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Choosing reading books can be a serious undertaking. Even the choice of a novel or a detective book may not be taken lightly by readers. There are different ways in which consumers may get into choosing a book; some search and selection patterns in the decision process carried out by consumers can be observed in bookstores. It is possible to infer from observations, with some limitations, styles of shopping for books, involving certain tactics or rules utilised in the process. Book fairs especially offer an interesting and vibrant venue for book shopping with options not regularly available at stores. Such events may also provide an opportunity to detect new or distinctive patterns and styles of shopping that arise from the dynamic happening and busy environment.

The open-air Hebrew Book Fair has been taking place in a main central square in Tel-Aviv for over forty years in every June. Originally the book fair was held for a week but in recent years it has been extended by three more days due to its high popularity. It must immediately be noted that the book fair is an event reserved for publishers. It is a kind of ‘direct-sales’ event in which publishers meet face-to-face with readers to present their book collections to them for purchase on special discounts (the main bookstore chains run their own parallel competitive events with discounts in-store or near their stores). Visitors at the book fair can find Hebrew-native books and books translated to Hebrew from English and other languages; topical categories cover, for instance, prose, poetry  and novels; detective and thrillers; history, science, and other areas of knowledge; and last but not least children & youth books. Such an enormous selection of books is not available ordinarily at bookstores in the country. The larger publishing houses may occupy ten or more counters in-line.

The visitor traffic at the event, as in this year, suggests that print books are still highly desired by people. Nevertheless, to attract even more visitors, particularly families with children, the organisers added in the past few years food and drink stands and a sitting area with tables in the square’s centre. It may help to increase the convenience to visitors and festivity of the event though it could sacrifice a bit the respectability of this literary event. However, it may be a matter of necessity or priority to make the event more popular and vibrant so as to bring larger reader audiences back to books.

As suggested above, this book fair is a busy event with tens of thousands of books of numerous titles on display from different publishers and across a wide range of topics. It retains also a long tradition wherein Israeli authors attend to sign their books for visitors-buyers. Some book counters may become crowded with shoppers during certain hours through the afternoon and evening (i.e., after work and school hours) which can make it harder to access books and check them out more deeply. Hence it may require shoppers to apply tactics for choosing books of their interest and taste a little differently than they would while shopping in a bookstore. Yet visitors find their ways to browse books, sometimes more loosely, sometimes more meticulously; it seems to happen overall in an orderly manner, each visitor getting his or her place at a book counter or desk.

Visitors can be seen walking along counters of a given publisher, staying at a counter for a while to observe its books, then moving along. After selecting a few books from separate but adjacent counters of the same publisher, the visitor often returns to a previous counter to pay. However, visitors-buyers are also offered the option to keep books already selected behind the counter (a combination of convenience and security for both sellers and customers).

Three forms of browsing candidate books of interest can be primarily noticed: Firstly, eye-scanning the front covers of books from top. Secondly, lifting a book, turning it over and reading its back cover — an abstract, short review recommendations, or a brief biography of the author(s). A visitor may examine a few books from a counter this way, but being able to do so comfortably may truly depend on how many people are already at the counter. Hence, visitors who cannot find a free spot at a counter are often seen looking over a counter-top quickly, moving to the next counter, then coming back if perhaps there was a book that had caught their attention previously to check on the book more closely. But visitors generally do not have to wait too long to find a free spot at a counter. Thirdly, one gets to open a book and sample-read sections from its pages, or looking at photographs, charts or maps inside the book. Instances of reading inside books were observed much less frequently.

Examining a book’s content more deeply to form a better founded impression or opinion of it is more difficult and hence is less likely than would be seen at bookstores. Yet, if time and space at the counter allow, it is possible to find a visitor examining a book more meticulously. It appears to be particularly relevant and appropriate for ‘knowledge books’ such as in history, sciences and technology, the social sciences, economics and business. For example, a visitor in his ~70s was leaning over an open book on the history of WW2 by Max Hastings, appearing concentrated in reading and observing maps and photographs (‘Inferno/All Hell Let Loose’, translated). He seemed interested overall in history of the two world wars of the 20th century, judging from other books he browsed; after nearly ten minutes he handed three chosen books to keep, and continued searching [A].

  • Please be advised that the age estimates of visitors are based on observation alone in best judgement of the author.

Comparing books on a given topic can be an even more difficult task to perform at a counter. It is hardly practical to hold two books open simultaneously for comparison, but visitors may examine books sequentially in attempt to evaluate and choose which one is more suitable to their objectives. For instance, a visitor (male, ~60) looked into a book — its introduction, inner pages, and content — on the history of the state of Israel (by Michael Bar-Zohar), but he apparently did not find what he was looking for as he asked the seller if there were books on the period preceding the establishment of the state. The seller brought him two books (concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict): he opened one of them, went through its pages, and put it aside, then browsed at greater length pages in the other book and looked at photographs. Eventually he chose the first book on the state of Israel, after looking into it again, and the third book (total time 15 minutes, [B]).

The search and examination of books sometimes involves moments of deliberation. In some cases, as above [B], the visitor may ask for advice from a seller. Alternately, as in another case observed, a seller who noticed a visitor (female, 30-35) hesitating, offered her help with recommendations. The visitor-shopper was already holding two books and the seller brought her more books the latter thought may suit the shopper accordingly in prose or novels by Israeli authors. They continued talking about the books as the shopper browsed loosely inside some of the books or read from the back cover [C].

Deliberation can take some additional forms. For example, a female visitor (~45) was considering the purchase of a book on equity investments. She was checking in particular a book purporting to be adapted and designated for women. The visitor went through some book pages, being unsure it was a good choice, and seemed recoiled upon noticing the book was from 2011 (i.e., ‘Is it still valid and relevant?’). But eventually, following a short exchange with the (female) seller, the visitor-shopper decided to take it anyway [D]. A visitor (male, 25-30) at another publisher has shown an intriguing shopping process with deliberation to the last moment: He was already holding a book when moving to another counter to look over books of prose, selected one of them, then browsed some science and knowledge books (e.g., by an Israeli scholar, lecturer and prolific writer on sciences and philosophy, Haim Shapira), but collected none. Subsequently the shopper moved to a more remote counter where he picked-up instantly a book, came back to the previous counter of science and knowledge books to purchase three books. However, after he had already paid and the books were put in a bag by the seller and handed over to him, he took out one of the books and picked-up instead a different book in front of him on biblical philosophy (by Shapira, 10 minutes, [E]).

