Retail spaces – Still awaiting the IA Revolution

July 8, 2008

Next time you are in your local supermarket have a good look around. In most instances you won’t find a place that is more devoid of IA on the planet. If your supermarket isn’t an aircraft hangar with regimented shelves running up and down, stuffed with items located under arbitrary categories that are poorly signed, then please let me know where you shop.

From what I hear the supermarket owners want to keep it this way. They place the milk at the back so we have to go past other stuff they want us to buy and they have us wandering around lost and stressed out hoping we’ll pick up their special offers while we try to locate that dratted can of water chestnuts (is it canned vegetables, chinese food, asian specialties or something else?). They get away with this appalling manipulation and do-nothing attitude because supermarkets are all the same and the owners see no mileage in bucking the trend.

Yet they should beware. Until the late sixties western motorcycle companies ruled the roost and saw no reason why this shouldn’t continue forever. Yet when the Japanese put motorcycles on the market that didn’t cover you with oil and were stylish and desirable the volume western motorcycle industry collapsed within a matter of a few years. Such a paradigm shift in retail is not out of the question.

 People are not stupid. They know they are being manipulated and for many of us this causes shopping to be a somewhat humiliating experience as we scurry around like lab rats in a maze. I really believe that the first supermarkets that seriously take on board IA and related concepts such as search, navigation, findability and user centred design will wipe the floor with its competitors.


How might this be achieved?


 Finding things

 My local supermarket is still a conundrum to me when it comes to finding things and is only saved by the knowledgeable and courteous staff they employ (when you can find them). They use a computer inventory system for re-ordering products and for restocking shelves but do not make this knowledge available for me when I forget yet again where the dratted water chestnuts might be found. A simple touch screen device situated at the end of each aisle where I can type in ‘water chestnuts’ and get the answer ‘Please go to Aisle E and look at shelf number 6’ or ‘I’m sorry but we are out of water chestnuts’ would be a great improvement. Looking for something that you later find out isn’t there makes me feel like someone has stolen a small part of my life.


Categorising things

Shoppers try and use the overhead signs in many supermarkets to find their way around the store. Yet many of the categories these signs represent are illogical and user unfriendly. I look under ‘Asian Specialties’ for my water chestnuts and when I can’t find them start questioning myself as to whether China is in Asia or not. Of course there is another section entitled ‘Chinese food’ around the corner. This being the UK ‘Asian’ has become to mean something from the Indian sub-continent rather than the whole continent of Asia. So I go around to the ‘Chinese Food’ section and it isn’t there either. I stand deep in thought. Are they used in Chinese dishes only? Don’t Thai and some other oriental cuisines use them also?

If supermarkets even carried out a rudimentary card sort with a few of their customers they would end up with a set of categories that would be more logical and perhaps save me having to waste time pondering the subtleties of foreign cuisines just to get a can of vegetables.



 Ever watched ants scurrying around their nest?  That’s what shoppers in a busy supermarket might resemble except for one fact – the ants know where they are going. If you are like me once you find the dratted water chestnuts you remember that you also need noodles and they are five aisles away and you have already passed them twice while focussing on the dratted…..well you know. Supermarket navigation is an oxymoron. To navigate you have to know where you are and where you need to go, something I have rarely experienced in a supermarket. At least if the touch screen device mentioned in ‘Finding Things’ were in place it might save a lot of useless motion but even that isn’t the answer.

What do people mainly go to a supermarket for? To buy food? No. Would you go to Ikea or some other big furniture store to buy a chair and then being told that you had to go to one place to but the fixings, the legs were somewhere else and the seat was way over the other side of the store? Ikea sells a chair as a collection of its constituent parts in a flat pack.

People go to supermarkets in the main to buy meals – breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks. Why don’t supermarkets sell meals?

In my imaginary supermarket I arrive frazzled after a hard days IA-ing and, while enjoying a superb cappuccino, sit down and leaf through a book of recipes. There are books of budget recipes, vegetarian recipes, Italian, Spanish, Caribbean and, of course, Chinese recipes amongst many others. I choose a Chinese stir fry recipe of which one ingredient is, of course, water chestnuts. I note the number, printed in large, bold type at the top of the page, and go to a  small machine with big simple keys 0-9 and ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ buttons.  I enter the number and the machine confirms the recipe title and tells me if any of the ingredients are unavailable. Fortunately they have lots of water chestnuts so I press the ‘Yes’ button and the machine prints out the recipe. The good part is when you turn the recipe over and, joy of joys, navigational instructions show me the optimum path to take around the store.

