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7 Layout Secrets of the Big Retail Chains The right design and displays can steer customers to more merchandise and keep them shopping longer.

By Carol Tice

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7 Layout Secrets of the Big Retail Chains

Ever walked into a big chain store and walked out with way more than you had planned to purchase? Big retailers certainly seem to know how to design their stores and create tempting displays to keep us shopping.

What's their secret? Here are seven layout tips from experts who have worked with many major retailers.

1. Make windows shine. Many small retailers don't do window displays, letting customers simply look straight into the shop. That's a mistake, says store design and display consultant Linda Cahan of Cahan & Co. in West Linn, Ore. "Just like your eyes are the windows of your soul, store windows are the eyes of the store," she says. "Each window should tell a story."

To create an appealing display, use a single color theme to grab attention and communicate your store's image. It's also important to avoid clutter because in retailing, space equals luxury, Cahan says. If you cram items together in a window, they'll look cheap. Think of how Tiffany displays just a few items in the window, communicating that they are special.

2. Make an arresting first impression. When customers enter your store, an eye-catching display up front should make them slow down. Otherwise, they may hurry on through the store and buy little. Notice how Costco sets up large seasonal displays at its entrances, often with a product pulled out of its box -- a kitchen appliance or fresh plants -- that shoppers can stop to touch, smell or try.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Sweet Music for Your Business

One problem in many small stores is a high rack up front that blocks views of the rest of the shop. If customers don't like what they see on that first set of shelves, they might leave. Instead, use lower shelving units with shorter pegs and narrower shelves. This makes the store look full without having to stock too much merchandise, as well as allows customers to see farther into the shop, says Pat Johnson, co-owner of the Seattle-based consulting firm Outcalt & Johnson: Retail Strategists.

3. Steer customers to the right. Retailers should design their stores to draw shoppers to the right side of the entryway. Studies have shown that most people naturally look first left, then right as they enter a store, says Brian Dyches, chief experience officer of retail branding firm Ikonic Tonic in Los Angeles. Shoppers usually then prefer to move right and walk counter-clockwise around the store.

For instance, enter a Safeway grocery store in the chain's upscale Marketplace format, and your eye is drawn to the floral department on the right. The bright colors and floral scents remind shoppers of happy times in their lives, Dyches says, both putting them in a good mood and encouraging them to move right and begin walking the store counter-clockwise

At 136-year-old Hermann Furniture in Brenham, Texas, visitors enter a foyer dominated by a round table of seasonal merchandise. Shoppers must pause at the table and decide how to navigate around it. A wider aisle on the right encourages them to move around the table in that direction.

4. Lead them somewhere. Often, small retailers fail to put a compelling display at the end of an aisle, says store designer Cahan. "They create an aisle that ends at nothing, either a back wall or a stockroom or the bathroom."

Instead, Dyches says, retailers might use a long aisle to lead customers to a new department laid out perpendicular to other racks.

5. Have an angle. While it's most efficient to lay out aisles parallel to the store's exterior walls, retailers can create more visual interest by placing them at an angle, Cahan says. Ideally, aisles could angle in from both sides to a central aisle, forming an arrow layout that ends in a back-wall display. But only take an angular approach if you can keep aisles wide enough for customers to navigate easily.

6. Create breaks. In studying shopping patterns with his clients, Dyches says he finds that up to 20 percent of the store's merchandise is skipped over. That's because long, uninterrupted aisles don't get people's attention.

Related: 5 Tips for Boomer-Friendly Retail Design

Take a page from Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers: Create stopping points in the middle of long aisles, such as signs or displays that create a visual break. Dyches likes how clothing chain Anthropologie often repeats a design behind wall displays and then changes or ends the pattern to try to get customers to stop at a special display.

7. Offer 'hugs.' People are attracted to round and U-shapes, Dyches says. To get shoppers to stop at a display, try hanging a circular sign from the ceiling or placing a U-shaped background, such as a low wall with small sides extending forward, behind it. These make people want to stop and enter the space, which resembles a person extending their arms for a hug. Nordstrom makes great use of this technique in apparel displays, putting U-shaped partial walls behind mannequins on some displays, Dyches says.

Low-Cost Ways to Improve Your Layout

On a tight budget? Consider these tips to begin improving your layout.

  • Ask key employees and your best customers to walk through the store and offer feedback, says Dick Outcalt, co-owner of Outcalt & Johnson, which offers a questionnaire designed to help pinpoint trouble spots. Another approach is to take photos of your store, then gather staff for an analysis.
  • Look for affordable help to make the changes you decide on if store design and merchandising aren't your forte. You might share the services and costs of a design professional with several nearby retailers, for instance, or hire a college student from a merchandising or marketing program who might work for minimum wage or just course credit, says Cahan.
  • To make low-cost displays, collect cheap decorative items that can be repainted and reused to fit different themes and seasons. Such items include empty picture frames, old watering cans and wooden chairs that can serve as shelving. All of those can be picked up at yard sales or from closeout bins at craft stores, Cahan says.
  • Don't consider it a finished job once you've made your changes. You need to change displays regularly to give customers a fresh experience every time they shop. "There's never an area where we don't change things nearly every day," says Jennifer Hermann, owner of Hermann Furniture. "That's fun, and makes customers want to buy."

Related: To Grow Sales, Turn Your Workplace into a Theater for Customers

Carol Tice

Owner of Make a Living Writing

Longtime Seattle business writer Carol Tice has written for Entrepreneur, Forbes, Delta Sky and many more. She writes the award-winning Make a Living Writing blog. Her new ebook for Oberlo is Crowdfunding for Entrepreneurs.

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