Sunday, December 20, 2015

‘Tis the Season - of Clutter

“When stores are streamlined and aisles cleared, sales drop.” That quote comes from a New York Times Article today titled “Walmart Can’t Escape Clutter. Can You?” The premise is that aisles blocked by “specials” induce people to purchase more than they intend—and that when stores clean up their act, sales drop. Add masses of people (and they’ll be there on a Saturday morning, yesterday, when I went in search of three specific items); a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, my first choice yesterday, was so full that I had a quite distinct feeling of claustrophobia—strong enough to drive me out of the place. Next door here, at the Novi mall, stands a Jo-Ann Fabrics. I went there next. What a great relief. The aisles were wide, no “treasures” blocked my path. I wandered freely as if in a well-tended German forest. I found one of the items on my list. And on leaving, only six people stood in line ahead of me—waiting for one of six check-out counters to free up.

My next and last place was Sears. Out of season it is about as full as an out-of-the-way Tibetan cemetery, but this time it almost matched Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Taking a deep breath I entered the aisle I needed—and fitted in, walking sideways. But the product I sought wasn’t in stock. “Try our web page,” I was told.

So I went home after a single purchase accomplished at a store that, supposedly, was violating all the rules of modern shopping: you must have clutter-filled and crowded aisles. And got curious this morning. Well Jo-Ann Fabrics had sales of $2.1 billion in its last fiscal year publicly reported (ending January 2011). After that it went private—and had estimated sales of $2.4 billion in 2015. Mind you, it was growing just fine in previous years too. The store, by the way, is one of our all time favorites—and the nearest to us here is bigger. I suppose they needed more aisle space!

The Times article, written by an expert adviser to retailers, unwraps the mystery. Clutter and crowding induce people to forget why they are shopping and what they’re supposed to buy. In studies of customers the author shows that people interviewed after shopping don’t even remember half the items they actually bought. In-depth studies—of the sort of depth I only achieve in studying metaphysics—are not exactly necessary. One just looks at the faces of shoppers: they’re all in a narcosis. The author ends his article with this advice to shoppers: “Never shop tired, never shop hungry, and keep a list of shopping objectives.” Amazing advice. The author is evidently trying to destroy his own customers for studies, the retailers. To them he must be saying: “Clutter or die.”

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