Store Design

What you'll learn to do: Identify the key objectives of good store design

As a store owner, it would be great if you could be standing at the door every time a customer enters. You could greet that customer, tell him you want him to feel welcome and relaxed, and show him all the products you’re most interested in selling him. You could point out that, if he purchases gadget #1, he should definitely purchase gadget #2 to go with it, as owners usually find the two work well in tandem. And does he have a widget? No? Well, there’s a topic of discussion on the way to the cash register . . .

That would be nice, but it’s not possible a lot of the time. So a good store layout does the hosting for you. It draws your customer in, perhaps introduces him to products that he didn’t know he needed. It informs the mood of the customer, draws his eye to merchandise in a way that influences shopping decisions, and, in general, allows him to experience the store in a way that encourages buying.

Shoppers make up to 80% of their purchasing decisions while they’re in the store.[2] Store design—everything from the height of the shelf to the carpet on the floor—can help influence those shoppers in a way that’s favorable to the sale.

In this module, we’ll learn the general types of store layouts and the messages they send to the customer. You’ll learn how a store design can influence sales and control your costs.

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain how store design can create a positive shopping experience for customers
  • Use an example of store design that would likely impact sales
  • Describe how a store can use design to control costs

Design and the Shopping Experience

Before we even start talking about store design, we should go over a couple of customer behaviors that inform those designs. Mainly,

  • Shoppers walk counterclockwise. Every time you enter a mall, a supermarket, the corner store, you will veer to the right if you’re able. It’s just what people do.
  • Shoppers avoid upper and lower floors. In fact, shoppers really enjoy staying on the same floor they started on when they entered the store.
  • Shoppers hate narrow aisles. In most cultures, that is. If customers have to pass each other at an uncomfortably close distance, they won’t go down the aisle.
  • Shoppers need to “orient” themselves. Referred to sometimes as the “transition zone” or “decompression zone,” this is the area where a customer gets used to the idea that he or she is in a store. It’s where they stop to see which way they might go. Usually there are shopping carts and welcome signs in this area, but not much else, because customers aren’t yet ready to focus on the shopping experience.

If your store design were to go against the grain of those customer idiosyncrasies, you’d already be at a disadvantage.

A store layout will show the size of each department, any permanent structures, shelving and other fixtures, and even customer traffic patterns. Let’s talk about a couple common layouts we see retailers using today, and how they affect the shopping experience.

Grid Layout

floorplan with shelves in rowsThe grid store layout maximizes retail space and allows for the use of the walls, corner spaces, and any purchase retail displays. New store owners will often start with a grid display for their stores because it’s also the most economical choice—it makes use of everything in your store.

The grid store layout can be found in drugstores, like CVS and Walgreens, because they can pack a lot of products into the space. The drawback of the grid plan is that it usually interferes with a customer’s line of site, which is why you’ll often see aisles numbered and signs hanging from the ceiling, indicating which products can be found. On the other hand, the grid format doesn’t have to be used to “pack products in.” In fact, Apple uses the grid format to display their minimalist product line . . . and to great effect.

Photograph of an apple store layout. There are two rows of three tables. Each table has just a few items displayed on each surface.

Angular Layout

floor plan with circular and oval shaped tables/shelves.An angular store plan is best used for high-end products and a minimal inventory, because the display itself takes up a lot of space. Curved fixtures are set up in different areas of the store and show off only a few of a particular kind of product, sending the message to customers that it’s the last one of the bunch and they should “buy now!”

Jewelry stores and high-end clothing stores are most likely to use an angular store layout.

Geometric Layout

floor plan with square and triangular shaped displaysIf “hip and trendy” is the message you’re trying to convey, or if Millennials are your target customers, then the geometric store layout may be the answer to your prayers. You can get an interesting, not-so-ordinary effect without breaking the pocketbook.

Most of the time apparel stores are going to use the geometric store design, positioning fixtures at odd angles to achieve an interesting affect.

Photograph of a clothing store interior. The shelfs are placed at 90 and 45 degree angles from one another, creating a more trendy vibe.

Other layouts

floorplan with shelves in diagonal rowsDiagonal Layout

In a diagonal layout, a retailer can still maximize wall space to display product the way he can when he sets up in a grid layout, but this solves some of the line-of-sight issues the grid format poses. Upon walking in, the customer can actually see a lot more product.

Racetrack (or “Loop”) Layout

floor plan with shelves in a loop layoutIn a racetrack, or loop, layout, the customer enters the store and follows the path around the store, eventually returning to the front of the store to check out. Borders Books, now defunct, used the racetrack layout in their stores, which is not uncommon in large book stores. Bed, Bath and Beyond uses a racetrack layout very effectively. Often, department stores will set up each floor in a racetrack format, allowing customers to visit different departments along the way. Sears has a definite racetrack loop in most of its stores. This layout can also be used effectively in smaller, more high-end stores.

Photograph of an Armani Jeans store. There is merchandise along the exterior walls of the store, and a center shelf with merchandise throughout the middle of the store.

Forced Path Layout

floor plan with shelves in a way that creates a path with only one way to go.This is usually not a customer’s favorite kind of layout because it does not allow for customer-driven shopping decisions. Every once in a while, though, a retailer uses the forced path layout to its maximum potential.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this layout is IKEA; while the stores are often massive, there is a prescribed path that takes customers through every part of the store (with helpful arrows on the ground!).

Photograph of an IKEA storefront.

floor plan with many different layouts, such as shelves in diagonal form, circular tables, and scattered shelves.Mixed (or “Free Form”) Layout

Suitable for almost any retailer, mixed layouts allow you to borrow the best from all of the layouts to highlight your products. This can be especially effective in stores that offer different types of products.

