supermarket shopping] is the shopping cart or trolley, invented in 1937, the brainchild of the grocery store manager in Oklahoma who theorized that the more food a shopper could carry, the more she or he was likely to buy. His theory immediately bore fruit in increased store sales.

This is not just bad news for our sanity, but for the environment: One doesn't need to be Columbo to draw a correlation between grocery markets luring consumers into unloading their money at the store and America throwing roughly 40 percent of its food into the trash.

So maybe the most effective fix is also the easiest: Get rid of the shopping cart. At the very least, make it a whole lot tinier than it is.

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