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.
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?
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.
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)