5 Myths of Store Design

Article first published in Retail Pharmacy magazine 2013

Over more than two decades of designing retail stores, I’ve come across a multitude of ideas about how design theory should be into practice. Whilst some are time-tested truths, others are mere urban myths.

Myth (noun) - A widely held but false belief or idea.

Like all good myths, these ideas have a semblance of truth and rely on delivery by a trusted source to create what appears to be a convincing argument. But practical application always dismantles the argument and exposes their true value: a myth without substance. Here are five store design myths on which I would like to set the record straight.


Myth No.1 - Bigger shop = more display

As both consumer trends and competitive market forces change, store owners invariably need to increase or decrease the floor area of their shops to accommodate changing ranges of existing products as well as the addition or complete removal of departments or offerings.

This change in total floor space is often miscalculated due to the misunderstanding that all square metres are equal. The truth is that every additional square metre of floor area does not necessarily equate to an additional square metre of display space. A stores ability to hold extra product is invariably affected by design factors such as the number of aisles for customer walk space and the ratio of wall shelving to gondola shelving. Let’s look at two examples.

Example 1 – increasing an existing store size by adding an extra 1m of width to a store that is 20m long will technically add 20sqm of floor space. But one metre is not enough to fit an extra run of gondolas because the width of a gondola plus an extra aisle will require at least 1.8m. So unless the existing aisle widths can be condensed, there is no benefit to the extra 1m width. The best solution is to add width in multiples of aisle+gondola, or approximately 1.8-2m.

Example 2 – moving to a new store: consider the case where a store owner currently has a shop measuring 8m wide x 12m deep for a total of 96sqm, and calculates the need for an extra 50sqm to meet their future requirements. They find an available site measuring 12m x 12m for a total of 144sqm. Whilst this represents an increase in floor area of 50%, consider that walls can hold 50-100% more stock than gondolas, and shopfronts are invariably occupied by doors and windows which contribute little to total stock holding. So if we compare the total length of side and back walls (12+8+12 vs. 12+12+12) we can see that the increase in wall stock holding is only about 12%...much less than the 50% requirement.

The take-home lessons here are that whilst total area is important, the shape of a store affects the total length of wall space, and rectangular stores have more wall space than squares.


Myth No.2 – The quicker we can serve customers, the happier they will be

In these fast-paced times with increased demands on work, family and social commitments, people are more time-poor than ever. It’s easy to translate this to the assumption that customers put the saving of time ahead of any other factor in their choice of store. This can lead storeowners to configure the design of their stores to allow quick entry, fast product selection, efficient transaction, and swift exit from the store. Whilst some of these actions can improve the customer experience, not all improve the business performance. After all, a customer that is not in the store cannot buy anything.

A better rationale for the business is to create a store environment that increases customer circulation around the store and encourages them to stay in the store with better product displays. You will find that customers are prepared to spend more of their valuable time in your store if there are interesting and exciting reasons to stay.

By all means speed up the entry and transaction time, but encourage browsing during the product selection and exit phases of the purchase path to increase sales.


Myth No.3 - Signs will change customer behavior

Retail stores can have many types of signs – department, promotional, directional, operational and many more. By the time a customer moves from the entry through the shop and to the sales counter, they’ve been so bombarded by messages that they tend to switch-off in the relief that they are finally going to talk to a real person.

But POS counters themselves can also be littered with small signs from well-intentioned staff who have become frustrated with repeating the same statements. “Queue Here”, “Cash Only”, “No Credit”, “ID required” are just some of the many messages that appear on counter fronts, but are often ignored by customers.

The truth is that it is normal human behavior to only seek out messages that apply to an individual’s current needs, not the needs of the staff. Our brains are wired to look for associations between what we are thinking and what we are seeing, and it is fruitless to attempt to change this behavior – no matter how many signs are put up.

A better solution is to train staff to introduce the messages verbally either in a prior conversation on the sales floor or during the purchase at the counter.

Unfortunately installing a variety of small signs is often an indication of staff frustration or even laziness, not to mention a good way to make customers feel silly when they ask a question and have a written answer pointed out directly in front.


Myth No.4 – Natural light makes a better store environment

I’ve often heard the virtues of natural light in an architectural space extolled by designers and clients alike. Whilst it’s true that natural filtered light can create a pleasant atmosphere in certain spaces, it is more of an enemy than a friend to retail environments.

Natural light is in fact the cause three different problems in retail stores.

Firstly, the UV light from the sun is so intense that even in a filtered situation it can be enough to fade stock. The shelf life of products and packaging exposed to natural light is much less than those under artificial light.

Secondly, the brightness of either direct or reflected sunlight is so powerful that it can completely annihilate any ambient or accent lighting effect attempted inside the store, and can even make the rest of the store look dark. The human iris adjusts the size of the pupil to compensate surrounding light levels, so a bright source close by will contract the iris and make the surrounding space appear darker.

Thirdly, creating a successful retail experience requires that customers forget about what’s outside the store and be immersed in the products and offerings inside the store. Windows and natural light tend to be distractions to this objective as they encourage visibility through windows and remind customers of the outside world.

It is better to have a small amount of filtered light at the store front, but block enough of it to reduce impact and allow internal lighting to create the atmosphere.


Myth No. 5 – Mirrors make space look bigger and lighter

I’m sure we have all experienced the effect that a room with a full mirror wall creates, and been deceived into thinking the room was double the size. We are also well aware of how good a mirror is at reflecting light.

This unfortunately has translated into the combined misunderstanding by some people that adding mirror to the walls of a shop will both make it look bigger and also feel lighter.

The first truth is that mirrors used in this fashion actually detract from the design effect intended in most stores. Using mirrors to create a false impression of size only serves to confuse and disorient customers as to the layout of the store. Nothing frustrates customers more than thinking they are approaching a destination only to realize upon arrival that they’ve been deceived by a mirage!

The second truth is that mirrors do not make a room feel lighter, but in fact can make it appear glary or even darker. The reason lies in two facts: 1. that mirrors cannot magically “produce” light but only reflect existing light so there is actually no extra light in the space, and 2. That mirrors can only reflect what is opposite, so if the opposite side of the space is dark then this darkness will be duplicated!

Mirrors have their place in retail – sometimes for decoration, mostly for customers to try on products, but not for creating space or light.

So next time you are tempted to use one of these or some other so-called design principles, consider the impact in the light of practical reasoning before implementation. It is always best to inspect working examples in other stores, and even perform a small test yourself. After all, the harsh reality of personal experience will always dissolve the pseudo-reasoning of the most powerful myth!