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7 Retail Disaster Zones Every Storeowner Should Avoid How to prevent common store design mistakes that can make your customers less likely to buy.

By Jane Porter Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Kathy Hampton bought Ice Cream Renaissance in 2010, she inherited an inefficiently designed shop. Customers walked in and were greeted by a cash register on a small pedestal table, a giant sink full of dirty dishes and a cavernous seating area that was usually vacant.

A year later, when she moved the Vancouver, Wash.-based ice cream parlor to a new location down the street, Hampton didn't repeat those design mistakes. She built a long, more functional checkout counter, concealed the kitchen behind a swinging door and placed seating in front under accent lighting. Since the change, sales have increased by 20 percent.

Unfortunately, many retailers don't notice poorly designed areas of their stores until it's too late. Here are seven common store spaces that retailers botch up and ways to avoid making the same mistakes:

7 Retail Disaster Zones Every Storeowner Should Avoid
Suzi West keeps the front door of her Collier West shop propped open for customers.
Photo credit: Pile of TriBeCa

Dysfunctional decompression zones. The first few feet of a store are often referred to as the decompression zone, an entry area customers use to "decompress" or adjust to the new space. Critical as this first impression is, shop owners often clutter this space with merchandise, says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 2000). "By the time the person is starting to engage with the physical environment," he says, "some of the stuff you've put by the door is blown past." He suggests displaying a few key items and using lighting and flooring that contrast with the outside environment. The shift in colors and textures will alert customers to slow down and notice what's around them. Suzi West, owner of Collier West, a Brooklyn, N.Y., home décor store, keeps the front door open and places products on the curb outside to help customers adjust to her store's ambiance even before they walk in.

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

Claustrophobic checkout counters. While your decompression zone makes the first impression, your checkout counter is what customers experience last. Yet, retailers often don't factor in enough room for their staff (at least three feet per person behind the cash register), don't build enough storage space, or skimp on the quality of countertops and fixtures. While it may be tempting to load the counter with impulse items, avoid overcrowding, says Seanette Corkill, a retail design consultant in Vancouver, Wash. "You put too much up there all at the same time, and [customers] are just going to ignore the white noise of all that stuff."

Poorly lit areas. You may want to save money by cutting back on lighting, but most customers won't venture near dark spaces in your store. At Ice Cream Renaissance, the original seating area toward the back of the shop was dimly lit and often empty. In her new store, Hampton uses decorative sundae light fixtures, track lighting and spotlights for artwork. To avoid dark spots that can result from track lighting, consider installing a second level of track lights that throw off shadows, suggests Jennifer Carpenter, a New York architect.

Related: A Sneak Peek at the Store of the Future

Overcrowded merchandise. Resist the urge to display too much merchandise in one area--a mistake retailers often make. "If you walk in and everything is dense, visually it's exhausting," Carpenter says. West recently opted to arrange a table with a place setting rather than stacking it with items. Within hours, she rang up $800 in sales from that table's merchandise.

Obstructed pathways . Watch out for what Underhill calls the "butt-brush factor"--when people who are browsing get brushed from the rear by other shoppers. That can make people less likely to buy. To avoid such congestion, Underhill recommends placing merchandise that customers spend a long time examining in a more remote area of the store. "Think of it in terms of highways, local streets, residential streets and alleys," he says. Products that take a lot of browsing time belong in your alleys.

Unappealing sight lines. Watch out for unexpected and unsightly views your customers might encounter while shopping. Corkill still vividly remember walking into a bike shop years ago and spotting an open bathroom with a lifted toilet seat. She suggests hiding less-than-savory spaces with screens or curtains instead of traditional doors that require extra space for opening.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Sweet Music for Your Business

Ineffective signage. Make sure you are not obstructing your customers' views down the length of an aisle with a poorly positioned sign, Underhill says. And regardless of where they hang, don't clutter signs with too many words. "The purpose of the sign is to get somebody to ask a question rather than to close a deal," says Underhill. On the other hand, too little signage can cause customers to miss certain areas of your shop. Hampton added a sign for cakes across her pastry case, and suddenly people were taking notice and buying more.

Jane Porter

Writer and editor

Jane Porter is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find more of her work at Janeroseporter.com

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