Target is an excellent example of a store using a mixed layout—grid in their grocery area, but geometric and angular in others, depending on the product being displayed.

Photograph of a Target store, using both Geometric and Grid layouts

Which to Use?

Each one of these layouts sends a different message to the shopper and promotes a particular kind of shopping experience. A retailer has to consider the type of product being sold and the amount of inventory being displayed, the target demographic, and the budget he has to work with before he can determine which is the correct layout for his store.

Practice Questions

Design and Sales

IKEA: A Case Study in Leveraging Store Layout to Impact Sales

We mentioned in the last section that the forced path layout is not the most logical or pleasant shopping experience for the customer, who more often likes to wander around at his leisure, looking at the things he wants to see, when he wants to see them. Imagine, for instance, if your grocery store was set up in a forced path layout. You’d have to go through the baby food section even if you didn’t have kids. You’d go past alcohol even if you weren’t a drinker, and through the junk food section even if you were on a diet. No one wants to waste their time on a forced path layout, right?

IKEA begs to differ. In fact, IKEA breaks all the rules, and yet they win in the end.

Photograph of an IKEA store frontWe learned that customers like to shop on the same floor they entered the store on. Not at IKEA. Almost always, a shopper enters the store and is shepherded right up an escalator to the second floor, like in the diagram above.

We learned that customers also like to start out going to the right. Not at IKEA. Left is okay at IKEA. Clockwise is also very okay at IKEA. In the diagram above, people head to their left and start their way around the display showrooms. And, before you question it . . . you almost never see people going in the opposite direction of the suggested path. That’s not okay at IKEA.

Finally, we learned that people like wide aisles, which IKEA features in their paths . . . but not in their room displays. And yet, in an IKEA display, people will gather three and four deep to marvel at how the Swedish can live so economically in such a small amount of space.

IKEA breaks all the rules, and yet it provides a shopping experience beyond all others. Shoppers clamor for it. So why does this forced path floor plan work for them?

Alan Penn, director of the Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment, claims, “IKEA’s store layout is a psychological weapon used to confuse and disorientate (sic) shoppers into spending more.”

Learn More

You can watch Alan Penn's full lecture here:

At first blush, you may not think such a thing is even possible, but it’s absolutely true. Think about the simplest form of that: You find something you like as you’re wandering through the maze of rooms, and you’re afraid to put it down for fear you may not find it again. You carry it around with you, and then finally buy it, because you still have it with you when you reach the checkout area.

This also holds true for the flat-packed furniture the customer will pick up later in the warehouse. As they roam the IKEA offerings in the showroom, they can’t pick up the item right where they see it. They have to grab a slip of paper and write down the location of that item in the warehouse, which is the second part of the IKEA experience. Which table does the customer want? Well, maybe this one, maybe that. He writes them both down, and then finds they’re so inexpensive when he gets to the warehouse that he buys both. At this point, he’s seen how adaptable the piece is. It was shown to him being used in four different rooms.

The “people following each other” in the forced flow format allows for every area of the store to be shopped—every part of the store experiences uniform foot traffic. As we well know, merchandise not seen is merchandise not bought. Almost nothing is unseen at an IKEA.

Finally, to get to the part of the warehouse where you buy the flat-packed furniture, you have to go through a “marketplace” of deeply discounted items, everyday items like napkin holders and light bulbs, casserole dishes and martini glasses. The price is a compelling enough reason to add them to your basket, but again, the forced flow is making a play: shoppers grab them because they don’t want to buck the flow of foot traffic, they don’t want to have to go back and find it.

IKEA’s unconventional choice of layout impacts their sales very positively, so much so that they have over 250 stores in 26 countries, and their profits are in the billions.

Practice Questions

Design and Costs

If a store layout can drive sales, it can also help you control your costs. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

Angular Layout

floor plan with circular and oval shaped tables/shelves.An angular layout can help you control inventory costs. As we mentioned above, angular layouts allow for the display of a minimal amount of merchandise and is particularly good for high end clothing and jewelry. While the fixtures to display the merchandise are likely going to be more expensive, this also means that you have to have less merchandise on hand. When you sell diamonds or fur coats, this is a plus. As a retailer, you don’t want all your cash flow tied up in the merchandise on you floor, particularly when the price point doesn’t allow it to move as quickly.

Diagonal Layout

floorplan with shelves in diagonal rowsWe mentioned that the diagonal store layout allowed for a maximum amount of merchandise to be displayed for the customer but it also improves the customer’s line-of-sight, allowing him to see much more when he enters the store. The same holds true for the cashier, who, when placed at one end of the store, can see more merchandise and customer activity. This allows for easier monitoring of shoplifting and theft. Shrink (the term retailers use for lost, stolen, or damaged product) is a significant concern for a retailer.

Grid Layout

floorplan with shelves in rowsGrid layouts allow for maximized promotions. You’d think that a retailer can decide if he or she is going to offer a product at a certain percentage off, but that’s not always the case. Manufacturers frequently “sponsor” promotions with additional cash to help move their product. They pay for premium “real estate” within a store in order to prominently display their products. This saves the retailer the cost of putting the item on sale himself.

The grid layout allows for predictable focus points, allowing you to display promotions in spots where you know they’ll be seen. This allows the retailer to maximize profits and make use of that money manufacturers offer to minimize their margin losses.

The racetrack layout is also an excellent format for maximizing promotions.

Practice Questions

  1. Ebster, "C. & Marion Garaus (2011). Store Design and Visual Merchandising: Creating Store Space that Encourages Buying."
  2. Ebster, "C. & Marion Garaus (2011). Store Design and Visual Merchandising: Creating Store Space that Encourages Buying."

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