Knowledge Bank Blog, Range & Portfolio, Channel Execution

Environmental Cues

What is your environment signalling to shoppers?

In 1982 two social scientists developed a concept called ‘Broken Windows Theory’. Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Then, next time, they may break into the building. A week later the building might be on fire.

The example was used to make a general point that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes, such as vandalism and graffiti, helps create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening. The implementation of this policy in New York in the 1990’s was deemed to be one of the key reasons for the big fall in crime during that period.

These types of environmental cues are around us all the time. Think about the last time you were in a fast food restaurant. Unless you are a very conscientious person, your decision about whether to clear away your tray is likely to have been very influenced by what was around you. Lots of clean tables? You probably cleared your tray. Lots of tables with finished meals and trays on them? You probably left your tray on the table.

These environmental cues have a big influence on our behaviour. They also have a big impact on perception. How many of you would go back to a restaurant with brilliant food, but dirty bathrooms? Probably not many.

Why are we talking about this? Well, every time a shopper walks into a store, they are exposed to lots of environmental cues. Some of them are very significant – IKEA directs you on a certain route around the store, Stew Leonard’s the US supermarket does the same thing, and most supermarkets lead with fresh produce.

Some of the cues are less obvious. For instance, the width of the aisles, the height of the shelves, the angle of the displays, the type of signage and communication, all send signals to the shopper. Things that the System 1 part of our brain quickly interpret, then use to direct how we think and behave.

The crucial thing is that these signals can work for the brand or store – actively encouraging the right behaviours. Or they can work against the brand or store – discouraging the right behaviours or reinforcing the wrong behaviours.

So, how do Retailers and brand owners make sure that environmental cues are working for rather than against them?

The overall store environment. Take 2 extremes. Walk around an Aldi store and everything about the environment reinforces value. It suggests that they don’t waste money on unnecessary cost and that is one of the reasons they can deliver prices that are so low. In contrast, go to a Wholefoods store. Everything about it signals quality, freshness, care and attention – which supports their core proposition.

Within a couple of seconds of walking into any store, a shopper is receiving signals about what the store stands for.

The environment within a category or aisle. This can work in 2 ways. Firstly, how do you want shoppers to behave in your aisle? Speed up and buy quickly? Try narrow aisles, high shelves, simple merchandising solutions. Slow down and browse? Try wider aisles, lower shelves, more engaging merchandising solutions.

Secondly, what do you want them to think and feel? If you want them to be thinking health, are the displays and imagery reinforcing health? If your category is about engagement and fun, is that coming across in the aisle?

The product displays. We’ve said before that presentation = perception. For instance, is the display signalling to the shopper that this is a high quality product worth paying more for? Or is your brand stacked high on a secondary promotional display in its outer packaging? That says this is a brand that you buy when it’s on deal. Too often brands look good on the primary shelf, then go on promotion and look like everything else on deal. A lot of good work can go to waste with one bad bulk stack.

Pack structure and design. The easier a pack is to access and pick up, the more likely the shopper will pick it up. And once it is in the hand it is very likely to end up in the basket. Touching is key to buying. Small changes to pack structure, shelf ready packaging, or the way a product is displayed, can make a big difference. It can be the difference between picked up or not. Bought or not.

Small environmental cues can lead to big differences in how shoppers think and behave. These cues can run from the total store environment through to the 20cm of space that your brand has on shelf. That’s your space. Use it wisely. Make sure it’s sending the right signals to the shopper.

And next time you are in a fast food restaurant, please clear your tray away.

Feel free to forward.  Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.