Retail Management

Module 13: Retail Image: Layout and Visual Merchandising

Store Layout

What you'll learn to do: Explain the value of a thoughtful store layout

A retailer measures so many things: the average ticket sale for each customer that comes through, the sales per square foot of the store, the penetration of particular product brands, and more. But one thing matters more than any other—customer foot traffic. None of those other metrics matter if you can’t get a customer in the door.

In the last section, we talked about the different kinds of store layouts and the products that are best displayed in them. Now we’re going to talk about traffic flow in a store, how ignoring our four customer behaviors can make or break a sale. A happy, relaxed customer who’s engaged in the shopping experience will spend more, and a confused, disoriented customer will leave.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe customer shopping behaviors and traffic-flow patterns
  • Compare and contrast various store layout designs
  • Explain how a retailer classifies its products into layout groupings


Customer Shopping Behaviors

We’ve talked about store layout—that is, how your store is physically constructed to serve the customer. Now we’re going to talk a little bit about customer traffic-flow patterns, or how your customer walks through the store.

Remember that customers can only buy the merchandise they see. If your layout doesn’t encourage them to move past the merchandise you have on display, they aren’t going to buy it. Or, as they say in retail, you won’t see sales conversion for those products.

This is a good time to remind you about those customer behaviors we discussed in the last section:

  • Shoppers enter and almost always turn right, walking counterclockwise
  • Shoppers avoid upper and lower floors, they like to shop the floor they entered on
  • Shoppers hate narrow aisles
  • Shoppers need to “orient” themselves before starting to shop the store


Any part of your store layout that doesn’t serve these four customer behaviors in mind is going to fail you.

Let’s take a look at a store layout and a heat map of its traffic flow.[2]

heat map of a store's traffic flow It appears this store is mostly a grid format, with a little free form or “mixed layout” going on near the entrance to add some visual interest. Is this layout working for the retailer? Let’s take a look at those customer behaviors and see if all of their shopping layout needs have been met.

Does this store allow for counterclockwise walking? It does! In fact, it doesn’t give the customer any choice, turning left would be walking into the storage area of the store. They have to go right.

Does this store have upper and lower floors? It’s hard to determine from this drawing. We’ll say no.

Does this store have wide enough aisles? It would appear not! Look at the area that’s circled. The fixtures there are set quite close together. And the heat map shows that customers aren’t going back there. The merchandise the retailer has displayed there is going unseen by customers (and is therefore not purchased).

Does this store have a “transition zone”? It absolutely does. The area right after the entrance is open and clean, and the first fixtures aren’t for another few feet.

This quick analysis lets us know that the retailer’s customer traffic flow through the store isn’t what he hoped in certain areas, and he’s maybe not converting as well as he could be. We know that customers aren’t going back there because they don’t want to shop in tight spaces, so traffic flow could be improved by removing a fixture and making the area easier to walk through.

In the next section, we’ll study some examples of store layouts and how a retailer can leverage those layouts to influence customer traffic flow and increase sales conversion.

Practice Questions

Store Layout Designs

Each store layout has its pros and cons, and each layout provides a retailer with some ways to influence traffic flow. Here we’ll look at a couple of different layouts, what the pros and cons are for shoppers who are experiencing this type of layout, and some ways that retailers can maximize their sales conversions.

Grid Layout

floorplan with shelves in rowsThe grid layout is the most common store layout you’re going to find in retail. Used in supermarkets, drug stores, and many big box retail stores, it’s used when stores carry a lot of products (particularly different kinds of products), or when a retail location needs to maximize space.

Pros of the grid layout

  • It’s easy to categorize products
  • Shoppers are used to the grid layout style and shop it easily


Cons of the grid layout

  • It’s boring, and it’s difficult to use this layout to create a “shopping experience” for the customer
  • Customers often can’t take shortcuts to what they need
  • Line of sight is limited, forcing a customer to look up and down aisles
  • Visual “breaks” are needed to keep shoppers engaged


That said, the grid format is so common in retail that it’s been well studied and retailers know how to leverage it to increase sales conversion. Here are some ways they do that:

  • Well-placed promotions. Eye level and a little to the left, in fact. If you’re walking through a grid format store counterclockwise, you’re going to notice that which is a little ahead of you. On a turn, that means the promotion will be at eye level and a little off to your left, where you’re looking as you walk. Things don’t get noticed in corners.
  • Power walls. Because you can leverage your wall space so well in a grid format store, you can take advantage of this to build power walls. Power walls allow you to display merchandise to draw shoppers into an area they might otherwise skip over in normal traffic patterns. Retailers use repetition by putting a lot of a particular product on the wall, perhaps in different colors or sizes. Check out this great one-minute video about power walls.
  • End caps and visual displays. Aisle fixtures have to end, and usually the ends of those aisles are prime real estate to put up a product display. We’ll learn more about these in the next section, but suffice it to say, you have more opportunities to leverage the ends of those aisles with displays and signage in this format than any other.


Racetrack or Loop Layouts

floor plan with shelves in a loop layoutIf you’re selling a product that people want to browse, touch and look at, then the racetrack, or loop, layout is one to consider. Customers follow a prescribed path through the merchandise and experience it the way the retailer wants it to be seen.

Pros of the racetrack layout

  • Retailers can provide a great “shopping experience” using this layout
  • Promotions are easier to execute, because the layout really controls what the shopper sees
  • Encourages browsing


Cons of the racetrack layout

  • Customers who want to run in and pick up something quickly are often discouraged when faced with this layout
  • Not a good layout for a high-turnover store, like a pharmacy or a convenience store


In this kind of layout, the retailer doesn’t really need to influence traffic flow, because traffic can really only move one way. This is what makes the layout so perfect for executing promotions. The retailer knows where the shopper is going to look next, and promotions are arranged accordingly – eye level and a little to the right.

