Shopping – it’s like driving

Last week was no different to any other, as I was driving around the country to various meetings in unfamiliar territory, well that was until disaster struck and my sat nav stopped working! (gasp!)

All of a sudden, I was forced to navigate for myself whilst driving, and the only thing that was there to help me were the road signs. Some were useful, but there weren’t enough in my opinion, and it made for quite a stressful trip.

This whole experience got me thinking about in-store and on-line signage – what is the role for it and does it help or hinder shoppers?

Like driving, shoppers rely on navigational cues to help them find products in-store. Even though shoppers may be very familiar with the store layout (just like we are with our route home from work) they are still sub consciously using visual cues to get them to the right place in store. On many occasions, shoppers rely on products themselves to do this (similar to the use of landmarks when driving). Shoppers use the iconic colours and shapes associated with a product within the category to help them navigate. For example – large dark coloured bottles with red labels cue that we are at the soft drinks category. Bright yellow boxes show shoppers where the Mexican food category is in-store.

This is all well and good in categories that benefit from hugely iconic brands, or where the product cues are easy to distinguish between segments. However, not all categories have this luxury, and therefore navigation becomes more of a problem. Take for example the fresh produce aisle. If I want to find chicken, the product itself is not enough, and signage is my only hope!

However too often, retailers and manufacturers forget the purpose of signage. Signage should be in-store to help shoppers navigate, and this becomes more difficult when we are bombarded with too many distractions or if the messaging is overly complex.

Signage works because our eyes are attracted to anything discontinuous from their surroundings. Fins work extremely well because they interrupt the flow of shelves and products along an aisle. However, if we interrupt this flow too often, and continually block the view of products, then the fins become a distraction and will be filtered out by shoppers. We also forget that shoppers are unable to process much when they are shopping, and we try to over complicate the signage itself in a bid to communicate as many marketing messages as possible!

The following examples show signage being used well by retailers …

Simple colour coded signage has been used to help shoppers differentiate between meat types, with simple uncomplicated language to clarify what type of meat can be found where. The Crayola example shows how we can signpost a sub-category which may have been struggling to cut through within a colourful and visually noisy environment.

Secondly, Sainsbury’s have used good visual signage to help us find those categories that can change location from store to store. They have used the key colour and shape cues from signpost brands to assist shopper navigation. They could however, improve this further if they supported the signage with some aisle fins, as aside from some navigation, generally shoppers won’t look up whilst shopping.

So how will you know if your category signage has been effective?

Well, simply asking shoppers probably won’t help!

Shoppers are unlikely to recall seeing signage (in the same way you won’t recall every road sign you’ve used on your journey), as the processing of the information is more likely to be sub conscious.

But just because you don’t recall it, it doesn’t mean it has not been useful. If we tracked your eye movement whilst driving, we would see that you had used plenty of signage, despite the fact that you couldn’t remember it. Exploring visual activity is therefore one element that helps to identify if signage has been effective.

Secondly, if we asked you to rank the ease of navigation on two unfamiliar road routes – one with and one without signage, we would no doubt observe that the route with signage is considered easier to navigate. Indirectly exploring ease of shop by testing different scenarios is another element that should be used to identify the effectiveness of signage.

We often want to see direct recall or immediate sales uplifts for our investment, but this is unlikely due to the sub conscious use of signage in-store. There is however a longer term benefit to using signage – if we can make the shopping experience easier for shoppers, their long term loyalty will provide the return on investment.

In summary, shopping is like driving – we often do it on autopilot, and we use landmarks as navigational prompts. Sometimes however, there are not enough of these prompts, or we are not familiar with them, meaning we need signage. But to be effective, these signs need to be visible and made so simple that shoppers process them sub consciously.

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