Shopping patterns can range from exploratory, looking for opportunities with little idea pre-conceived in mind, to being pre-minded, that is, having a goal to find a particular book. Moreover, visitors-shoppers may mix styles at different levels of search, examination and choice while shopping from the same publishing house. Mixed tactics could be seen above in the shopping of visitors [E] and [C]. Following are two more examples of this kind: (1) A young visitor (female, ~17-18) was browsing prose or fiction books, going through pages and reading inside some of the books or reading from the back covers of others, then passed to looking from top at books in adjacent counters of the publisher (a more haphazard quick scan), finally returning to the first counter to buy [F]; (2) A visitor (male, ~45, at a counter of books on history and politics) took a cursory look over a biography of one of Israel’s prominent leaders of the past, kept searching and shortly after found a book on the history of Sephardic Jews (‘Marranos’, Yirmiyahu Yovel) and looked into the book more dedicately; the visitor, who seemed overall interested in Israeli and Jewish history, picked up a book at the last moment by an Israeli historian on the commanders of the Nazi concentration camps (‘Soldiers of Evil’) and purchased it with the book on Marranos [G].

  • In a curious brief episode, demonstrating an apparent pre-determined choice of book, a visitor in his mid-40s approached a counter, stood pausing or looking over the books, then instantly extended his hand to pick-up three copies of a book on the Bitcoin, which he purchased; one of the sellers seemed so impressed that she asked to take a photo of him holding the books with her mobile phone to which he smilingly agreed [H].

The main publishing houses presenting at the book fair offered deals of ‘3 for 100’, that is, three books for 100 shekels (~$28 in June). One publisher even offered five books for 150 shekels. These deal offers were displayed on signage boards above counters. A fourth book could be purchased for 50% of its list price, but this offer was not displayed. Visitors-shoppers who had already selected three books enquired whether there would be a discount for additional books, and were replied with the 50% offer. For instance, visitor [A] so enquired before continuing his search. Another visitor (male, ~30) who was holding four books by Ken Follett seemed unable to make up his mind which three to buy, posed the question about a fourth book discount, deliberated a little longer while shuffling the books in his hand, and finally passed all four to the seller to purchase [I]. In some cases, however, it was the seller who initiated the offer of discount on a fourth book in hope to increase the sale. Visitor [C], for example, accepted an offer as such and bought four books, probably in appreciation of, and perhaps feeling obliged to reciprocate, the advice she received from the seller. Conversely, another visitor (~30), who selected three books in history and politics on his own refused the offer by the seller when submitting his books to purchase [J].

Visitors were induced by these deals to buy more books from any single publisher. A single book could usually be bought with a 20% discount but this offer was not made public, proposed by a seller only on request of the visitor. This policy makes it simply unworthy economically for visitors to cherry-pick the books they most require or desire from different publishers (consider that many of the books cost 80-120 shekels each!). The greater problem, however, is that it may drive consumers to buy books they do not care for or do not have time to read soon. Henceforth, visitors could end up buying a pack of books, collected from several publishers, for the whole year to read. It puts quantity before quality in buying books. The ones standing to suffer from this policy are of course the book retailers who will likely see fewer shoppers at their stores in the coming months. From a publisher’s viewpoint, they may see it as only a reprisal to similar deals offered at bookstores throughout the year.

Visitors-shoppers at the book fair appear to use composite decision strategies for choosing books at the counters of a publisher: a different type of rule or method may be fitted to choose among different books (e.g., picking-up a book planned ahead to purchase, using book titles or author names as memory cues for books they have considered recently, examining inside books with greater scrutiny to evaluate them). Furthermore, the book shoppers are searching for informational cues, starting from the front cover of a book, going to the back cover, then getting inside the book. They could be extending the search for cues about a book as they feel is needed (e.g., cut the search short if sufficient information has been retrieved) or are stimulated to learn more about the book (e.g., intrigued by information on the back cover to look inside).

The difference in shopping for books at the book fair compared with bookstores seems to be not so much in the types of rules or tactics used as in the extent and frequency they are used. Book shoppers may feel at greater ease to search for a book at a store with a print of a book review cut from a newspaper (as observed in a store) than they would in the book fair (surely the same applies if one seeks guidance from his or her smartphone). One may also feel more comfortable and free to browse inside a book at a bookstore, at a quiet corner to stand or perhaps on a couch or sofa to sit and read, than at the book fair. Yet, visitors of the book fair seemed to adapt quite well to the conditions at the counters; they appear to use rules or methods similar to those that can be seen at bookstores, only adjusting them to search and choose more efficiently, particularly by restricting deeper examinations to situations where a book demands it.

  • Additional research methods can aid in identifying and verifying more accurately the book images and information viewed by visitors and the decision rules they use. Those methods include particularly eye-tracking and a real-time protocol of the shopping decision process (‘think aloud’). But executions of such methods may be inconveniently intrusive and interfere with the natural course of the shopping trip for visitors. Another method to consider with less intervention is an interview with a visitor-shopper after concluding a shopping episode.

Gaining greater insight into shopping for books and understanding the decision processes visitors-shoppers follow at a book fair can help in devising new designs of book displays (e.g., better organise books by topics or themes, easier-to-find) and improved practices to accommodate the visitors at the event. The organisers and publishing houses may also come up with a new co-operative scheme that would allow visitors to accomplish more effectively their objective in selecting and buying the books that interest them most or they desire to read.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Consumer purchases from Internet retailing websites continue to expand, and their share out of total retail sales increases. Yet there is no real reason to declare the demise of physical, bricks-and-mortar stores and shops any time soon. Online purchases from e-stores (including through apps) indeed pose a stressing challenge to many physical stores, but the latter still hold a solid and dominant majority share of retail sales. Nonetheless, owners of physical stores will have to make changes to their mission and approach to retailing in order to answer effectively and successfully to the challenges from electronic retailing (‘e-tailing’).

The share of sales revenues from online retailing varies across categories (e.g., from groceries to electronics) yet the share overall out of total retailing revenues still floats around 12%-15% on average; there is also important variation between countries. Tensions are high particularly because of the threat from overarching e-tailers such as Amazon and Alibaba who grew their businesses in the virtual online environment. However, retailers do not have to choose to be either in the physical domain or the virtual domain: Many large and even medium bricks-and-mortar retailers are already double-operating through their physical stores and the Internet and mobile channels. Moreover, the master of Western e-tailing Amazon is lurking into the physical world with the establishment of its Amazon Go food stores, its venture into physical bookstores in selected US locations, and notably the acquisition of the food retail chain Whole Foods — what better testimony of the recognition that physical stores are still in need. All these observations should tell us that: (1) The lines between physical and virtual (electronic) retailing are blurred and the domains are not exclusive of each other; (2) It is a matter of linking between the domains where one can operate as an extension of the other (and it does not depend on which is the domain of origin); and (3) The domains are linked primarily by importing technology powered with data into the physical store’s space.

