Think Like a Shopper

Supermarkets present something of a paradox in this country. For example, we love to shop, and we love food, but going to the grocery store is more of a chore than a treat for most. And while just about everyone carries a loyalty card, most shoppers don’t really feel much loyalty to a specific store, and tend to shop based on the ease of getting in and out, or what’s on sale. Finally, every store has the “lowest prices,” which no one really believes, including many of those making the claim.

There’s another big paradox: Most shoppers are female, but most stores were started by – and are still run by – men. Joe Albertson, George Ralphs, Sam Seelig, Charles Crouch and Marion Skaggs – all men. Not that these men and their current-day descendants aren’t very successful. But stores have traditionally been designed, operated and managed by men, and targeted toward women.

Recent stats have shown that more men are taking the role of primary shopper, or at least are making that claim. It’s not yet clear if the shift is a permanent one, or has more to do with the ongoing economic malaise. But whether we’re talking about men or women, making the shopping experience better and easier should be a top priority for food retailers.

Peer into Their Heads

The challenge is  – and has always been – to think like the shopper. This means more than being the same gender as the target. Hiring a woman to lead marketing because she’s a woman is no more effective than hiring a teenager to run a social media campaign just because he has 1,000 Facebook friends.

In his book “On Writing,” author Stephen King makes the statement that if you want to write, you must read. Reading is the best way to learn to write, and shopping is a great way to get deeper into the heads of shoppers. There’s no substitute for spending time in a store – or lots of stores – to see how shoppers interact with the merchandising and the overall environment.

Next, we need to better understand the shoppers’ motivations. Traditionally, this means analyzing “trip” behaviors, or what brought them to the store to begin with. Tonight’s dinner, weekly stock-up or an event can all generate a trip to the store. Each of these motivators drives a different agenda in terms of time allowed, and how the shopper views the trip.

The challenge is to meet the needs of literally thousands of shoppers with a single layout. Because one-size-fits-all very rarely does, and because there’s no viable option for customizing the store to meet the needs of each individual shopper, choices must be made in terms of layout, merchandising and product selection. This is where being able to think like a shopper becomes really important, and the rubber meets the road in terms of store shopability.

There’s an old story about how late-19th-century railroad barons made the fatal mistake of operating as if they were in the railroad business, as opposed to the transportation business. Other examples of this type of narrow thinking are legion in the business world, and retail food is no exception.

More than a few decision-makers in the supermarket industry still believe that their target customer is everyone because we all have to eat, and that they are in the supermarket business. Some will tell you they are in the “people business,” whatever that means, and they just happen to sell food. Neither is accurate.

The store expansions that took place in the latter part of the 20th century in an attempt to make stores one-stop destinations for everything from bill paying to dry cleaning rarely worked out, and in the process retailers forgot what they were there for. Food expertise was discounted in the movement to reduce labor costs, ads were sold and placed on every available space – including checkstand belts and parking lot curbs – in the effort to drive additional revenue.

Unfortunately, these changes were not instituted while thinking like a shopper. Most shoppers stayed away from the added services, and the distraction they caused for store employees when cleaning was lost or a bill payment wrongly credited put the primary business on the back burner. Also, big stores were harder to shop.

Know Your Business

Recent years have brought a refocus on the shopper, with smaller stores, a greater focus on perishables and a stronger desire to differentiate. These are all positive signs, but much still remains to be done. 

First and foremost, grocers should remind themselves that they are in the food business. Although just about every retailer today sells some type of food, no one has the ability or credibility to sell food like a supermarket.

Second, store layout should be designed for more than just operating convenience. How are shoppers traversing the store? Is the merchandising layout intuitive and logical, or are products stuck wherever there is room? Are complementary products located near each other, or even merchandised in multiple locations to make them easy to find?

To truly think like a shopper, food retailers need to change their perspective and see themselves as being in the business of food above all else.

Jeff Weidauer is vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom International Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. He can be reached at [email protected], or visit

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