Mixed, or Free Flow, Layout

floor plan with many different layouts, such as shelves in diagonal form, circular tables, and scattered shelves.This layout can be anything the retailer wants it to be, in any shape or place. Customer behavior is the only consistent aspect of this kind of layout: we know they will enter and turn right, we know that they won’t want to go up or down a floor and that they won’t shop in too narrow an aisle.

Pros of the mixed layout

  • Ideal for a store offering smaller amounts of merchandise
  • Easy to create a shopping experience in this layout


Cons of the mixed layout

  • Less space to display product
  • Easier to confuse the customer


Traffic flow can easily be disrupted if there isn’t some logic to how items are displayed in the store, and if that logic doesn’t exist, it’ll create shopper confusion. Confused shoppers exit the store nearly immediately and usually without purchasing anything.

Retailers can control traffic flow by placing promotions and visual displays as “speed bumps” can entice the shopper from one merchandise “lily pad” to the next. Power walls can be created in this format to attract the shopper as he or she moves along the store. If customers are missing a part of the store, retailers can alter traffic flow by altering the fixtures within to create a new path.

Practice Questions

Product Layout

An excellent cut of bacon and some fresh eggs off the farm . . . each of those is an example of good grocery store merchandise. Displaying some of that bacon near the eggs in the refrigerator section of the grocery store . . . that’s an example of good grocery store merchandising.

You can have all kinds of great product in your store, but if you don’t organize it logically and attractively, it won’t sell.

Retailers use layout groupings to help the shopper find the product he wants – and maybe a few products he doesn’t know he wants. You don’t see Lowe’s or Home Depot selling paint on one side of the store, and then selling paint brushes on the other side of the store. That would confuse the customer and waste his time. Good merchandising means displaying your paint near your paint brushes, rollers, tape and trays. The customer might come in for paint, and then decide to pick up a new brush while he’s there. He might have forgotten the tape if he hadn’t seen it. And he has a paint tray, but that new one looks pretty slick—so he picks that up, too.

Before we take a look at some common merchandise groupings, let’s take a moment to learn the three rules of visual merchandising

  1. Make merchandise visible—what isn’t seen, isn’t purchased.
  2. Make merchandise tangible and accessible—customers want to see and touch before they purchase.
  3. Give customers good choices—but not too many choices. Shoppers purchase more when they have fewer products to choose from but a nice selection.


Considering these rules, we’ll look at a few different ways merchandise can be displayed to its best advantage, giving consideration to those three rules above and helping increase sales conversion.

Bundled Grouping

Bundled presentations of merchandise allow for a group of like items to be presented together, because they can be purchased together. IKEA does this magnificently. Rather than putting all their couches together, all their desks together, they set up rooms full of their furniture pieces. When a customer walks through, they can see all the products working together.

Shopping at IKEA

This is how it works: You, the customer, come upon the display. Is that room about the size of your room? It is! Would that coffee table work well in your living room, given it’s the right size for the room and the right color? Why, yes! And you weren’t looking for end tables, but because you see them there, it seems like a good idea to pick them up while you’re there.
Bundled presentations don’t always come in the form of fully furnished rooms. You also see them at the grocery store, when they’re showing off their wine in a basket with bread and cheese. You’re not buying that basket, of course, but you’re picking those items off a shelf nearby.

Complementary groupings

Complementary groupings (often referred to as “cross-merchandising”) are similar to bundled presentations in that they sell different items that go together. But they’re sold adjacent to one another, not necessarily as part of a separate display. They can be grouped right on the shelves.

Shopping in the Grocery STore

This is how it works: You, the shopper, head into the grocery store to grab some pancake mix. While you’re picking it off the shelf, you see the bottles of Vermont maple syrup placed right next to it. You pick up one of those, too.
The eggs and bacon, and the painting equipment, are examples of complementary groupings. Birthday cards and wrapping paper, mobile phones and chargers, flashlights and batteries, all of them are complementary groupings. Without the merchandising grouping, one might run in and buy the birthday card and forget the wrapping paper, or buy a new mobile phone and pick up a charger for the car, even though it wasn’t the shopper’s original intention.

Prop groupings

Mannequins are perhaps the most commonly used “prop” in merchandising. Outfits are created on the mannequin and then tables or racks of that merchandise are grouped around it so shoppers can buy what they see. Mannequins can attract shoppers from a distance away, standing like a beacon over other fixtures in the store. Used wisely, they’ll pull shoppers into areas they might otherwise skip in the normal flow of traffic around the store.

Shopping for Clothes

This is how it works: You, the shopper, are headed through the department store to purchase a new pair of running shoes. On your way, you see a mannequin wearing a pair of fabulous biking pants. You stop and check out the displays around the mannequin and find your size. You find you also like the jacket the mannequin is wearing, and it matches the pants perfectly. It goes home with you as well.
Mannequins aren’t the only kind of props to be found in a store. Wine stores frequently use barrels to display their merchandise. Natural baskets might be used to display vegetables in a grocery store. An inflatable palm tree might be used to draw attention to a table of suntan lotions in the middle of a northern winter.

Groupings of products positively impacts sales conversion. Putting like products together helps shoppers buy everything they need—it takes the hassle out of their shopping experience and tempts them with items they weren’t necessarily looking for. Bundling them and using props helps the shopper see the product “in action.” They can envision the product on their person, in their home, and see how good it’s going to be.

Practice Questions


  1. Ebster, "Claus & Marion Garaus. Store Design and Visual Merchandising: Creating Store Space that Encourages Buying, Figure 1.5"
  2. Ebster, "Claus & Marion Garaus. Store Design and Visual Merchandising: Creating Store Space that Encourages Buying, Figure 1.5"

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