Technology alone, however, is not enough to resolve the challenges facing physical stores. Focusing on technology is like harnessing the carriage before the horses. The true and crucial question is: What will consumers of the coming future be looking for in stores? This is important, because consumers, especially the younger generations born after 1980, still have interest in shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores but they could be looking for something different from past decades, moreover given the digital options available to them now. The answers will have to come through rethinking and modifying the mission and strategy set for physical stores. The direction that seems most compelling for the mission is to shift emphasis from the merchandise offered in a store to the kind of experience offered in the store. The strategy may involve reconsideration and new planning of: (a) the product variety and volume of merchandise made available in the store; (b) interior design and visual merchandising; (c) scope and quality of service; and (d) the technologies applied in the store, all tailored to the convenience and pleasure of the shoppers.

This article will focus primarily on aspects of design of stores, including  interior design and decoration, layout, and visual merchandising (i.e., visual display of products); together with additional sensory elements (e.g., lighting, music, texture, scent) they shape the atmosphere in the store or shop. Yet it should be noted that the four strategy components suggested above are tied and influence each other in creating the kind of experience a retailer desires the customers-shoppers to have while in-store.

Shopping experiences in a store rely essentially on the emotions the store invokes in the consumers-shoppers. Notwithstanding the sensorial and cognitive reactions of shoppers to the interior scene of the store, the positive and pleasant emotions the shoppers feel will most likely be those that motivate them to stay longer and choose more products to purchase (further desired behaviours may include recommendation to friends and posting photos from the store on social media). Prior and close enough to consumption itself, the personal shopping and purchasing experience may invoke a range of positive emotions such as joy, optimism, love (non-romantic), peacefulness, and surprise; of course there also are potential negative emotions that retailers would wish to reduce (e.g., anger, worry, sadness)[*].

The need for shift in emphasis in physical stores is well stated by Lara Marrero, a strategy director with Gensler, a British design firm: “It used to be a place where people bought stuff. Now it is a state where a person experiences a brand and its offerings”. Marrero, who is leading the area of global retail practice at the firm, predicts a future change in mentality of shoppers from ‘grab and go’ to ‘play and stay’ (“Retail 2018: Trends and Predictions”, Retail Focus, 15 December 2017). This predicted shift is still inconsistent with a current retail interpretation of linking the digital and physical domains through schemes of ‘click-and-collect’ online orders at a physical store. Additionally, consumers nowadays conduct more research online on products they are interested in before coming to a store: The question is if a retailer should satisfy with letting the consumer just ask for his or her preferred product at the store or encourage the consumer-shopper to engage and interact more in-store, whether with assistance from human staff or digital utilities, before making a purchase — the push may have to come first from the consumers. Marrero further notes the social function of stores: retail environments become a physical meeting point for consumers to share brand experiences. Retailers will have to allow sufficient space for this in the store.

In order to generate new forms of shopper experiences the setting of a store’s scene also has to change and adapt to the kind of experience one seeks to create. New styles and patterns of in-store design are revealed through photo images of retail design projects, and the stories the images accompany, on websites of design magazines (e.g., VMSD of the US, Retail Focus of the UK). They demonstrate changes in the designing approach to the interior environment of stores and shops.

A striking aspect in numerous design exemplars is the tendency to create more spacious store scenes. It does not necessarily mean that the area of stores is larger but that the store’s layout and furnishing are organised to make it feel more spacious,  for example by making it look lighter and allowing shoppers to move more easily around. Additionally, it implies ‘loading’ the store’s areas which are accessible to customers with less merchandise. First, merchandise would be displayed mostly on fixtures attached to walls around the perimeters of the store, but even then it should not look too crowded (i.e., in appreciation that oftentimes ‘less is more’ for consumers). Second, fewer desks and other display fixtures are positioned across the floor to leave enough room for shoppers to walk around conveniently (and possibly feel more ‘free’). In fashion stores, for instance, this would also apply to  ‘isles’ of demonstrated dressing displays. Third, desks should not be packed with merchandise, and furthermore, at least one desk should be left free from merchandise — leave enough surface for shoppers and sellers to present and look at merchandise and to converse about the options. In some cases, it may allow for the shoppers to socialise and consult among themselves around a desk at the store (e.g., inspired by Apple stores). Opportunities to socialise can be enhanced in larger stores  by allocating space for a coffee & wine bar, for instance, which may serve also sandwiches, patisseries and additional drinks. Stores would be designed to look and feel more pleasant and enjoyable for consumers-shoppers to hang around, contemplate their options and make purchase decisions.

  • Large stores that spread over multiple floors with facades turning outwards to the street may fix the facades with glass sheets, and in order not to block natural daylight from entering into the store they would place desks and mobile hangers or other low shelf fixtures along the windows.

Modissa Fashion Store set for Christmas

In the new-era store not all merchandise the store may offer to sell needs to be displayed in the ‘selling areas’ accessible to shoppers. Retailers may have to retreat from the decades long paradigm that everything on display is the inventory, and vice versa. It is worth considering: First, some merchandise can be displayed as video on screens, and thus also add to the ‘show’ in the store; Second, shoppers can use digital catalogues in the store to find items currently not on display — such items may still be available in stock on premises or they may be ordered within 24 hours. But furthermore, customers may be able to coordinate online or through an app with a store near them to see certain products at a set time; up-to-date analyses of page visits and sales on a retailer’s online store can tell what products are most popular, subsequently guaranteeing that the physical stores keep extra items of them in stock on premises.

Here are references to a few exemplars for illustration of actual store design projects published in design magazines’ websites:

Burberry, London — The flagship store of luxury fashion brand Burberry on Regent Street is highlighted for both the use of space in its design and the employment of digital technology in the store. A large open space atrium (of an older time theatre) occupies the centre of the store (four floors, 3000 sqm), impressive in how Burberry allowed to keep it. The digitally integrated store is commended for its fusion of a ‘digital world’ into its bricks-and-mortar environment: a large high-resolution screen plays video in the atrium, synchronised with a hundred digital screens around the store, some 160 iPads (e.g., for finding items on the catalogue that may not be on display), and RFID tags attached to garments (VMSD, 18 December 2012).

