Finer details: Studies on shopper behaviour have focused on customer movements around a store. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
When it comes to the modern supermarket, some shoppers matter more than others.
It is not because they spend more, shop more often or are less inclined to squeeze the avocados. It is 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 meets the science of supermarket design 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 and layout are different and 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.
"Concept" stores: Lighting and layouts have been given a revamp in Australian supermarkets. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
''It's a very sophisticated area … and for the general public it's hard to get information on what's being done,'' said Paul Harrison, who lectures on consumer behaviour at Deakin University. At concept stores, Dr Harrison said, ''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 was all about improving the experience for the customer, not manipulating them with tricks - and even Dr Harrison acknowledged many shoppers would not care much even if they knew the extent of the research that went into maximising returns on their every footstep and eye movement. The point, he said, was that most did not know much, if anything, at all.
''We're not really aware of how we're being nudged and persuaded to buy things. We're a lot less aware of our behaviour and what influences our behaviour than most of us think.''
Fresh appeal: Research suggest consumers respond well to "fresh" visual impressions. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
But for Holly Angell, an engineer at Coles, concept stores are not laboratories but demonstrations of how modern design and lighting can benefit customers, the company and the wider public. The latter claim is based on the impact of one of the biggest changes to supermarket infrastructure in 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''. As a result, LEDs help extend the nutritional qualities of many fresh foods, too.
The 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 even a fishmonger, evoking the sights and smells of the wharf in well-heeled suburbia.
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
Architect Peter Harvey, whose firm designs stores for IGA, said this was 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 … it's trying 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, even polished concrete in some stores, or vinyl covering that looks like stone.
Mr Harvey said: ''The reflection off the floor adds brightness and sparkle, and a bit of shine to the store.'' Customers were meant to feel like they were visiting several distinct stores, not one big one - which meant different lighting to create a ''pharmacy'' feeling in one aisle, while another aisle was lit and laid out like a lolly shop.
Dr Harrison said the effect on behaviour was being studied intently, because the financial benefits could be vast if even a small percentage of consumers was influenced by the tricks of the trade.
''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,''' he said. ''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. It's about volume.''
Researchers have designs on shoppers
Coles has concept stores in Bondi, Broadway and Balgowlah. There is also one in Melbourne and two will open in Brisbane in coming weeks. Woolworths has concept stores in NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
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 travelling anti-clockwise 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.
Research shows customers who make quick trips spend proportionally more money than people who stay longer. Design is being tweaked accordingly, with the old concept of putting essentials such as 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.