When it comes to shopper preferences, all store aisles aren't the same.
Center stage currently belongs to the perimeter of a grocery retailer, while center store often is overshadowed and sometimes suffers from an identity crisis. The distinction matters because research suggests a product's location within a store ultimately can determine how consumers regard it. While the perimeter is currently the star, the center store offers plenty of room for growth.
The perimeter's charisma lies largely with perishable products, including prepared foods that now mimic restaurant meals, breads baked on site and fresh-from-the-farm produce. "Perishables are one of those areas of confluence between what shoppers want and what works for retailers. The question is why?" says Jim Lucas, executive vice president and global director of retail insight and strategy for Draftfcb in Chicago.
Consumers prefer the store perimeter because of the variety of products offered, the potential for creative cooking and the "feel good" nature of produce, which lacks the guilt component of the snack and soda aisles, according to Draftfcb research. Among the places visited on a typical shopping trip, 73 percent of shoppers named produce and 50 percent named dairy, while other departments were mentioned by 25 percent or fewer. The research is based on the firm's so-called "over-the-shoulder" (OTS) technique, where consumers use iPhones to make videos in which they discuss what they like or don't like about sections of the store and product arrangement on the shelves.
Over-the-shoulder provides researchers with a more accurate view of shopper preferences than shadowing the shopper in person, Lucas says. Shoppers may select organic products and skip snacks in hopes of giving researchers a positive impression. The videos get to the "why" of consumer preferences.
"From a purely quantitative perspective, we know the trip drivers are fresh foods, and that's by a commanding two-to-one margin," says Nancy Shamberg, vice president of account services at TPN, a brand-centric retail marketing agency in Chicago. The firm's research also indicates fresh foods drive more than 66 percent of the supermarket trips, Shamberg says. Shelf-stable foods in the center of the store drive 27 percent of trips, and frozen foods less than 10 percent.
Basics such as oranges, grapes, apples and bananas are the most popular fruits, while potatoes, lettuce and onions are favorite vegetables by sales rate, she says. By boosting a product's showing, retailers can improve sales of popular products. For example, retailers such as Trader Joe's and Target Fresh Stores feature bananas upfront and center, Shamberg says.
Supervalu's Jewel Osco chain runs thunder sound effects in the produce department about every 20 minutes just as automatic spray-misting begins, says Ken Hicks, senior vice president of client services at The Marketing Store in Chicago.
But many natural sensory effects, such as the smell of rotisserie chicken or freshly baked bread, stimulate their senses, says Jamie O'Boyle, senior analyst at the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia, which relies on observations of consumers. Its researchers have shadow-shopped consumers as they have purchased fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, dairy, candy, gum and main meals.
"When you go around the perimeter, what you are rewarded with [is] its smell," O'Boyle says, noting that some smells can set off endorphins. "You're getting the reward pleasure symbol as you do that," he says.
The perimeter is "designed to give you little doses of dopamine, to give you that kind of preview of what's going to happen if you buy the food. When you get into the center of store now, it's more of a search mission," O'Boyle says. "You don't get those rewards. You have to get them with the images. And if the store is smart, they'll have some pretty good piped music that cues up whatever you're trying to fix."
But coffee doesn't necessarily trump deli meats. Market Force, of Louisville, Colo., asked more than 6,400 online users to rate which departments in grocery stores were most important to them. One-third selected the deli and the butcher, while 31 percent chose the bakery. In contrast, 9 percent named the flower and gift shop, and 3 percent selected the coffee shop, says Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of strategy at Market Force.
The researchers also asked consumers to rate the attributes of stores most important to them. Research showed that 42 percent of consumers favor high-quality produce, compared with 36 percent who preferred high-quality meat.
While the center store generally appears in the background, the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 brought new focus to the area as consumers became more budget-conscious, says Ben DiSanti, president at Competent Curiosity Inc., a marketing consultancy in suburban Chicago, who has been working with The Marketing Store.
Competent Curiosity Inc.
"With the downturn in [the] economy, interestingly enough, sales of the center of the store actually shot up. Part of that was in a bit of a fright of managing your budget. People went away from the perimeter of the store, not to a great extent, but to a noticeable extent," he says."Your buys are usually a little bit better in the center of the store. It's much more of a functional shop."
Looking forward, the center of the store offers retailers new opportunities for growth. While the perimeter might offer fresher products and stronger scents that can provide a preview of the meal consumers desire to create, retailers can do more to bolster the center store's image, O'Boyle suggests.
