Two or three years ago (just like their UK counterparts) America’s biggest retailers started slimming down their inventories and clearing aisles for a cleaner, more appealing store look.
Suddenly, it was all about cutting out clutter and creating a new relaxed shopping experience. Fashion chains and department stores opted for statement-making empty walls and minimalist product displays amidst talk of a new era of “considered consumerism”. America’s supermarkets followed: merchandise on end caps was pared down, shelves got shorter and stocking density was cut for fear of overwhelming consumers with choice.
It all looked good for a while. Customer satisfaction soared and people loved the spacious stores. There was just one little problem. The great de-cluttering experiment seemed to be coinciding with the biggest sales slide in recent retailing history. These happy, satisfied customers were buying less!
The reason for this, according to consumer behaviour experts (shame they forgot to mention this before), is that the messier and more confusing a shop looks, the better the value it projects. Or, as Ben DiSanti, from marketing consultants TPN, told the New York Times recently: “If customers walk into a less organised environment, their first impression is going to be, ‘OK, you’re going to find lower prices here’.”
So, at the very deepest point of the recession, many leading American retailers were signalling the exact opposite message. With their new relaxed ‘shopping environment’ and designer spaces they might as well have put up a sign saying ‘come in and get fleeced’.
Now, as the New York Times reports, American retailers are travelling in fast reverse. Having discovered that messiness is visual shorthand for value, they are attempting to lure shoppers back by increasing stocking densities and filling in all those gaps in their stores. Encouragingly, for them, latest retail figures show that same-store sales are heading upwards.
While major UK retailers will be taking note of this about-turn by US stores, I’m not sure if there are any direct lessons to be learned here for the UK health food trade — we’re generally not ‘value retailers’. Even so, in the current climate many consumers remain highly price sensitive. So, the next time you’re tempted to de-clutter your store you might just want to think again!
By Jim Manson
Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.