Hogan, Milano — The footwear ’boutique’ store (277 sqm in via Montenapoleone) is designed to reflect the brand, “luxury but accessible”. The store’s mission has been described as follows: “Hogan is a lifestyle brand, championing contemporary culture. The store therefore needed to be dynamic, working hard to adapt from retail space to live event or gallery space”. Characteristic of the store: tilted surfaces for display, lying on top of each other like fallen-down domino bricks; and an animated display of patterns by LED lighting behind frosted glass walls — they both reflect movement, the former just symbolically while the latter more dynamically, to “express the dynamism of the city”. The store of Hogan also fosters social activity around its host bar and customization bar (Retail Focus, 15 February 2018).

Black by Dixon’s, Birmingham (UK) — The technology retail concept aspires to make “the geeky more stylish and exciting”. Digital technology is “dressed” in fashionable design, aiming at the more sophisticated Apple-generation (distinctive in the images are the mannequins “sitting” on desks as props, and colour contrasts on a dark background). (VMSD, 24 May 2011.)

Stella McCartney, Old Bond Street, London — The re-established flagship store resides in an 18th century historic-listed building (four floors, 700 sqm). Products such as dresses and handbags are displayed (sampled) across the store in different halls. The design and lighting give a very loose feeling. Refreshingly, the ground floor features an exhibit of black limestones and “carefully selected rocks” from the family’s estate, a piece of nature in-store (Retail Focus, 14 June 2018).

Admittedly, some of the more distinctive and impressive design exemplars belong to up-scale and luxury stores, but they do give direction and ideas for creating different experiences in retail spaces, even if less lavishly. Furthermore, technology can enrich the store and add a dimension of activity in it. Yet it is part of the whole design plan, not necessarily its central pillar, if at all.

Installing digital technology in a store does not mean importing the Internet and e-store into the physical store. Features of digital technology can be employed in-store in a number of ways, and the use of an online catalogue is just one of them. There is no wisdom for the physical store in trying to mimic Internet websites or compete with them. It should find ways, instead, to implement digital technologies that best suit the store’s space and transform the experience of its visiting shoppers.

Moreover, the store owner should identify those aspects that are lacking in the virtual online store and leverage them in the bricks-and-mortar store (e.g., immediacy, non inter-mediated interaction with products, sensorial stimulations other than visual and audio, feeling fun or relaxed). Thereof, the store should borrow certain technological amenities that can help to link between the domains and make the experience in-store more familiar, convenient, interesting, entertaining or exciting. According to an opinion article in Retail Focus on “The Future of High Street” (Lyndsey Dennis, 25 April 2018): “To draw customers back to brick-and-mortar, [retailers] need to rethink how they use their physical space and store formats. The key is to give customers something they can’t get online, whether that’s information, entertainment, or service“. Advanced technologies such as Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are part of the repertoire that are increasingly introduced in high street stores [e.g., AR applied in the fitting rooms of Burberry’s store, triggered by the RFID tags].

Matt Alderton, writing in ArchDaily magazine of architecture and design (25 November 2015), details key technologies and how they are implemented in stores to create new possibilities and leverage shopper experiences. One group of technologies can provide vital data to retailers which in turn can be applied to interact with shoppers and return useful information to them (e.g., beacons, RFID tags, visual lighting communications). The second group includes display technologies that may be enriching with information and entertaining to shoppers: for example, VR and AR, touch screens, and media projected on a surface such as table-top which thus becomes a touch screen. Alderton clearly sees consumer need for physical stores, the question is how consumers would want them: “What the data says is that shoppers want to move forward by going back: Like their forebears who visited Harrods, they crave emporiums that are experiential, not transactional, in nature“. (See also images in this article as they portray new-fashioned designs in space and layout; notably these stores feel less crowded by merchandise, and some show in-store digital displays.)

These are challenging times for bricks-and-mortar stores. New possibilities are emerging for physical stores to grow and thrive, yet they will have to adapt to changed shopping and purchasing patterns of consumers and develop new kinds of experiences that appeal to them. It should be a combined effort, with contribution from interior design of stores and visual merchandising, utilities and amenities based on digital technologies implemented in the store, and the support and assistance by human personnel. The in-store design is especially important in setting the scene — in appearance, comfort and appeal — that will shape shoppers’ experiences. Retailing could evolve as far as into new forms of ‘experiential shopping’.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference: [*] Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 (September), pp. 127-149.

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‘Where do I find umbrellas?’ ‘How do I get to the shoe department?’ Questions like this are likely familiar to many consumers when visiting large department stores. Walking long pathways on a floor and moving between floors in a quest to find a needed product can be time-consuming and annoying. Signposts often are too general and lack useful instructions for direction. Mobile mapping applications (‘apps’) of indoors environments, an evolving technological development of the last five years, can make the shopping experience in large stores more smooth, convenient and enjoyable for consumers. A mapping app can be useful not only in department stores but also within large supermarkets, fashion, toys or DIY stores, to give just a few examples. Moreover, navigating in complex structures like shopping malls, airports, hospitals etc. may be made much easier with a mapping app.

Over the years large physical floor maps have been installed in some department stores (e.g., hung on the wall near a lift) — the problem is that the shopper has to try to keep in memory the route to pass to a desired destination. Signage of product directories placed in front of escalators may help the shopper to find on what floor a particular type of product (or a brand) is placed, but one may be left again to stroll a widespread floor until locating the product requested. Signs hung above aisles (e.g., in supermarkets) may not be seen until one approaches the relevant aisle. Some retailers and operators of shopping centres provide printed maps on cards or leaflets to guide their customers on the premises; the map is usually accompanied with index lists and codes for reference, and regions on the map diagram may be printed in different colours to facilitate navigation. Holding a map in the shopper’s hands can be a great relief. Holding a dynamic and interactive map displayed on the shopper’s mobile phone seems as an even greater step forward.

Mapping applications of enclosed environments aim to provide people with spatial information and tools similar to those that facilitate their navigation on roads and in the streets of cities. One can search for an address, a business or an institute, and the mapping utility will show the user its location on the map. Additionally, when used on a mobile device, smartphone or tablet, the application can show the way and follow the user until he or she gets to the destination. In-store, the ‘address’ would typically be a product. An in-store mapping app may show the shopper the location of the product in the store, and perhaps give instructions step-by-step how to get there, yet it will not necessarily be able to follow the user to the destination — an additional layer of technology, a physical infrastructure, is required to locate the shopper on the map and automatically “advance” the map on display as he or she walks in the store.

