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It’s well known that when we go to a supermarket we are being influenced in our decisions at all times. The store layout is structured to maximise profit and the way a customer moves, stops, sees, smells and thinks are not left to chance.

Giving optimal positions to products with the highest profit margins, grouping complimentary products together to persuade users to buy more and even pumping the canned smell of baking bread 24 hours a day through the entire store are just a few of the well tested tactics employed by the supermarkets to maximise the value of each and every shopper.

How did the supermarkets get to this point? One word: data. Many ideas about shopping habits have been generated over the years but the theories that are in use now are the ones that were tested, analysed, refined, tested again and then implemented.  

So what can digital marketers learn from this?

Take control of who owns the conversion process

It is still a very grey issue as to who owns the look, feel and layout of the site, with IT departments still in control of the majority. 

However, would the supermarkets have uncovered the optimum aisle placements, pricing strategy based on location and product grouping techniques if the construction team that built the store were making the decisions?

Unearth how visitors use your site

There is a wealth of tools and tactics that can be used in ecommerce to deliver the sort of key insight that drove the decision making when planning the layout of a supermarket.

Heat maps, customer surveys and usability audits are vital in telling us how people are using and navigating around our sites, in the same way it has been identified how supermarket shoppers navigate the aisles. "Understanding the customers’ shopping behaviours is critical and should form the basis of all e-commerce strategies", John Brodie says.

Identify and remove customer journey roadblocks

Reviewing user feedback and analysing site data can help uncover where the conversion barriers sit on a website and what is preventing visitors turning into customers.

We need to identify and remove these roadblocks in the customer journey whilst displaying key messaging and pushing core, high margin product lines in the same way that supermarkets do not block shoppers’ way, but do push the products that they want to sell.

Position products to maximise sales

Whilst it needs to be easier for users to find what they want online than in a supermarket (it’s a lot easier to abandon an online store than a physical supermarket when you already have a half full trolley), e-commerce sites can take a lot from the meticulously planned positioning of stock on supermarket shelves and the method of giving prominence to the most commercial products that have the highest profit margin can be easily employed.  

According to Fiona Low:

The concept of positioning complimentary items next to each other can work incredibly well for e-commerce sites. In the same way a supermarket shopper buying flour to bake a cake needs eggs and sugar, an online customer buying a dress can also be cross sold the shoes and accessories they need to make a complete outfit. 

Test, refine, then test again

Whilst there is a multitude of best practise layout and merchandising rules that should be followed online, it is vital we test and subsequently optimise the key customer journey points throughout e-commerce sites, just as the supermarkets tested their instore concepts.

Even testing small elements of web pages, such as colours of messaging and positioning of calls to action, can have a huge impact on user behaviour. Research shows that simple things such as improving your web page loading times will all have an impact on your overall conversion rate. 

And with tools such as Google Website Optimiser that are completely free to use, the testing process can be carried out with minimal costs, hence delivery massive returns on investment.

There are also, however, offline principles that simply do not work when used online, and in a purely practical sense we obviously can’t use the supermarkets famous smell aids (although I am sure someone out there is working on a scratch and sniff usb).

But on balance and despite these differences there is a lot that ecommerce can take from a supermarket’s persuasive manner of making shoppers not only buy, but buy more than they intended to.

With the average retail conversion rate around 3%, 97% of visitors never buy anything. How would a supermarket or any bricks and mortar retail store survive on that return on footfall? E-commerce still has a lot of work to do to.

Nick Jones

Published 1 June, 2011 by Nick Jones

Nick Jones is MD at I Spy Marketing and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with Nick on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter

5 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Interesting, Nick, and kind of related to a blog here by Chris Rowett a few days ago.

I never quite understand why things are being continually moved around - couldn't find the spinach or the pasta last night and had to ask!

It led me to wonder if stores do actually test this stuff somehow, maybe in an A/B-type way from store to store.

I personally have no problem leaving something at the supermarket checkout where I've had second thoughts, but in-store abandonment is rare for me because it's generally repeat purchasing.

It's a different story though, when clothes or shoe shopping on the high street, when I'm sure most people get much closer to those online stats you cite, and buy only a very small % of things they look at.

over 5 years ago


Chris Rowett, Head of PPC and WebConverter at Epiphany

Thanks Nick - I neednt write a part 2 to my blog :)

I am intrigued by the product placement section. We are running a test for a client who is ordering products initially in 4 different ways:

Price: Low to High
Price: High to Low
Profit per purchase: High to Low
Popularity: High to Low

This is the first test of this kind I have done, but realise it must have been done plenty. Most retail websites seem to be adopting the popularity high to low format, so im excited to see how well that performs.

Thanks for the interesting blog.

over 5 years ago


Nick Jones

Thanks for the comments Mark and Chris. We are continually surprised by quite low level of interest from the marketing community in making website's work better for the consumer. There are so many quick gains to be made from simple and multi variate testing that an enormous opportunity remains for most e-commerce businesses to be making a lot more money!

over 5 years ago

Andrew Keyes

Andrew Keyes, Director, Marketing at Armantus Inc.

Hello Nick,

Thank you for the insightful article.

One of the challenges the web usability community has faced since the introduction of online retail is how to balance the marketing/merchandising goals of the retailer with the ease of use needs of the online shopper.

In the brick and mortar world it's no secret that grocery stores place the most commonly purchased product - milk - at the far back corner of the store. This is to ensure the shopper is exposed to as much product promotion as possible along their way. The "user experience" is not optimized for the shopper, rather it is designed to encourage a larger basket size.

Anyone who has shopped at Ikea will understand the same concept. Ikea stores are actually designed like a physical path - shoppers entering the front of the store have to literally walk through each department and past each product before they can exit.

In the offline world, from the retailer perspective, the longer a shopper stays in the store the better. It seems that for online shopping the reverse is considered successful. In other words, the faster a shopper is able to complete their task the better.

One thing we do have in the online world is the ability to build on the shopper experience and behaviour. We can reach out and draw shoppers back with re-targetting and with email.

It is fascinating stuff.

over 5 years ago


Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

@Chris Yes, there is research into this, but I can't remember who or where, sorry...

We've tested Line versus Grid for a couple of clients though, and can tell you that it's entirely contextual!

over 5 years ago


Graham Donoghue

Hi Nick, hope all is well, great and insightful. We have the privilege of having hired some buyers from the large supermarkets and have spent a lot of time using FMCG skills in our business. I 100% agree with your comments and often we will take the product teams to the local supermarket for a lesson in POS.

over 5 years ago


Nick Jones

@Graham - all well at I Spy thanks, our usability and conversion optimisation team are doing some fantastic work in this area. Thanks for the feedback, would be great to catch up soon

over 5 years ago


Marco Frealdo

The article rise one of most interesting issue for the marketers' communities.
In my opinion (also referring to Andrew post) the physical aspect is the fulcrum of the concept. Brick and mortar stores have the possibility to physically show products and also to physically guide the customers through a "preplanned" pattern. This gives me the idea of a sort of "standardization" inside the shop.
Mejer, Terget, etc need to plan and design their stores, and the way the products are displayed, trying to create the condition (inside an unchangeable environment)that push the customers to the final purchase.
The on-line stores, just because they are not physical, have the possibility to customize their offers and become very sensitive to the consumer' behaviour. On-line you can propose them realated and complementary products, use or not specific marketing tools like re-mail, etc, you can design a specific pattern for each user (or cluster of users).

Finally my opinion is that, even if the final goal is the same (sell a product), the on-line and brick and mortar stores follow principles that are, in some way, very different at their basics.

What do you think??
I would like to know your experiance and point of view.

over 5 years ago

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