‘Go to Aisle A and on Shelf 4 you will find the Egg Noodles’. I find a variety there, some cheap, some expensive, so I can still shop according to my budget.

‘Now go to Aisle E and on Shelf 6 you will find the Water Chestnuts’…ah bliss!


So what’s the problem?

As most supermarkets already use a computer inventory system with identified product locations installing a system such as I have suggested should be relatively easy. Why not place the facility online so I can choose my recipe and print it off before I go to the supermarket? That way I could choose the whole week’s meals and pick up all the ingredients by taking the optimum path through the supermarket in one fell swoop.

This is just one simple suggestion amongst a myriad of possibilities. The first organisation that takes the leap, puts itself in the customers’ shoes and uses some IA and imagination could gain a competitive advantage similar to that that Japanese motorcycles still hold today.

Anyway it’s Italian tonight…now where are those dratted olives?


(Thanks to Luca Rosati and Andrea Resmini whose thoughtful  presentation in Euro IA 2007 made me think of IA in retail spaces in the first place and ‘Roadsidepictures’ for the photo of a Piggly Wiggly in the 1950’s)

4 Responses to “Retail spaces – Still awaiting the IA Revolution”

  1. Andrew Hinton Says:

    Thanks for sharing this on the IAI list… I’ve wondered about this for quite a while. I think IA definitely has a huge opportunity in hybrid spaces — where we design the “info layer” so to speak, and how it instantiates itself in the physical space.

  2. patrick c walsh Says:

    Really nice to get a comment from you on my blog. I’ve been reading and enjoying yours at Inkblurt for at least the last 2 years.
    I think that IA could only have been developed within cyberspace and the I think that the approaches that have been developed in a space that has few constraints has allowed new ideas to burst through. However many of these ideas can be applied to many other information environments (IMHO) though sometimes they may need adapting a bit. Information needs structuring whether its a set of web pages or a street full of highway signs.
    I’l be doing another post around this in the near future

  3. Rashmi Says:

    An interesting read for sure!
    whilst you are talking about ‘finding’ goods in a super market where there is an overload of choices… what about the application of IA in retail spaces like say a toy store?There are instances when a parrticular sku is neglected by customers due to a barrage of reasons ( the interior design of the store may not give enough importance to that particular sku or due to space constraints the particular sku is placed in a non conspicuous corner/another floor)…how do you think IA can solve a problem like this???

  4. patrick c walsh Says:

    Thanks for your comment.
    I am not saying that IA is the panacea for everything in physical retail spaces but I think that IA can indeed solve the problem you pose.
    A piece of content on a web site may ‘exist’ in one web page but can be linked to from an infinity of other web pages. From the user’s point of view it doesn’t matter so long as the link to the content from the page they are on works.
    Rather than thinking of retail items being in one physical place, a paradigm I guess that was brought about through the difficulty in controlling stock pre-computer, retail items should be in as many spaces as are relevant. This distributes the stock throughout the retail space minimising the impact on any single item through disadvantageous areas etc. Taking your toy shop as an example a display might just house all Mattel toys. Normal practice perhaps. But all of these toys would also be available from other areas e.g. Mattel dolls in the dolls area, Mattel games in the games display, cheaper toys in the ‘pocket money’ area. If this could be done (much more creatively than I’m suggesting) then it wouldn’t be so hit or miss for any individual item. It would also allow staff some creativity in thining up new ways to combine toys thematically and could also change seasonally for Christmas and Halloween for instance.
    The other way is utilising the wayfinding capability of IA. If the sku in question contained say dressing up stuff (Batman, nurse uniform etc) you could paint some steps from where the Batman toys are saying ‘If you want to look like Batman follow the yellow foootsteps’.
    But I still think that the idea in my original post will also help where people are allowed to find out what a store has to offer and are then told where to go to get it. If my son wants a Batman costume and I know where it is in the store whether the sku is in a disadvantageous position or not will make no difference.

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