  • A web-based mapping utility of Heathrow Airport (London), for example, allows a prospect traveller to look for a starting point and a destination in any of the five terminals and their facilities and the online service will provide instructions in text and over the map diagram how to get there.

The GPS technology that usually allows the positioning of users on a map of an outdoors space, and follows the user until he or she gets to a destination, stops working when one enters an enclosed environment of a building. It is additionally not accurate enough to pinpoint the location of a person in a relatively small area, and especially is impractical in distinguishing between floors in the building. Therefore, this technology cannot be applied in mapping applications either in shopping centres or in-store. Alternative technologies have been tested and utilised for indoors mapping: more notable is Bluetooth technology applied with beacons, but there are other options in the field, including Wi-Fi and LED light bulbs for signalling and transmitting location information. Effective positioning of shoppers is said to require a dense network of devices (transmitters) throughout the store, oftentimes an expensive enterprise. Therefore, retailers appear to be more interested in implementing select functions of in-store mapping applications (e.g., orientation, promotions) but are less in a hurry to adopt also the capability of positioning shoppers on a map of the store.

A retailer can deliver via a mobile app promotional offers (e.g., digital coupons) to shoppers as well as updates on new products, services and events. A retail app may  include a bundle of services such as tools for mapping and managing a shopping list for the benefit of the customers. Some retailers already use a location functionality in their stores, independent of mapping, to improve the timing when offers are sent to shoppers during their visit, specific to their location in the store. But this functionality usually utilises fewer devices (e.g., beacons) than would be necessary for a full positioning capability. The mapping tools can produce several advantages: (1) deliver a helpful service to shoppers (e.g., using a shopping list with a map); (2) enhance navigation by location of the shopper on a dynamic map; (3) give a better incentive to shoppers to authorise an app to track their location in the store; (4) mount ‘flags’ of promotional offers for various products on the map near the relevant aisles or display shelves, particularly as the shopper approaches nearby (as a benchmark for illustration, think of information [icons & text] mounted on maps of Google or in an app like Waze).

The map is meant to provide first of all spatial information. Should mapping applications also be visuospatial, that is, display a visual image of the store’s appearance? It would be like making a virtual simulated tour of the store. The experience could be more entertaining (e.g., like gaming) but would it be more informative and useful? If the shopper is already in the store, he or she should not really need the enhanced display — it could be more confusing (screen and reality may interfere with each other) and time-consuming to navigate with such a display. The enhanced imagery display may be useful for planning a visit before entering the store, or perhaps for online shopping in a virtual store. Yet, once a shopper is at the physical store, a visuospatial display should be made an option as a matter of discretion by the shopper while the main display better be a map diagram that matches the actual layout and organisation of the store.

  • Mobile marketing company aisle411, which specialises also in indoors mapping for retail stores, created in co-operation with Google’s Project Tango a 3D imaged environment (“3D mapping”) of a supermarket store with features of augmented reality (e.g., product information. rewards and coupons). [BusinessWire.com, 25 June 2014, see video demonstration — note that the application is operating on a tablet mounted on the shopping cart]

A study published last year (Ertekin, Pryor & Pelton, Spring 2017) sought to identify perceptions, attitudes or personality traits that could motivate consumers to use mobile in-store mapping applications (*). The study focused on consumers from generations X (born in 1961-1979) and Y (born in 1980-1999 — adults likely to be familiar with and orientated to using computer technology and its applications). Actually 80% of the respondents in the sample were of generation Y. All respondents (n=258) had a device that can connect to the Internet (57% had a mapping application downloaded to their smartphone). The researchers considered factors regarding the use of technology of in-store mapping applications and how it would affect the shopping experience (30% of respondents reported trying an in-store mapping application before).

The degree of ease-of-use of an in-store mapping app was found to have a positive effect on intention (or ‘propensity’) to use it while shopping. Perceived ease-of-use was defined as the “degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free of effort” (e.g., easy to use, clear and understandable, flexible to interact with). Usefulness of the app pertains specifically to the act of shopping, helping to enhance the ‘job performance’ (effectiveness) of shopping with the map. As expected, perceived usefulness also had a positive effect on the intention to use such an app.

In addition to those functional or utilitarian benefits of the application, the researchers addressed the app’s ability to make the shopping experience emotionally more entertaining (particularly inducing excitement associated with novelty of the technology). Entertainment benefits (e.g., enjoyable learning about stores, fun, or merely a good pass time when bored) also strengthen the intention to use an in-store mapping app.

The willingness to use a mobile in-store mapping app is diminished by greater concern of consumers about sacrificing their security when using a network computing application (i.e., emphasis on protection from malicious software or stealing personal information). Conspicuously, however, reference to data security is only hinted and the sensitive matter of privacy is not properly covered, particularly the reluctance of consumers to let their moves being tracked. If the mapping app provides the user more perceived benefits of the types cited above, they may be less resistant to allow the retailer to track them.

A result that would probably be of interest to retailers shows that consumers who exhibit a stronger deal proneness are more intent on using an in-store mapping app. In other words, consumers who are more leaning towards buying on discounts and deals are more likely to be attracted to the mapping app in hope of finding there promotional offers, easy to locate in the store. Yet retailers should be careful about this finding because if they are too focused on delivering promotional offers through their apps, then they will get shoppers more interested in deals and reward points more frequently than other shoppers. In order to encourage shoppers to extend their in-store visits longer and make more unplanned purchases, promotional offers should be put forward on the app more closely in accordance with the store sections or aisles the shoppers access, when they pass through; where feasible, generate offers in association with products on a shopping list the shopper fills-in on the app (i.e., help a shopper find more easily the products on his or her list while adding products that are more likely to be perceived as complements to them).  Promotions are only one of the ways to encourage consumers to shop more, and that is true also for the ‘package’ offered in a retail mapping app.

The model analysed in this study did not provide support for a positive effect of being pressed in time on intention to use an in-store mapping app  (i.e., apps are not associated enough with saving time or those pressed in time are interested in the mapping app no more than others with more free time). It does not seem to give ground to a concern of retailers that such an app might allow shoppers to shorten their shopping trips, but as suggested above, if needed there are ways to circumvent such behaviour. The model also did not support the hypothesis that consumers who like to gather more market information (e.g., products, prices, innovations) and share their knowledge with others, to advise or actually influence them, are more inclined to use an in-store mapping app to accomplish their goals.

