The Race to Map Shopping DNA

We’ve all been there: impulse buying. How often do you go to the supermarket for milk and bread and come out with a cartload of groceries?

The supermarket’s aisles are filled with everyday necessities and tempting luxuries that are irresistible to even the most disciplined shoppers. The full-to-overflowing shelves inspire product purchases. By the time you’ve reached the cash register, you find yourself paying for a bunch of items you didn’t intend to buy.

The grocery store recognized, decades ago, that not only was self-service more efficient, it could be more profitable. In pre-supermarket days, an attendant behind the counter fetched the goods on your shopping list and packed them into your basket for you. But the advent of the supermarket heralded a new generation of shopping habits.

Market research shows that almost 60 percent of all products bought at the supermarket were not premeditated purchases. “It was there. It just happened!” might be the cry heard when a shopper is asked to justify the acquisition of yet another half-gallon of ice cream.

But did it “just happen”?

Research confirms that supermarket owners are able to predict with 90 percent accuracy what decisions shoppers are likely to make in the aisles of their stores. It’s no accident that you have to pass by the vegetables first and the candy selection last – right by the cash register, where you have to spend some time waiting, with the goodies displayed right at kid height. The strategy ensures that sweet treats, irresistible to kids, gain maximum exposure to their most ardent consumers.

This represents a well-known and long-used methodology called space management. A methodology that’s been totally ignored on the web.

Many e-commerce fanatics forget that one of the most important differentiators between clicks-based retail and the more traditional bricks-and-mortar kind is the opportunity the latter gives shoppers to browse through thousands of products without confusion, make a selection, and purchase.

If you try to emulate this experience on your computer by visiting, for example, you’ll notice that it’s not possible to parallel the browse, choose, and buy process. Scrolling through hundreds of books doesn’t allow for satisfactory perusal. And books are probably the most Internet-friendly of products on the Net. The shopping experience is even more confusing if you’re trying to buy clothes.

The real-world shopping experience has not yet been translated to the Internet – the experience that makes walking from shop to shop an enjoyable pastime, even a passion for some.

E-commerce’s next priority must be to harness this passion and mold it into an Internet formula: to create a structure that inspires the user to enjoy Internet shopping, to browse frequently, and to buy extra.

We are seeing signs of this awareness. If you’re buying a book about computers, for instance, the item might be accompanied by a special offer on software. But the psychology behind shopping is much deeper. At the supermarket, the shelves on your right might carry sauces while those on the left might accommodate cleaning articles. This isn’t necessarily a confusing juxtaposition in a real-life supermarket. But imagine buying flowers from a web site and being prompted to pick up a bottle of ketchup. The liaison wouldn’t work.

It has taken major brands decades to develop planograms that enable them to control every inch of shelf space. And every inch in establishments like Toys R Us, Marks & Spencer and Nordstrom is planned. Every step you take in the store is planned. Even every minute you wait in the queue.

So now, the same planning is needed on the Internet. The race for mapping the human “shopping DNA” is on. E-commerce is faced with the task of connecting products, brands and categories with each other and with the consumer. And this is not necessarily a logical science.

The human shopping DNA may be an elusive concept to interpret, but once the blueprint has been drawn up, the true shopping portal will be achieved. A portal that enables e-tailers to cross-reference and up-sell all product categories with each other, without confusing the consumer, and achieving the same 60 percent success rate that bricks-and-mortar retailers boast.

Even though the Internet is our most modern communication tool, in many ways its sales service hasn’t advanced beyond pre-war practices, when the customer was attended to by the grocer behind the counter. That’s the type of service the Net offers now. It’s called “searching,” but its function is just as basic as the grocer’s was.


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