This is the seventh article in our series, Moving the Masses, about managing the flow of crowds of individuals, be they drivers or pedestrians, shoppers or commuters, birds or ants.
Shopping is something we all do, albeit some more reluctantly than others. It is the modern version of hunting and gathering – how we provide essentials and food for our families. We seem to do it effortlessly, moving from aisle to aisle, from store to store, paying little attention to the process. Indeed, many shop on auto-pilot, while their minds are occupied with other things.
As shoppers, we take for granted the shopping landscape. Yet, unlike the natural landscape where our ancestors hunted, our modern shopping centres have been purposefully designed.
But does the purpose-built environment really control everything shoppers do? Research paints a different picture.
What about the power of marketing?
In Ancient Greece, shopping revolved around the agora (a market and meeting place) where merchants sold their wares from small specialist stores or stands. Much has changed since then; we have refrigeration, plastic packaging, cars and the ability to store food for longer, which means we buy more at once. In response, retailers got bigger and bigger, moving from small corner stores to larger supermarkets, hypermarkets and malls.
The shopping mall might seem like the very icon of consumerism, a nefarious attempt to capture shoppers’ money. The mall was actually an attempt to return to the concept of the agora as a public space that invited people to gather together and socialise.
In late 1930s, Victor Gruen, the designer of the first shopping malls, envisaged urban spaces where people would gather and a community could form. This was the first Gruen Transfer, where old-world architectural forms were transferred to modern commercial spaces.
Jon Jerde, who followed Gruen to becoming an influential mall designer, has his own transfer named after him – the Jerde Transfer. This is about transferring a real urban experience into a sanitised and safe “theme park” to shop in.
Somewhere between the first idealistic malls and the later behemoths, the current concept of the Gruen Transfer kicked in: shoppers’ movements shifted from a determined stride (to a particular store) to an aimless wander in an almighty mall. And the concept of impulse buying was born. Perhaps the concept was given currency in the 1980s, where the idea of all-powerful marketers driving desire came to the fore thanks to Rosser Reeves.
Store owners liked to think that by having the perfect shop window, outfitted just so, they could influence customers so much that they’d have no choice but to walk in and buy, buy, buy. Yet recent research (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0969698917304769) has found we can predict store sales based on the number of people who walk into the store, and that number depends on foot traffic outside the store. This mathematical regularity suggests the main driver of a store success is its location.
Lessons from the supermarket
Some might think that surely this is wrong, that it’s those crafty marketers and their clever tricks (based on the information they collect about us) that really influence purchases. So, let’s have a look at the marketers’ home turf – the supermarket.
A typical supermarket stocks over 30,000 items and yet a typical household buys just 300 or so unique products per year. That is, they walk past roughly 29,700 products on shelves without putting any of these in their baskets.
That’s assuming those shoppers actually walk past the shelves in the first place! Despite a quarter of shoppers claiming to traverse every aisle on a shopping trip, less than 2% of shoppers actually do.