EXPERT INSIGHT: Rethinking Center Store: 6 Ways to Innovate

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EXPERT INSIGHT: Rethinking Center Store: 6 Ways to Innovate

While retailers continue to adjust the scope, product offerings, design, and merchandising of their store perimeters, center store has remained basically unchanged for decades. Retailers often tell us, “Customers don’t think it’s broken.” Yet customers clearly don’t get as excited about center store as they do about the “fresh” perimeter. The challenge is to capture the consumer’s attention without overcomplicating store operations, creating a balance between innovation and efficiency.

What kinds of changes to center store will attract today’s shopper, build loyalty and increase cart size? The following suggestions are based on ethnographic observations and interactions with consumers as we explored the center store shopping process.

• Acknowledge “Lifestyle”: Many center store aisles, including pet and baby, do not adequately reflect the dynamics of consumers’ lifestyles, especially as these pertain to how specific products help them care for the ones they love. Merchandising in these higher-involvement categories requires showcasing products to create affinity with consumers in every part of their daily lives (for example, “bathtime with baby”). Educate customers by hosting customer workshops and teaming with charitable organizations and medical professionals (such as the ASPCA or a well-known pediatrician).

• “Zone” the Store: Center store can often be disorganized and inefficient. Consumers may need to zigzag several times across aisles to collect items. To create a consumer-centric, intuitive layout, retailers should rethink adjacencies and barriers from the consumers’ perspective, zoning categories together where appropriate. Some obvious interactions are salty snacks and beverages, or displaying categories of food, such as produce, in all its forms: fresh, frozen and canned.

• Inspire With Mealtime Solutions: Currently, center store isn’t consistently merchandised to reflect the ways in which consumers use the products. When presented apart from each other, the products aren’t terribly inspiring, but when grouped together, they tell the story of creating a wonderful meal. Consumers are energized by using in-store kiosks as well as mobile device applications. These solutions will continue to compete with in-aisle advertising and promotions for efficient meal planning.

• Simplify Choices: The sheer number of products and brands in center store is overwhelming to shoppers, making it difficult to navigate categories and make selections. Retailers need to streamline SKUs, adjusting the size of product categories according to consumers’ desired level of involvement, as well as the local demographic and lifestyle composition. Think more breakfast cereals, fewer paper products. Highlighting private label brands to “take back the store” is another potential approach, organizing product categories around the best of what store brands can offer.

• Get Rid of Visual Clutter: Consider how you can strip away the excess visuals and signage to employ other nonverbal way-finding cues. Some of the most innovative solutions toward “de-cluttering” involve creating key display focal areas for customers --giving them a chance to zero in on the product or group of products that best meet their needs.

• Build a Sense of Connection: Consumers acknowledge the interaction with employees and other shoppers in the perimeter sections and crave the same thing in center store. (And we know for a fact that when they interact with others, they will buy more.) Consider how to support such communications through sharing new products, creating affinity groups and suggesting meal ideas. This will ultimately position the retailer as an educator and expert, and build customer loyalty.

As center store innovations are evaluated, retailers can acknowledge that people aren’t seeking radical change to their grocery shopping trips. Therefore, all measures toward innovation need to be balanced against the way in which customers have been trained to shop the store. Test all strategies with customers to ensure that they perceive them as an improvement to the current shopping experience.

Beyond customer acceptance, prospective innovations for center store eventually need to also go through an operational feasibility filter. Internal teams need to be aligned, or these innovations are doomed from the start.

Those retailers who are willing to try something new -- including addressing internal roadblocks -- will enhance the center store shopping experience. Just because customers can’t imagine a better way now doesn’t mean they won’t enthusiastically embrace a new and more engaging center store.

Rachel Magni has more than a decade of experience working with consumer packaged goods companies and retailers to help them innovate in center store. WD’s work for Frito-Lay’s won a Gold Outstanding Marketing Award at POPAI in 2009.