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Retail tricks, lessons, and tips from a former stock boy

When I first started working, one of the first jobs I took was working as a merchandiser or stock boy for the local drugstore, Shoppers Drug Mart, Canada’s largest pharmacy chain.

Little did I know, that little job would steer me into a marketing position years later. Not only was I becoming really interested in how all their products were being designed, packaged, displayed and marketed, but I also became quite intrigued by retail tricks employed and most of all shopper behaviour. Some of it was laughable.

Ever walk into a store, looking to buy one thing and end up with a cart full of stuff? Yep, well you’re not alone. Stores employ a lot of tactics or retail tricks to get you to buy more. Here are some of the things I learned and the tactics that retailers use to get you to buy more products that you don’t really need and what you need to be aware of.

Directing consumer behaviour

It starts as soon as you enter the store. Some websites will recommend to save the most, always shop the perimeter of the store. But that isn’t always the case. Back in the 90’s when Shopper’s was going through a massive redesign, to the new brighter retail store format you see today, one of the things they did very well was directing store traffic.

Retailers are always looking for new ways to drive more foot traffic. Consumer traffic has been well studied and mapped. Store designs in the past took notice that consumers entering a store, most often circle a store in a counter-clockwise direction (although studies have shown Australian, British and Japanese circle the store in a clockwise direction – wonder if this has to do with driving on the left side of the road).

But what these new stores did differently is that it didn’t matter if you entered in left, right, clockwise, or counterclockwise. The new stores now directed and restricted you from going in any other direction (glass barriers, etc.) other than to enter the store in the section with the highest markups. In this case, cosmetics.

But they’re certainly not the first and only ones who’ve done this. IKEA is a perfect example of this. They create the retail experience they want you to see, by making you follow a path of blue arrows. Only at certain points in the store, can you ever take any shortcuts. And notice how there’s never any shortcuts in the big ticket sections like living rooms and kitchens? They obviously want to keep you there longer. That’s why it’s important to be conscious of your environment and always a good idea to shop with a list and shop for sales.

If it doesn’t say SALE, it’s probably not a sale

End aisle displays are probably the displays that grab the most visual attention, and you would think if these items are on an end, they’re likely on sale, but that’s often and not always the case. Know your prices. Sometimes it’s items that are not selling well or on clearance and other times, the complete opposite – retailers will place really well-selling items that they’re hoping will entice you, as you walk by and hoping they land in your buggy.

I remember every so often, I’d be filling that end shelf and I’d notice people kept grabbing whatever I was stocking. And have you ever noticed your behaviour change when there’s only one left on the shelf? No matter the item, people seem to be less likely to buy an item, if it’s the last one on the shelf, maybe perceiving it to be damaged or manhandled.

Nonetheless, I found all this pretty interesting, and I thought I’d set up a little experiment by “fake filling” the shelves. Just by refacing the end every so often, or even just standing in front of that section, had customers, one after another, grabbing products off the shelves. Even if they were originally slow-movers, the minute I was near it, so was a customer.

We had this new Vim household cleaning product that I had tried at home. It worked well, but we had only sold two in the past month. Why? Well partly because no one knew about it. It was hidden in the household aisle. So I cleared the product from the shelf, re-organized the section and threw all those in a buggy. Then I wheeled it in front of the store entrance. I put a sign on it with the price. It was the regular price. I didn’t say “sale”, but then again, it’s all about perception. Within one week, 14 sold. When I showed my boss, thinking she would be ecstatic, she told me to put them back and that they didn’t want to be deceiving their customers. Really? It’s really no different to any other point-of-purchase display – you’re in line, ready to check out and they tempt you with gum, chocolate and magazines. Always keep an eye out.

Retail tricks, below and beyond eye level

Every month we would get these plan-o-grams handed down from corporate that would detail how to reorganize the sections in your store. Sometimes the placement seemed strange to me, so I tried mixing it up a little. But I was met with some resistance and had to change them back. Although it may seem common sense to most now, I nearly fell over when I heard the reason: that manufacturers pay for shelf space and product placement. That’s right. The manufacturer pays the store to tell them where to display their products, on what shelf and in what position. Manufacturers pay the most to be at the consumer’s eye level and shelf space below is less expensive and usually reserved for the cheaper line items.

So sometimes the bottom shelf holds the best deals. I remember when I first started there, Pantene was a bottom-shelf shampoo, then almost overnight, P&G moved it a couple of shelf levels up, re-introduced it in new packaging, an ad campaign and is now double the price what it was. And it’s now one of the most popular shampoo lines. Brand shelf positioning changes all the time, and it often also depends on where it’s sold. For example, some products/brands may sell better in one city/province/state than another, so they’re given better exposure.

But silly rabbit, tricks are for kids

From slow sappy store music, made to slow you down and get you to spend more time shopping in-store, to putting all the staples (bread, milk, eggs) at the very back of the store, to shapes, smells, colours and countless others. These are just a few. There’s plenty of other retail tricks I’m sure you can think of. And when I say ‘tricks’ I mean that in the nicest possible way. I find it pretty interesting how these little things can shape how you shop in a big way. They’re not being deceitful, they’re just doing their job. And it’s up to you to do yours and know how to avoid the common traps. I’m just here to show you around and hopefully help you spot some of them.

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