Enterprise Marketing & Promotions Management

Who Moved My Cheese? Literally.

By / January 2017


Thinking back to the classic business book written by Dr. JohnsonWho Moved My Cheese back in 1998, I find both the premise and the title to be very thematic to the challenges bricks and mortar retailers now face with regards to their category placement strategies.

First and foremost, Who Moved My Cheese addressed the difficulties in handling change in a dynamic business world.  I think we could all agree that we are indeed in that mode as retailers in 2017.  Secondly, and of equal relevance, when retailers literally do move their cheese, (and other categories and items) within the store they most often do so without understanding the implications of their decisions in terms of shopper dissatisfaction and accordingly lost sales.

In my thirty plus years as a supermarket retailer, I had the opportunity to sit in on many fixture and merchandising plan meetings involving new and remodeled stores.  Where we placed departments and categories within the store was always about retailer logistics and space availability.  There was little or no discussion about shopper convenience or shopping efficiency.  Essentially, this remains the approach of most retailers today.

Let me make the case for why this practice must change.

  1. Changing Shopper Expectations: Shoppers are being ‘spoiled’ by the ease inShopper-centricity which they can not find and order items on-line.  Many of these items are formerly items that they were required to hunt and find in a large footprint retail store, requiring their time, effort and often angst.
  2. Waning Loyalty to One Store: Even without the intrusion of ecommerce retailers, shoppers have more bricks and mortar options than ever before to more conveniently and affordably offer items and categories that formerly were purchased at one store, albeit often inconveniently.Spending Speed
  3. Shoppers are Time Pressed: No matter how hard we try to create a warm, friendly in-store experience, most shoppers have better things do than to spend extra time shopping in any one store, given their hectic and demanding lifestyles.  Shopping Trip length is short and getting shorter.

What to Do?

If I have convinced you that I might be on to something, let me suggest a few things retailers can do short of ripping down walls and upending your merchandising practices that will yield quick, incremental gains.

It simply requires retailers to re-think where they place departments and categories in a more holistic, shopper centric manner.    I have seen this effectively happening in three steps.

  1. First, recognizing that some categories are more important to your business than others and they should be readily accessible to the majority of your shoppers, without your shoppers having to work to find them. Contrary to common practice, purposely placing the shoppers most important categories in the far reaches of large stores to manipulate the shopper’s trip is becoming increasingly risky in this new environment of retail channel options.
  2. Which leads to the second step, which is recognizing that there are areas in every retail store that are more sales productive than others. There are also distinct, existing traffic patterns in every store, which are much easier to leverage than to attempt to change.  Most of us have seen heat maps and traffic pattern maps that depict “hot and cold” spots in the store.    Just know that some areas of your store are more void of shoppers than you would like.   It is also important to realize that shoppers spend faster and with more efficiency early in their trip and their trip time is inherently short and not easily stretched by “good merchandising” and using placement of “destination categories” as magnet to attract shoppers into parts of the store they are not otherwise interested in going.
  3. Finally, many departments, categories and items have strong affinities with other items on the basis of how the shoppers view and use these categories and items. When possible use data to measure basket level affinity.  I would encourage retailers to do this both quantitatively (basket analysis) and qualitatively (shopper questionnaires and shop-a-long research) to better understand the strength of these relationships and the importance of position these categories and items near to the other.

Illustration of Basket Analysis – Product Affinity

Enabling shoppers to quickly and efficiently find what they are looking for in today’s bricks and mortar stores are emerging as a key competitive advantage.  As with most things retailer, there will always be an element of “art” in any empirical category placement plan.  However, we are no longer operating in a consumer environment where our stores and merchandising plans accommodate our merchants first and expect the shoppers to adapt.  If you move your cheese now without first thinking about the cheese shopper, you will likely be selling less cheese in the future.

Contributed by Mark Heckman, Managing Partner & Senior Retail Consultant Mark is a retail industry veteran that leverages over 25 years of executive level experience based in retail marketing, brand partnerships, category management practices and consumer research. Mark has worked with a number of highly reputable organizations within the retail supermarket industry. He has served as Director of Marketing Research at Marsh Supermarkets, VP of Marketing for Randalls Food Markets, MARC Advertising, and Valassis Relationship Marketing Systems. Mark has previously served as both member and chairman of the Food Marketing Institute’s Consumer Research Committee and is currently the managing partner of Accelerated Merchandising by Shopper Scientist, LLC, and Senior Retail Consultant at Mark Heckman Consulting. Connect with Mark Heckman or @markaheckman


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