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World-renowned shopper scientist Dr. Herb Sorensen reveals how today’s shoppers think, behave, and buy so you can discover today’s best ways to get the right items to the right customers when they want them.

This chapter is from the book

From time to time a researcher has the opportunity to see their earlier ideas combine in a way that brings the current subject of study into sharper focus. This was the case as I sat down to write an issue of my occasional online publication, Views on the World of Shoppers, Retailers, and Brands. As I thought about my endeavors to look at shopping from a strictly scientific point of view—but, at the same time, with tremendous commercial significance—three earlier ideas came together and brought into focus the issue of navigability through stores.

Before exploring each of these ideas, let’s set the scene with a single shopper purchasing a single item (see Figure I.1). All of retail, whether bricks or clicks, builds on this as the basic unit of sales:

Figure I.1

Figure I.1 The three-dimensional shopper interacts with the three-dimensional shelf.

The illustration above shows the two parties to the purchase, the shopper and the product. Note the complementarity between the two. In other words, if you take either one of them out of the picture, the purchase will not happen. Here we balance the interests of the two. By diagraming this complementarity dimensionally, we capture both parties to the purchase in a common metric system, rather than in a separate one for each. This will be very significant going forward in understanding the process by which purchases occur. Purchases are not simply events to be tabulated. They are examples of a process to be understood.

Bidirectional Search

The first idea that demonstrates how navigability drives shopping is what I call bidirectional search. This idea is important because it is the fundamental process of shopping, whether online or in bricks-and-mortar stores. In bidirectional search, as the illustration above shows, retailers and suppliers are searching for shoppers, while at the same time shoppers are searching for products. Much of the time the industry does not properly recognize the first part of this bidirectional search, primarily because of the relatively passive role retailers and suppliers play at the final point of purchase.

I've written about this passivity in my post, “Googling” the Store,1 in the aforementioned Views (in this edition of this book, I frequently reference material that I and others have previously published. We provide notes and links to all of these sources). Passivity, in turn, leads merchant warehouse retailers, whose neighborhood warehouses merely store merchandise until a shopper puts it in her basket, to fail in reaching their full potential in sales. This stark description is my attempt to break through the mechanical way we tend to look at retailing, particularly the accounting, or more accurately the counting of events, that has become deeply embedded in the industry’s thinking and retail metrics.

Retailers and suppliers are of course not physically present to search for shoppers. Instead, they rely on their surrogates, the displays and products, to do the searching for them. For the retailer, a display is a display, whereas for the supplier it is more about products. That is, the suppliers are sending in their brands and individual products to represent them, whereas the retailers take a more aggregate approach, with entire displays, aisles, and departments representing them.

So all the displays and products in the store do their best to shout at shoppers as they pass by: “Buy me! Buy me!” “No, no, no, buy me!” It’s no wonder shoppers typically shop the store so superficially. They have to in order to retain their sanity. The shopper’s clutter filter maintains a state of obliviousness by screening from consideration everything except the little bit of information that makes it through the cacophonous roar that retailers and suppliers orchestrate in their search for shoppers to buy their products.

Never forget this bidirectional perspective: shoppers looking for products; products looking for shoppers. It should drive store design and operations. Mr. Retailer, Ms. Brand Supplier, you can be far more effective on your side of the search by working with the shopper, rather than by indiscriminately shotgunning from your side of the aisle and display interface.

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