Supermarket chains have lab stores observing shoppers' behaviour

When it comes to the modern supermarket, some shoppers matter more than others.

It's not because they spend more, shop more often or are less inclined to squeeze the avocados. It's because of where they live - a tiny proportion of the many millions of Australian shoppers who find themselves part of constant experimentation by the big supermarket chains to find out what makes us tick, what makes us spend, what makes us slow down or hurry up, and even, they assure us, what makes us happy.

This all takes place in what Coles and Woolworths call their ''concept'' or ''innovation'' stores - a handful of supermarkets where the science of consumer behaviour and supermarket design meet in ultra-modern and unfamiliar surrounds - unfamiliar, that is, to the 99 per cent of us who shop in older stores awaiting the cutting-edge design of the test labs. The lighting is different; the layout is different; the features may surprise - such as iPad stations that seem to echo the Apple retail store strategy, though here the tablet table is off to the side of actual Granny Smiths.

''It's a very sophisticated area … and for the general public it's hard to get information on what's being done,'' says Paul Harrison, who lectures on consumer behaviour at Deakin University. At concept stores, Dr Harrison says, ''the people who are participating in it don't know that they're participating in it. That's what retail does.''

The retailers would disagree, arguing it's all about improving the experience for the customer not manipulating them with tricks, and even Dr Harrison acknowledges many shoppers wouldn't much care even if they knew the extent of the research that goes into maximising returns on their every footstep and eye movement. The point, he says, is that most don't know much, if anything, at all.

''We're not really aware of how we're being nudged and persuaded … We're a lot less aware of our behaviour and what influences our behaviour than most of us think.''

For Holly Angell, an engineer for Coles, the company's only Melbourne concept store, at Westfield Southland, is not a laboratory but a demonstration of how modern design and lighting can benefit customers, the company and the wider community. The latter claim is based on the impact of one of the biggest changes to supermarket infrastructure of the past decade: energy-efficient, long-lasting LED lighting.

Along with refrigeration improvements, Ms Angell said LEDs had slashed power consumption dramatically while improving the quality of fresh food displayed under the lights. There is no ultra-violet light, and less heat - ''heat would diminish the quality and freshness of our fresh food''. LEDs help extend the nutritional qualities of many fresh foods, too.

The Southland store, which opened 14 months ago, and its near-identical twin concept store in Bondi, is dominated by a massive fresh food area - the idea being to make supermarkets feel like an old-fashioned marketplace. There's a fishmonger, whose wares are on ice in the open.

Melbourne architect Peter Harvey, whose firm designs stores for IGA, says this is the trend worldwide. ''We try to design a market feel in a supermarket so you enter into a store and you're greeted by the fresh department … to create a more natural environment.''

Timber gives a rustic, marketplace feel, even on ceilings. Everything is considered: the height of shelving, the height and intensity of lights, the style of floors - polished concrete in some stores, or vinyl covering that looks like stone. You're meant to feel as if you're visiting several distinct stores, not one big one, which means different lighting to create a ''pharmacy'' feeling in one aisle, while another is lit and laid out like a lolly shop.

Dr Harrison says in every instance the effect on your behaviour is being studied intently, because the financial benefits can be vast if even a small percentage of us are influenced by the tricks.

''Even if it's a case of using a certain floor covering or a certain lighting and that can change purchasing patterns by 1 per cent, that's 1 per cent more than they had before. Even small twists and turns that get people to spend a couple of dollars more or buy one or two more things have a significant effect on the bottom line if you can get it in big numbers.''

What the research shows

  • Supermarket design takes into account intense research on shopper behaviour, with some studies using GPS technology to track movement around the store. A US study found shoppers going anticlockwise spent an average of $2 more per visit.
  • Shoppers are targeted at the end of the aisles with profitable products - reflecting research showing most people travel around the outside perimeter, entering aisles only as needed.
  • Latest design trends suggest customers respond better to a “fresh” visual impression as they enter - meaning fruit, vegetable and bakery features are taking up ever more space at the front of supermarkets.
  • Customers who make quick trips spend proportionately more money than people who stay longer, research shows. Design is being tweaked accordingly, with the old concept of putting essentials like bread and milk at the furthest point of the store being revised and impulse purchases being put in the path of people making quick trips.

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