Dealers should use ‘retail anthropology’ to set traffic flow in antiques shops

By arranging your store’s fixtures in a fashion that directs traffic flow and keeps high-profit items in the most visible locations, you can keep customers in your store longer and increase sales.

Behind the Gavel columnist Wayne JordanHave you ever focused your attention on the way you walk? Do you stand straight with your shoulders back, or do you lean forward? Do you saunter or walk quickly? Have you noticed how the customers in your store walk? Most independent retailers give little thought to how their customers walk and move through their stores. These same retailers might be surprised to learn that there is a science dedicated to the study of how customers move within a retail store: it’s called “retail anthropology.”

Retail anthropology was developed by Paco Underhill, who runs a consulting company called Envirosell. Back in the 1970s, Paco began to videotape the way customers move within retail stores. His objective was to find ways to improve traffic flow and increase sales. In the past forty years, he has compiled over one hundred thousand hours of videotape. Forty years of watching customers move through stores has led to some irrefutable conclusions about the basics of an effective store layout. Envirosell’s client list – including AT&T, Starbucks, Blockbuster and Apple to name a few – attest to the value of his work.

Let’s have some fun by applying Mr. Underhill’s observations to an imaginary antique store (let’s call it Dusty’s Antiques) and see what sort of improvements we can make to the layout.

Dusty’s is like many antique stores that you’ve seen: the perimeter is lined with furniture, the walls are filled with artsy décor, the outdated fixtures and shelves are arranged into aisles, and every horizontal surface in the store is covered with various collectibles. Let’s follow our imaginary customer (Ms. Browser) as she approaches, enters, and shops in the store.

Dusty’s Antiques is located in an urban area of shops and office buildings and has sidewalk access. Ms. Browser is on her lunch break, so she is moving at a fairly fast pace down the sidewalk. She passes by the window displays of most stores, because her peripheral vision can’t detect the details of window displays that are laid out parallel to the window glass. Dusty, however, knows that in order for his display to catch Ms. Browser’s attention, it must be laid out in an inverted “V” shape so that pedestrians walking in both directions will be able to see his display from at least 25 feet away. Dusty has included in his display a silver tea set and some antique hand mirrors. Ms. Browser slows down to have a look at the display.

Underhill observations:

1. People slow down for reflective surfaces. So, include some bright and shiny items in your window display. Change your display when pedestrians stop slowing down to look.

2. Angle the display so that it can be seen from 25 feet away, and keep your window clean!

Ms. Browser enters the store. Dusty has his newest items on a shelf to the right of the door, but Ms. Browser doesn’t see them; her eyes are adjusting to the change in light (and, by the way, what’s that odor? It’s a faint hint of mildew and roses; must be that new air freshener, Eau de Thriftstore). Ms. Browser notices the cash/wrap (register) area immediately on the left, so she turns right and moves into the store.

Underhill observations:

1. Customers need a “decompression zone” of from five to 15 paces to gear down from walking speed to shopping speed and adjust to the lighting of your store. Don’t put anything that you want to be seen in the decompression zone.

2. The air in your store will have a distinct odor; make sure that it is a pleasant one. If your customers notice mildew, they will be reluctant to buy. Use an air treatment system rather than masking odors with a chemical spray.

Ms. Browser moves to the far right wall and walks down the aisle, looking ahead toward the back wall. She occasionally glimpses to the right and to the left, noticing only the items that are at her eye level.

Underhill observations:

1. In America, people walk and drive to the right, a principle called the “Invariant Right.” The right wall is the most valuable real estate in your store. Placing your best merchandise on the right side will pull shoppers to the back of your store.

2. People walk facing forward, and their eyes are in the front of their head. If you want your merchandise to get the most exposure, arrange your displays so that they can be seen “face-on.” Place some shelves and displays at right angles to the aisle, so that shoppers can see the best merchandise without having to turn their heads to look. If you use department signage, place the signs at right angles to the traffic flow, not flat against the wall. Use end-caps on all of your aisles. Shoppers will rarely bend or stoop to look at an item. Rotate your shelved stock so that every couple of weeks your “eye level” merchandise changes; that way, your inventory will always seem fresh to your regular customers.

Ms. Browser reaches the back wall, and stops to admire a particularly beautiful, expensive music box. To the right of the expensive music box is an equally beautiful but less expensive music box, which she picks up. She lingers over the music boxes long enough to attract Dusty’s attention. Dusty engages Ms. Browser in conversation, and sells her the less expensive (but more profitable) music box.

Underhill observation:

1. Most people are right-handed, so they tend to pick up items that are placed to the right of where they are standing. Dusty was wise to place his “traffic-stopper” music box at the end of an aisle and smarter still to place a high-profit item where it stood the best chance of being picked up.

Ms. Browser continues to shop along the back wall of the store, bypassing the “grocery-store” style aisles on her left. When she reaches the far wall, she turns left and proceeds to the cash-wrap.

Underhill observation:

1. If a main traffic lane is built into the layout of your store, most customers will unconsciously follow the lane around the store. In a small store, this might be a simple “U”, starting at the door, extending along both sides of a single row of gondolas, and ending back at the cash wrap. In a larger store, this path might be a wide lane with specialty alcoves on each side. Customers can stop and shop, but when they’re ready to leave, they have to get back on the path. Place the products of highest importance in a position visible from the main lane of traffic. Side caps facing the main traffic flow outsell opposite-facing side caps by a factor of five.

The key to an effective layout for your antique store is to design a system that takes advantage of shoppers’ natural propensity to move right, avoid bending over, and look straight ahead. By arranging your store’s fixtures in a fashion that directs traffic flow, keeps high-profit items in the most visible locations, and varies the inventory’s shelf placement, you can keep customers in your store longer and increase sales.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia licensed auctioneer, certified personal property appraiser, and accredited business broker. He specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. Learn more at  http://www.waynejordanauctions.com, at 276-730-5197 or auctioneer.wayne@yahoo.com.

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