The study makes early steps in investigating consumer behaviour pertaining to using retail mapping apps. It confirms that functional as well as emotional benefits are drivers of consumer use of a mapping app in-store. But the investigation has to proceed to validate and refine those findings and conclusions. While the study targeted young consumers of relevant generations Y and X, the sample consisted of university students (hence probably also the vast majority of millennials). It may be sufficient for establishing relations of the tested factors to the use of mapping apps, but further research should go beyond a student population to cover consumers of these generations to validate the relations or effects. Additional analyses and models (beyond the regression model applied in this study) will have to examine effects more thoroughly or with greater scrutiny (e.g., causality, mediators). Furthermore, consumer disposition towards the mapping apps has to be examined through actual experience and behaviour, for example by letting shoppers perform their shopping ‘naturally’ with an app or by giving them specific tasks to perform with a mapping app in their shopping trip. The study of Ertekin, Pryor and Pelton would serve as an instructive and helpful starting point.

Consumers may utilise a mental map of a store site that they hold in memory to guide them through locations in the  store as in an auto-pilot mode. Mental maps are possible to construct, however, for stores that shoppers visit frequently enough or regularly. Digital mapping apps may change how consumers construct and utilise their own mental maps, stored in their long-term memory. People tend to favour digital information sources and rely less on their own memory. A shopper may need no more than a graph as a spatial model to perform his or her shopping job, or perhaps a more detailed mental model of a drawing similar to a map. Yet the extent to which people also use picture-like mental imageries of the site depends on how useful is the visual information for performing their task, because visual imagery requires greater resources. So visual imagery may be re-constructed more selectively as needed — think of ‘photos’ of specific locations of importance or interest to the shopper (e.g., shelf displays of ‘target’ products) pinned to the mental drawing at the relevant places. A conception like this may be emulated in the digital in-store maps of mobile applications.

Mobile in-store mapping applications present a significant, promising development in re-shaping consumer shopping experiences. It could play an important role in the future of retailing, but there is still ambiguity about the extent to which large retailers would choose to implement mapping features and capabilities, particularly the real-time positioning of shoppers inside a physical store. Mapping applications for retail indoors sites may impact, for example, the balance in preference of consumers between shopping online and offline (i.e., in brick-and-mortar stores).

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

(*) An Empirical Study of Consumer Motivations to Use In-Store Mapping Application; Selcuk Ertekin, Susie Pryor, & Lou E. Pelton, 2017; Marketing Management Journal, 27 (1), pp. 63-74.

 

 

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A shopper may well know what types of products he or she is planning to buy in a store, but what products the shopper will come out with is much less sure. Frequently there will be some additional unplanned products in the shopper’s basket. This observation is more often demonstrated in the case of grocery shopping in supermarkets, but it is likely to hold true also in other types of stores, especially large ones like department stores, fashion stores, and DIY or home improvement stores.

There can be a number of reasons or triggers for shoppers to consider additional products to purchase during the shopping trip itself — products forgotten and reminded of by cues that arise while shopping, attractiveness of visual appearance of product display (‘visual lift’), promotions posted on tags at the product display (‘point-of-purchase’) or in hand-out flyers, and more. The phenomenon of unplanned purchases is very familiar, and the study of it is not new. However, the behaviour of shoppers during their store visit that leads to this outcome, especially the consideration of product categories in an unplanned manner, is not understood well enough. The relatively new methodology of video tracking with a head-mounted small camera shows promise in gaining better understanding of shopper behaviour during the shopping trip; a research article by Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman (2013) is paving the way with a valuable contribution, particularly in shedding light on the relations between planned and unplanned considerations in a supermarket, and the factors that may drive conversion of the latter into purchases (1).

Shopper marketing is an evolving specialisation which gains increasing attention in  marketing and retailing. It concerns activities of consumers performed in a ‘shopper mode’ and is strongly connected with or contained within consumer marketing. Innovations in this sub-field by retailers and manufacturers span digital activities, multichannel marketing, store atmospherics and design, in-store merchandising, shopper marketing metrics and organisation. However, carrying out more effective and successful shopper marketing programmes requires closer collaboration between manufacturers and retailers — more openness to each party’s perspective and priorities (e.g., in interpretation of shopper insights), sharing information and coordination (2).

In-Store Video Tracking allows researchers to observe the shopping trip as it proceeds from the viewpoint of the shopper, literally. The strength of this methodology is in capturing the dynamics of shopping (e.g., with regard to in-store drivers of unplanned purchases). Unlike other approaches (e.g., RFID, product scanners), the video tracking method enables tracking acts of consideration, whether followed or not by purchase (i.e., putting a product item in the shopping cart).

For video tracking, a shopper is asked to wear, with the help of an experimenter, a headset belt that contains the portable video equipment, including a small video camera, a view/record unit, and a battery pack. It is worn like a Bluetooth headset. In addition, the equipment used by Hui et al. included an RFID transmitter that allows to trace the location of the shopper throughout his or her shopping path in a supermarket.

Like any research methodology, video tracking has its strengths and advantages versus its weaknesses and limitations. With the camera it is possible to capture the shopper’s field of vision during a shopping trip; the resulting video is stored in the view/record unit. However, without an eye-tracking (infrared) device, the camera may not point accurately to the positions of products considered (by eye fixation) in the field of vision. Yet, the video supports at least approximate inferences when a product is touched or moved, or the head-body posture and gesture suggest from which display a shopper considers products (i.e., the ‘frame’ closes-in on a section of the display). It is further noted that difficulties in calibrating an eye-tracking device in motion may impair the accuracy of locating fixations. The video camera seems sufficient and effective for identifying product categories as targets of consideration and purchase.

Furthermore, contrary to video filmed from cameras hanging from the ceiling in a store, the head-mounted camera records the scene at eye-level and not from high above, enabling to better notice what the shopper is doing (e.g., in aisles), and it follows the shopper all the way, not just in selected sections of the store. Additionally, using a head-mounted camera is more ethical than relying on surrounding cameras (often CCTV security cameras). On the other hand, head-mounted devices (e.g., camera, eye-tracking), which are not the most natural to wear whilst shopping, raise concerns of sampling bias (self-selection) and possibly causing change in the behaviour of the shopper; proponents argue that shoppers quickly forget of the device (devices are now made lighter) as they engage in shopping, but the issue is still in debate.

Video tracking is advantageous to RFID  and product scanners for the study of unplanned purchase behaviour by capturing acts of consideration: the RFID method alone (3) enables to trace the path of the shopper but not what one does in front of the shelf or stand display, and a scanner method allows to record what products are purchased but not which are considered. The advantage of the combined video + RFID approach according to Hui and his colleagues is in providing them “not only the shopping path but also the changes in the shoppers’ visual field as he or she walks around the store” (p. 449).

