Cost of Living

How stores like Costco use everything from layout to smell to make you open your wallet

The design of many stores — from floor plan to scent — actively encourages consumers to stay longer and spend more money, according to retail design and wayfinding experts.

The subconscious ways retailers use design to get you to shop

Shoppers make their way through a Costco in southeast Calgary. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The design of many stores — from floor plan to scent — actively encourages consumers to stay longer and spend more money, according to retail design and wayfinding experts.

With the U.S. tradition of Black Friday approaching, and the Christmas shopping season at hand, retailers could be leaning on subtle design choices that nudge shoppers to stay longer and buy more. 

The cues can range from visual to auditory to olfactory. Essentially, everything from what you see to what you smell impacts how wide your wallet opens.

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One of the major components retailers take into account when designing their spaces includes understanding what customers do as soon as they walk through the front doors, according to retail interior designer Jennifer Jordan.

"We're more likely to turn to the right… when we enter [a store] and that means it's the best place for the newest and highest margin goods," said Jordan, who is based in Edmonton.

Jordan points out that there are unconscious biases that come into play when we enter a retail environment, and things like the scent of a store can prime you to spend money on items in there.

As an example, she points out that many Canadian Tire outlets often have a "distinct smell," conjuring up thoughts of motor oil or steel.

Some Canadian Tire stores including this one on Toronto's Lakeshore Blvd. have customers wait in a single line for the next available cashier. (CBC)

"That's part of this sensory differentiation that you don't feel when you're on the Canadian Tire website," said Jordan. 

"[It brings] the construction mindset, you know this is the smell of progress. And soon my house is going to smell like this."

Design elements influence emotions

The physical layout of the store can have a strong influence on your emotional state as well, according to designer Chris Herringer.

The wayfinding expert helps come up with methods to help people direct and navigate themselves through physical environment, and helped deconstruct a Costco warehouse layout for The Cost of Living.

"I just noticed how big and open it is, and I can get my bearings quite easily because it kind of presents the whole layout of the store to me," said Herringer, who is a senior associate with design firm Entro in Calgary.

Chris Herringer is a senior associate with design firm Entro. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"It's not like I'm in a maze where I have to react to barriers that might create anxiety," said Herringer, who pointed out that anxious customers may not spend as much.

The designer also noted that Costco, with only one entrance, wants everyone to start at a single point and then proceed almost along a "racetrack" where you can experience other products as you walk along towards your destination.

The trick is that if you approach the store with a specific task — for example, purchasing meat — you'll be distracted, deliberately, along the way. And you could be enticed to purchase more.

"Poultry and seafood are down at the end … if you were task-oriented and you wanted to just run in here and get something quick … you're not going to get into that until you go through the rest of the store," he said.

Claire Tsai is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Claire Tsai)

He did point out that Costco still keeps things changing to make sure that you have to pay attention to your surroundings, even if you are a savvy Costco member who might know where most things are.

"There's kind of a rotation going on, and you're kind of forced into this a bit of a scavenger hunt," explained Herringer.

Where the items are — and how many — influences you

Products that are more complex can often be placed in high-profile locations at the front of a store because you are more willing to consider them earlier in your shopping, according to Claire Tsai, associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Think of why complicated devices like television sets or home appliances are placed close to the beginning of the Costco "racetrack" — experts like Tsai believe you are more likely to have the energy to think about a complicated and expensive purchase right when you enter the store.

"They have the highest willingness to process product information to actually carefully consider their choices," she said.

Towards the end of a shopping trip… [shoppers] don't have the patience or the capacity to consider tough choices.- Claire Tsai, associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto

According to Tsai, retailers choose certain things to be at the front of the store because customers have the most energy when they first start shopping.

So it could be more effective to intercept shoppers early in their visit to the store with unexpected or new information.

"Halfway through, or towards the end of a shopping trip, they are tired or they feel they've run out of time, so they don't have the patience or the capacity to consider tough choices," said Tsai. 

Another trick that could be driving sales at stores is actually limiting the choices available to them on a shopping floor.

Some of the research Tsai has worked on showed that consumers are often less happy with a selection if they had to pick from dozens of choices than if they had, for example, six options to choose from.

It's unclear whether limiting selection is deliberate on the part of retailers such as Costco, but it could have an impact.

"Costco might not be doing it on purpose, but at the end of the day it's making people happier which probably makes them spend more money," said Tsai.


Written by Anis Heydari, with files from Falice Chin and Paul Haavardsrud.

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