"When you get into the center of store now, it's more of a search mission," he says. Most packaged goods don't provide the same sensory rewards as fresh products do, but retailers can enhance the experience through images, atmosphere and sound. "If the store is smart, they'll have some pretty good piped music that cues up whatever you're trying to fix," O'Boyle says.
Retailers are making the center store more experiential by allowing shoppers to grind their own beans. "The scents, the smells just make it a little bit more of an experience. The retailers love that, but they don't have the type of opportunity to do that a lot in the center store," he says.
Procter & Gamble has generated consumer excitement in the cleaning supplies aisle, Hicks says. In 2011, Procter & Gamble revamped the marketing of the Swiffer WetJet mopping systems, which created the quick, clean category in 1999. With its "Project Jack" campaign, P&G reinvented how the product was sold, removing it from the box so shoppers could "see and experience it. The packaging really calls out cleanliness, and freshness and solutions to cutting time in the household chores. It created a bit more of experience, not only through the product, but the design of the shelves and how consumers shopped that," Hicks says. The effort paid off with a successful national launch, according to P&G. The campaign won a 2012 Effie marketing communications award.
Increasingly, retailers are building excitement in the center by combining brand offerings with solutions aimed at helping consumers plan meals. "[We've] seen the rise of lots of solution programs that have center-of-store brands (Kikkoman, Heinz, McCormick, etc.) developing awareness and presence in areas where shoppers are likely to make decisions about meals," such as meat and produce, Lucas says. "With the rise of 'just in time' meals, most shoppers are no longer pantry-loading. When they get to the store, they are looking for a meal solution that will likely be used that evening."
The change means when consumers look for meat and vegetables for dinner, they're also looking for meal solutions that can perk up the raw ingredients. "This cross-merchandising means that center-of-store products are being considered and purchased earlier in the shopping trip than in the past," Lucas says.
Some retailers, such as The Fresh Market, encourage shoppers to visit the center of the store with meal-planning coupons and recipes. Others are turning to location-based mobile-phone services to offer coupons designed to drive traffic to center-store aisles.
But at Whole Foods Market, shoppers tend to be more interested in high-quality, innovative products than trying to find the lowest prices. "They're very much off their shopping list and their experience is far more on the positive side than the negative side, so there's a lot of room to play within grocery in this area," Hicks says.
Knowing how consumers react in different parts of the store ultimately will help retailers and CPG makers overcome negative emotions, he says.
By adding cross-merchandising approaches, such as recipes and coupons in the meat and produce areas, retailers can drive traffic to the center aisles.
"We're beginning to see this approach in the high end of the market, the Whole Foods," he says. "By adding a few more emotional cues or experiences in the center, retailers will overcome rote behavior and break up the center-of-the-store experience."
The Marketing Store
While retailers should strive to create a sense of adventure that's currently lacking in the center store, they also need to respect shoppers' time. "The simple reaction is to make the experience more engaging, but if we're not careful, this can potentially extend the shop significantly," which consumers don't want, says DiSanti of The Marketing Store.
The one thing experts can agree on, DiSanti says, is the center-of-the-store shopping experience will change. "The sooner we embrace this, the sooner we can lead that change."
Emotions Run Strong in Grocery Departments
Who knew grocery shopping was such an emotional experience?
When The Marketing Store in the U.K. asked 300 consumers to record on tablet computers how they felt as they shopped the aisles of grocery, electronic and do-it-yourself shops, the results were all over the map.
In each store section, shoppers chose images representing eight different emotions–such as fear, anger, neutral, surprise and happy. For example, they reported anger at store entrances by the "trolleys," or carts, because they weren't looking forward to this same-old chore, says Ben DiSanti, president at Competent Curiosity Inc., a market research firm in suburban Chicago that worked with the Marketing Store.
Specific product departments also elicited emotional responses:
Based on the responses, research firm BrainJuicer created a "heat map" of the grocery store that shows a market seething with emotion. "It's starting to get at something that intuitively we've known for quite some time. It's just putting more methodology to it," says Ken Hicks, senior vice president of client services at The Marketing Store in Chicago.
To DiSanti, the research confirms that the perimeter builds excitement with fresh acts and surprises like a circus, while the long shelves of packaged goods in the center of the store resemble library stacks where consumers pick up packaged goods almost on autopilot.
Chicago-based business and technology writer Howard Wolinsky is a regular contributor to Retail Leader. His work also has appeared in BusinessWeek, Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago Business and Chicago Sun-Times.