The complete research design included two interviews conducted with each shopper-participant — before the shopping trip, as a shopper enters the store, and after, on the way out. In the initial interview, shoppers were asked in which product categories they were planning to buy (aided by a list to choose from), as well as other shopping aspects (e.g., total budget, whether they brought their own shopping list). At the exit the shoppers were asked about personal characteristics, and the experimenters collected a copy of the receipt from the retailer’s transaction log. The information collected was essential for two aspects in particular: (a) distinguishing between planned and unplanned considerations; and (b) estimating the amount of money remaining for the shopper to make unplanned purchases out of the total budget (‘in-store slack’ metric).

237 participants were included in analyses. Overall, shoppers-participants planned to purchase from approximately 5.5 categories; they considered on average 13 categories in total, of which fewer than 5 were planned considerations (median 5.6). 37% of the participants carried a list prepared in advance.

Characteristics influencing unplanned consideration:  The researchers sought first to identify personal and product characteristics that significantly influence the probability of making an unplanned consideration in each given product category (a latent utility likelihood model was constructed). Consequently, they could infer which characteristics contribute to considering more categories in an unplanned manner. The model showed, for instance, that shoppers older in age and female shoppers are likely to engage in unplanned consideration in a greater number of product categories. Inversely, shoppers who are more familiar with a store (layout and location of products) and those carrying a shopping list tend to consider fewer product categories in an unplanned manner.

At a product level, a higher hedonic score for a product category is positively associated with greater incidence of unplanned consideration of it. Products that are promoted in the weekly flyer of the store at the time of a shopper’s visit are also more likely to receive an unplanned consideration from the shopper. Hui et al. further revealed effects of complementarity relations: products that were not planned beforehand for purchase (B) but are closer complementary of products in a ‘planned basket’ of shoppers (A) gain a greater likelihood of being considered in an unplanned manner (‘A –> B lift’).  [The researchers present a two-dimensional map detailing what products are more proximate and thus more likely to get paired together, not dependent yet on purchase of them].

Differences in behaviour between planned and unplanned considerations: Unplanned considerations tend to be made more haphazardly — while standing farther from display shelves and involving fewer product touches; conversely, planned considerations entail greater ‘depth’. Unplanned considerations tend to occur a little later in the shopping trip (the gap in timing is not very convincing). An unplanned consideration is less likely to entail reference to a shopping list — the list serves in “keeping the shopper on task”, being less prone to divert to unplanned consideration. Shoppers during an unplanned consideration are also less likely to refer to discount coupons or to in-store flyers/circulars. However, interestingly, some of the patterns found in this analysis change as an unplanned consideration turns into a purchase.

Importantly, in the outcome unplanned considerations are less likely to conclude with a purchase (63%) than planned considerations (83%). This raises the question, what can make an unplanned consideration result in purchase conversion?

Drivers of purchase conversion of unplanned considerations: Firstly, unplanned considerations that result in a purchase take longer (40 seconds on average) than those that do not (24 seconds). Secondly, shoppers get closer to the shelves and touch more product items before concluding with a purchase; the greater ‘depth’ of the process towards unplanned purchase is characterised by viewing fewer product displays (‘facings’) within the category — the shopper is concentrating on fewer alternatives yet examines those selected more carefully (e.g., by picking them up for a closer read). Another conspicuous finding is that shoppers are more likely to refer to a shopping list during an unplanned consideration that is going to result in a purchase — a plausible explanation is that the shopping list may help the shopper to seek whether an unplanned product complements a product on the list.

The researchers employed another (latent utility) model to investigate more systemically the drivers likely to lead unplanned considerations to result in a purchase. The model supported, for example, that purchase conversion is more likely in categories of  higher hedonic products. It corroborated the notions about ‘depth’ of consideration as a driver to purchase and the role of a shopping list in realising complementary unplanned products as supplements to the ‘planned basket’. It is also shown that interacting with a service staff for assistance increases the likelihood of concluding with a purchase.

  • Location in the store matters: An aisle is relatively a more likely place for an unplanned consideration to occur, and subsequently has a better chance when it happens to result in a purchase. The authors recommend assigning service staff to be present near aisles.

Complementarity relations were analysed once again, this time in the context of unplanned purchases. The analysis, as visualised in a new map, indicates that proximity between planned and unplanned categories enhances the likelihood of an unplanned purchase: if a shopper plans to purchase in category A, then the closer category B is to A, the more likely is the shopper to purchase in category B given it is considered. Hui et al. note that distances in the maps for considerations and for purchase conversion of unplanned considerations are not correlated, implying hence that the unplanned consideration and a purchase decision are two different dimensions in the decision process. This is a salient result because it distinguishes between engaging in consideration and the decision itself. The researchers caution, however, that in some cases the distinction between consideration and a choice decision may be false and inappropriate because they may happen rapidly in a single step.

  • The latent distances in the maps are also uncorrelated with physical distances between products in the supermarket (i.e., the complementarity relations are mental).

The research shows that while promotion (coupons or in-store flyers) for an unplanned product has a significant effect in increasing the probability of its consideration, it does not contribute to probability of its purchase. This evidence furthermore points to a separation between consideration and a decision. The authors suggest that a promotion may attract shoppers to consider a product, but they are mostly uninterested to buy and hence it has no further effect on their point-of-purchase behaviour. The researchers suggest that retailers can apply their model of complementarity to proactively invoke consideration by triggering a real-time promotion on a mobile shopping app for products associated with those on a digital list of the shopper “so a small coupon can nudge this consideration into a purchase”.

But there are some reservations to be made about the findings regarding promotions. An available promotion can increase the probability of a product to be considered in an unplanned manner, yet shoppers are less likely to look at their coupons or flyers at the relevant moment. Inversely, the existence of a promotion does not contribute to purchase conversion of an unplanned consideration but shoppers are more likely to refer to their coupons or flyers during unplanned considerations that result in a purchase.  A plausible explanation to resolve this apparent inconsistency is that reference to a promotional coupon or flyer is more concrete from a shopper viewpoint than the mere availability of a promotion; shoppers may not be aware of some of the promotions the researchers account for. In the article, the researchers do not address directly promotional information that appears on tags at the product display — such promotions may affect shoppers differently from flyers or distributed coupons (paper or digital via mobile app), because tags are more readily visible at the point-of-purchase.

