Don’t lose your customers in the supermarket: Organizing your content to take visitors on a journey

Preparing for a workshop on classification I was giving recently, I was struck at how the supermarket provides a lot of good lessons about how to organize your stuff, whether it be cantaloupes or web content. By the time I explain below why there are bananas in the cookie aisle, I hope you’ll see how important it is to organize your content so it takes your users on a journey, and how you need to place a variety of little pleasures along their path.

Since I moved from New York City to the United States four years ago, I’ve gotten to know the modern supermarket. These giant amusement park warehouses of food that anchor strip malls from sea to shining sea — and around the world — are nothing like their compressed Manhattan cousins with which I was familiar. At the typical Gristede’s, Key Food, or D’Agostino’s, the chips and mayonnaise are cheek-by-jowl with the fish, fruit, and cheese in tightly winding labyrinths whose design is largely determined by stratospheric real estate values. Hardly any two food stores in the city are alike, and few create much more than a functional shopping experience. But the non-urban supermarket follows a more predictable pattern, from which one can divine a set of organizing principles that may not be immediately apparent.

How is the modern supermarket organized? It is not simply a library of food with a single system determining the citation order of items. There are a number of overlapping purposes at work in the supermarket’s organization scheme, with the most important being getting you to spend more money. One way supermarkets do that is to tap into psychology (check out the video at the bottom after reading the rest of this article): the supermarket’s layout is a map of our relationship with food. The layout appeals to our human aspirations from best intentions to guilty pleasures.

Think about it. You enter with an idea or list of a few things you need to get, invariably including bread, eggs, milk, and fruits and vegetables. There is zero chance you’ll find all these items clustered together near the entrance, with a quick egress to the cash registers. No, you’ll have to go on a long journey. Most likely when you enter you’ll first see the fresh produce, with the fruit to your right. The milk, eggs, or bread will be far away at the other end of the store, guaranteeing you’ll traverse its entire length.

It’s a journey from innocence to experience. You start out, enticed by overflowing bins of nature’s brightly-colored sex organs: juicy peaches, profligate cherries, melons that beg to be touched. You wind up in the comforting safety of milk and cheese.

Along the way, you follow your best intentions, with the organic section usually soon after the produce, and then, the aisles of ingredients you’ll need to hold up your resolution to cook more from scratch: flour, sugar, pasta, oil, spices. Once you are feeling virtuous, you can allow yourself a dalliance with the cookies and crackers. But just so you don’t feel too guilty about these sugary, salty snacks, there might be a display of bananas, nature’s most convenient, healthy, individually-wrapped treat, to appeal to your primal instincts in another way.

The fish and meats await, sanitized of the scent of death and calling to the hunter’s stomach. Helpfully, there is a basket of jumbo lemons by the fish counter. You’ve glimpsed another organizing principle: pairings and threesomes of things that go naturally together are highlighted outside the dominant citation order of foods, or rearranged altogether. Next to the lettuce and tomatoes is a wire basket of pre-cooked bacon and jars of mayo. Peanut butter and jelly are often in the bread aisle rather than among the condiments. Wine won’t be far from the spaghetti. Beer is opposite pretzels. You’ll probably find water crackers slipped in with the gourmet cheeses.

There are some combinations that may have more to do with cultural inexperience, storage needs, or the particular demographics of the neighborhood. In the supermarket I go to, the tortillas are refrigerated with the hummous and baba ghanoush, while the pitas are several aisles away next to the onion rolls by the deli counter. In the organic section’s soy milk cold case, you will find Mrs. Gold’s Horseradish and Nancy’s Kim Chee. Meanwhile, the “Hispanic” and “Oriental” foods have moved out of the ghetto of the “Ethnic Foods” aisle to suburbs flanking the store’s rice section. And regardless of when Passover falls on the calendar, I know I can always find boxes of matzoh specially displayed in time for Easter.

Finally, there is another map overlaying the supermarket’s arrangement. As you bounce back-and-forth in the market’s interiors, you can’t avoid hitting the endcaps on the aisles. Food companies battle to outbid each other for these high-traffic bumpers, as well as other high-value slots throughout the store.

As you see, there isn’t any one perfect organizing principle to apply. If maximizing the money you spend were the only principle, it probably wouldn’t be a very satisfying experience for the customer. Feeling fleeced and confused, who would return to repeat the experience? It wouldn’t be very effective to leave customers lost and alienated in the supermarket as in the eponymous Joe Strummer song.

When we approach the task of organizing a web site — from designing a navigation to classifying content in a database — we can’t expect to find a single ideal arrangement. Like supermarket managers, we have to organize things to meet different, and sometimes competing purposes. We want to satisfy our customer’s urges and our suppliers needs, too. We need to place things where they won’t spoil. We want to avoid hiding anything, yet some stuff only has to be put on display at specific times of year.

Creating a classification scheme for your web site and its content may seem at times to be a dry, plodding and logical process. If you want to give your visitors the best experience, however, you’ll want to also step back a bit and think about organizing your site in terms of preparing their environment. Draw your visitors on a journey that keeps them going with appeals to their aspirations, conscience, and desires.

Bonus video: Even the Ozzies are in on the game. Watch Supermarket Psychology: Supermarket Layout:

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