Have you noticed a change in the shopping habits of American consumers? When you talk to them, you find out that they are rushed for time. When you watch their shopping habits, you see them scurrying through the supermarket. They even move faster as their shopping trip nears the checkout. They will visit less and less of the store’s shopping area. Actually less than 1% of the shoppers will cover 75% or more of the store shopping area. While the shoppers appear to want to spend less time in the store, we build larger stores. While the consumer wants to spend less time making purchasing decisions, we add more and more SKUs to each product category.
Shopping habit observation is new to many in the business; however, it is old news to the readers of the Views. In 2001, I wrote about PathTracker® which is a creation of Dr. Herb Sorensen, of Sorensen Associates, the sponsor of my Views. PathTracker® is an electronic study of shoppers’ behavior in the supermarket. It tracks where the shopper goes, where they stop and how much time they spend at each stop.
So, what is happening? As Kathleen Kiley, managing editor of the Consumer Markets Insider wrote, “Faced with dwindling sales and sagging market share, many supermarkets are making an about face on store sizes. Instead of trying to compete with superstores in terms of price by building supermarkets as large as two football fields, stores are downsizing, selling fewer products at higher prices.”
The change in strategy, which many consider a major shift, results from the fact that many large stores aren’t generating enough revenue to cover their costs. Supermarkets have reached a point where they can no longer gain economics of scale from physical expansion.
As supermarkets shrink, grocers will be more selective about what they place on the limited store shelves. That should lead to lower overhead and higher sales. Supermarkets should look to independent chains that have been successful at selling fewer products and generating more sales per store. The Stew Leonard’s chain, for example, doesn’t have a center aisle and stocks fewer products than a traditional supermarket. “No center aisles – there’s something there,” Sorensen says. Leonard’s generates more sales per store than the average supermarket.
Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group, points out that the center of the supermarket is fading away as a profit center, leading stores such as Marsh Supermarkets, to remove the center aisles and replace them with perishables. Dr. Sorensen also points out that the H. E. Butt Grocery Co. (H.E.B.) has created its Central Market Stores much like Stew Leonard’s (these stores also have no center aisles). In the place of traditional aisles are produce, meat, and fish departments as well as a cooking school. According to Sorensen, part of H.E.B.’s success with smaller size and customized stores is that they know their customers like the back of their hand.
There is a “sea-change” taking place in the world of supermarketing. I’m sure we will be seeing much more experimenting as we learn more and more about how the consumer shops.
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