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Does the cluttered look sell?

Retailers apparently think so, which means your shopping experience just got a little more unpleasant.

By doubleace Apr 12, 2011 12:05PM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.


They must think we are so stupid -- and maybe they are right.


According to an illuminating story in The New York Times, major U.S. retailers are abandoning clean and embracing clutter. No more wide, free-flowing aisles. No more low shelves that allow you to look over and locate "men's clothing" when you are stumbling somewhere between "kitchen" and "kids."


Instead, we will once again be getting the canyon effect: high shelves stacked even higher with product. Narrow aisles that force you to zigzag around pallets of 69-cent chocolate bars when you are looking for pasta. Clothes stacked 15 high. Post continues after video. 

(A short rant: People who wear "S" tend to be shorter than those who wear "XL." Wouldn't it make sense to put the larger size on top of the pile, or at least on the top shelf?)


So why are the retailers doing this? Because they think we believe that cluttered stores sell things for less. "Historically, the more a store is packed, the more people think of it as value -- just as when you walk into a store and there are fewer things on the floor, you tend to think they're expensive," said Paco Underhill, founder and chief executive of Envirosell, which studies shopper behavior.

"Messiness, or pallets in the middle of an aisle, are … a cue for value," said Ben DiSanti, senior vice president of planning and perspectives for TPN, a retail marketing consultant. A streamlined, simplified store, he added, "begins to alter that shopper's perception of, 'Does Wal-Mart have the best prices?'


"Whether they know it to be more of a discounter or not, if shoppers walk into a less organized environment, I'd bet their first impression is going to be, 'OK, you're going to find lower prices here,'" DiSanti told the Times.

However, wasn't it marketing theorists who talked Wal-Mart into lowering its shelves, clearing out its aisles and slimming down its inventory a couple of years ago? Now the retailing giant is going back to the old ways.

"(Customers) loved the experience," said Bill Simon, chief executive of Wal-Mart's U.S. division. "They just bought less. And that generally is not a good long-term strategy."

OK, clutter may be good for the bottom line of a Wal-Mart, which sells $1.5 billion in merchandise every day, but what about the consumer? 

  • Congested aisles: Is there any shopper who actually enjoys what the industry calls "speed bumps"? There is always someone parked right next to the pallet, bent over searching the bottom shelf. In theory, this makes everyone else slow down and thus notice all the good stuff not on their shopping list. This is irritating, of course, if you are not interested in buying the boxes of flavored rice you are stuck in front of.
  • Higher shelves:Dollar General is raising its top shelf to 78 inches -- that's 6 feet, 6 inches. A 5-foot woman can extend her fingertips to about 74 inches. To actually grab something off that top shelf, a customer would have to be at least 5 feet 6. The average American woman is 5 feet 4.
  • Tight perusing areas: Even in a wide-aisle store like Target, little space is left around the actual merchandise. Just two other shoppers in the women's clothes section results in gridlock.
  • Impulse sections:Old Navy is adding what it calls "fast lanes" filled with easy-to-grab products. Other than the nomenclature, this sounds an awful lot like the candy, magazine and soft-drink sections surrounding you at grocery stores where the policy is to always have one fewer clerk than needed.

It is clear that these makeovers are not being done in the interest of the customers. New York Times reader "Randonneur" may have described it perfectly: "The stores are adopting the airline business model: Improve your bottom line by making your customers miserable."


More on MSN Money:
May 2, 2011 1:18PM
In my neighborhood there is a Target right across the street for a Walmart.  I shopped at the Target and sometimes Costco for years while never purchasing at Walmart because the Walmart was crowded with merchandise - pallets crowding out the aisles, stuff towering over my head, poor lighting.  It felt like a mess and disaster.  None of my extended family would shop there either while having nothing against Walmart as a shopping choice.  With a large renovation the Walmart addressed many of these issues - expanded space, reduced pallet blockage, improved lighting and stacking, etc., and I and others I know began shopping there more and more often.  If they crowd and begin blocking all the space with merchandise again, it means I'll simply not shop there anymore, just like I use to bypass them.  Does the research really indicate it's worth upselling the customers in your store at the cost of losing others altogether?
Apr 13, 2011 5:29AM
Shop on-line. Shop Costco,my regional grocery store, Dollar Store, Big  Lots.   Shop grocery stores only on the outside perimeter for veggies, meat, dairy.  Much healthier to leave the junk in the store instead of on my hips!
Apr 12, 2011 5:58PM
I will drive out of my way to go to the same store if I can actually move, and their stuff is not all over the floor like nobody cares (Forever 21, I am talking to you!).  Now I suppose I will just shop online more...maybe they don't really want brick-and-mortar locations?
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