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Getting Inside the Consumer's Head

Simple retail environment interventions can lead to dramatic sales results; simple truths about today’s shoppers can help you capture greater revenue opportunities.



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What would you do if you could have exhaustive, carefully recorded and measured data on shopper behavior, motivations and perceptions at point of purchase? You’d want to get your hands on that ASAP, right?

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., an American Marketing Association award-winner who has been a consultant to Fortune 100 corporations for more than 40 years, knows the thought patterns and processes consumers go through when they shop. His decades-long accumulated studies led to his patented shopper-tracking technology, PathTracker, which is aimed at changing retail marketing strategies from a traditional “product centric” perspective to a new “shopper centric” focus.

Putting his knowledge into practice can mean money in the bank for retailers. Drawing on second-by-second analyses of millions of shopping trips, Sorensen has studied how shoppers behave—what they look at, where they go and how they make buying decisions as they travel through retail stores.

“The Holy Grail of retailing is to know exactly what each shopper wants, or might buy, as they come through the front door; deliver that to them right away, accepting their cash quickly and speeding them on their way; and give shoppers the stuff they want in the least amount of time possible,” Sorensen said. “Focus on giving them what they want, and amazing things can happen.

“As a pioneer in the field of in-store research, I have had the opportunity to see retailing go through many changes—including the emergence of new technologies and online retailing,” Sorensen added. “As the industry continues to change, however, the basic insights from my research continue to hold true. And in a more complex and dynamic environment, understanding shopper behavior might be even more important.”

During American Distribution and Manufacturing Co.’s (ADMC) Spring Break event earlier this year, many of Sorensen’s nuggets of wisdom were posted on signage throughout Gnawty’s Pet Shop (a staple at ADMC’s event), which showcased more than 75 endcaps and displays.  


Eighty percent of shoppers’ time is spent navigating the store instead of actually considering items to purchase.

• Narrow aisles lead to psychic discomfort for shoppers; open space attracts. Widen your aisles whenever possible.

• Eliminate or reduce path options, remove visual barriers so shoppers can see the whole store, and provide signage or other navigational aids.

• The most important promotion is place, not price.

• The true shelf “sweet spot” is between the waist and the shoulders.

• Don’t let the daily operations of stocking shelves clog up aisles.

• Reduce the size of the store to reduce the need for navigation. Navigational angst creates significant frustration for shoppers. 


Active retailing is understanding where shoppers are headed and actively making sure they run into the product(s) they need and that you want to sell.

• A serpentine path layout works with, rather than against, shopper behavior. This path, one single wide aisle that snakes its way past merchandise, reduces navigational angst for shoppers.

• Shoppers scan horizontally more than vertically; however, when they are traveling the aisles, their visual attention is drawn by vertical strips.

• Make sure that the right products show up in your customers’ field of vision by the time they get to checkout. This reduces another kind of shopper angst: choice angst.

• Use promotions and visual merchandising to show what is new in the store since a shopper’s last trip.

• Shoppers purchase promotional product off endcaps due to location, regardless of price.

• Promotions are designed for stock-up shoppers, not for quick-trip shoppers.

• Focus on making your winners win bigger. Display the “vital few” SKUs (best-sellers) along the dominant path your shoppers take, rather than expecting them to find them. Rank all SKUs sold in your store from highest seller to lowest; eliminate the poorest performers.

• Choose the locations of your frozen food offerings wisely, as most shoppers visit this section at the end of their shopping trip.


Great retailers continue to experiment. To achieve exceptional retail performance, rethink the total shopping experience at your store. But don’t turn it upside down overnight—look for incremental improvements.

Making shoppers spend more time looking for merchandise and less time buying is never a good idea.

• Although variety might help attract customers to your store, too much of it creates a barrier to shoppers. A large array of options might discourage customers from purchasing because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision. So they decide not to decide and don’t purchase a product.

• Shoppers only spend 20 percent of their time in-store actually selecting merchandise for purchasing. The faster you close sales—the less time wasted for the shopper—the more sales you will make. Great retailers focus on value and convenience; convenience means fast, fast, fast!

• People actually are put off by too much choice; it has been proven time and again that shoppers buy 10 times more from a limited selection than from a large variety.

• Shoppers are attracted to the store by a large offering, but when they get there, they primarily purchase the high-volume SKUs.


Shoppers are spending more than money in the store. They also are spending their time and racking up angst.

• Retailers need to have a superior understanding of shopper behavior and create the right store design, navigation and selection so shoppers are presented with what they want when they want it.

• Shoppers invest time, money and angst (input) as they shop a store to either gain satisfaction or make a purchase (output). Effective retailing means minimizing input to generate higher output.

• Use category reinvention to upgrade the emotional feel of an entire aisle or department.

• As more purchases are made, everything in the store becomes more attractive.

• To understand what shoppers care about and to become actively engaged with the shopper, spend time with them walking through the store. Your strategy for where and when and how to interact with shoppers is crucial. Understanding how shoppers shop can lead to better designs and strategies that can significantly boost sales and profit.


Most shopping trips are “quick trips” when shoppers buy less than five items, which typically generates a third of total dollar sales.

Retail stores should be managed for all three types of shopping behaviors:

• Quick: Short time, small area, slow walk, high-spending speed and very efficient

• Fill-in: Medium time, medium area, slow walk, average-spending speed and modest efficiency

• Stock-up: Long time, large area, fast walk, low-spending speed and lowest efficiency

The importance of quick-trip shoppers suggests a different store design, whereas fill-in and stock-up areas should be considered as extensions of the quick convenience area. Doubling the number of quick-trip shoppers (five items or less/half of all shopping trips) would increase store sales by 30 percent. Smaller format stores are more attractive to quick-trip shoppers who are not price sensitive. 


The bottom line is that the Internet is moving into the store, which will fully blend online and offline retailing.
Ten years from now, retailers will be communicating with shoppers on a regular basis as they walk around the store using their smartphones. 

For even more in-depth shopper research and insights, check out Herb Sorensen’s book, “Inside the Mind of the Shopper: The Science of Retailing.” 


This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Pet Product News.

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