One of the dynamic factors examined by Hui et al. is the ‘in-store slack’, the mental budget reserved for unplanned purchases. Reserving a larger slack increases the likelihood of unplanned considerations. Furthermore, at the moment of truth, the larger is the in-store slack that remains at the time of an unplanned consideration, the more likely is the shopper to take a product from the display to purchase. However, computations used in the analyses of dynamic changes in each shopper’s in-store slack appear to assume that shoppers estimate how much they already spent on planned products in various moments of the trip and are aware of their budget, an assumption not very realistic. The approach in the research is very clever, and yet consumers may not be so sophisticated: they may exceed their in-store slack, possibly because they are not very good in keeping their budget (e.g., exacerbated by use of credit cards) or in making arithmetic computations fluently.

Finally, shoppers could be subject to a dynamic trade-off between their self-control and the in-store slack. As the shopping trip progresses and the remaining in-store slack is expected to shrink, the shopper becomes less likely to allow an unplanned purchase, but he or she may become more likely to be tempted to consider and buy in an unplanned manner, because the strength of one’s self-control is depleted following active decision-making. In addition, a shopper who avoided making a purchase on the last occasion of unplanned consideration is more likely to purchase a product in the next unplanned occasion — this negative “momentum” effect means that following an initial effort at self-control, subsequent attempts are more likely to fail as a result of depletion of the strength of self-control.

The research of Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman offers multiple insights for retailers as well as manufacturers to take notice of, and much more material for thought and additional study and planning. The video tracking approach reveals patterns and drivers of shopper behaviour in unplanned considerations and how they relate to planned considerations.  The methodology is not without limitations; viewing and coding the video clips is notably time-consuming. Nevertheless, this research is bringing us a step forward towards better understanding and knowledge to act upon.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Deconstructing the “First Moment of Truth”: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking; Sam K. Hui, Yanliu Huang, Jacob Suher, & J. Jeffrey Inman, 2013; Journal of Marketing Research, 50 (August), pp. 445-462.

(2) Innovations in Shopper Marketing: Current Insights and Future Research Issues; Venkatesh Shankar, J. Jeffrey Inman, Murali Mantrala, & Eileen Kelley, 2011; Journal of Retailing, 87S (1), pp. S29-S42.

(3) See other research on path data modelling and analysis in marketing and retailing by Hui with Peter Fader and Eric Bradlow (2009).

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Department stores are competing hard for more than thirty years to overcome the challenges posed to them by shopping centres and malls. They keep refreshing their interior designs, merchandising and marketing methods to remain relevant, up-to-date, and especially reinvigorated for the younger generations of shoppers. Department stores and shopping centres are two different models in retailing for offering a wide array of product categories, and accompanying services, within enclosed built environments — different in requirements and responsibilities of managing them, in their structures, and most importantly with respect to the shopping experiences they create. There is enough room in consumers’ lives for shopping both ways.

Shopping centres may be found in the central areas of cities and on their outskirts, on main roads at city-gates and in suburban neighbourhoods. A shopping mall, according to the American genuine model, is a shopping centre characterised by location outside the city centre, housed in a single- or two-floor building spread over a large area and a large-space parking lot, free of charge. But shopping centres or malls exhibit nowadays such a variety of architectural structures and styles of interior design, at different sizes and locations, that the distinction in terms has become quite vague and less important.

Department stores belong traditionally in city centres. They also are typically housed inPartial back closed windows allows a glimpse into the Coop store their dedicated buildings (e.g., 5 to 7 floors, including one or two underground floors). Each floor in a contemporary store is hosting one or more departments (e.g., cosmetics, accessories, menswear, furniture, electric goods and electronics/digital) or amenities (e.g., restaurants). That was not the case in the early days (1850s-1920s) when the retail space open to the public included only up to three floors and the rest of the building was used for production, staff accommodation, and other administrative functions; the range of products was much smaller. So the department store as we better know it today follows the format redeveloped in the 1930s and further progressed soon after World War II. The styles of interior design and visual merchandising, nevertheless, have certainly changed several times over the years.

There is however another recent format of a department store which resides within a shopping centre. It is a reduced and condensed exemplar of the ‘classic’ department store, probably not how consumers more often perceive and think of such stores. But having a reduced store version is perhaps not a problem inasmuch as its location. Shopping centres invite retail chains of department stores to open a branch as an anchor store in their premises, and it seems as a necessary action by the retailers to maintain visibility and presence amid the threat of the shopping centres posed to them. This venture also allows the retailer to extend and reach shoppers away from city centres. Yet, one may question if it helps and serves the interests of the department store retailer as much as of the proprietor of the shopping centre. Being more limited in space and scope of products, while surrounded by a few hundred other shops and stores under the same roof, the department store could get more easily lost and vanish from shopper attention in the crowded space. It should be much more difficult for the store to remain conspicuous in this kind of environment, especially when shoppers can refer to a selection of specialist shops in any category they are interested almost next door.

When a shopper enters a respectable department store he or she tends to get absorbed within it. The variety of products on display, lights and colours, brand signs, and furnishing and fixtures in different shapes and styles pull you in, making you forget of the outer world. The shopper may find almost anything one needs and seeks, whether it is for wearing, decorating the living room, or working in the kitchen, enough to forget there is a street and other shops and stores out there. Think of stores — just for illustration — such as  KaDeWe in Berlin, Selfridges in London, La Rinascente in Milano, or Printemps in Paris: that is the magic of a department store. Of course there are many other stores of this type from different chains, in different styles and atmospherics (which may vary between departments within the same store), and in some of the main cities in each country. For instance, Marks & Spencer opened its modern flag store in a glass building at the turn of the century in Manchester, not in London. Not long afterwards Selfridges also opened a store in Manchester, and then in Birmingham. Printemps and Galeries Lafayette sit next to each other on Boulevard Hausmann in Paris — both are very elegant though the latter  looks more glittering and artistic,  appearing even more upscale and luxurious than the former. Now Galeries Lafayette is planning its yet most modern concept of a department store to open on Champs Élysées.

That is not the impression and feeling one gets in a shopping centre. Although a centre can be absorbing and entertaining in its own way, usually it would be the centre’s environment that is absorbing as a whole and much less any single shop or store. Even in larger stores the shopper is never too far from being exposed again to other retail outlets that can be quickly accessed. In the shopping centre or mall, a shopper moves around between shops and stores, reviews and compares their brand and product selections, and at any point in time he or she can easily return to “feel free” walking in the public pathways of the centre, eye-scanning other stores. It is a different manner and form of shopping experience for a consumer than visiting a department store.

The rise of branding and consumer brands since the 1980s has also had an important impact on trade, organisation and visual merchandising in department stores, as in other types of stores in general. There is a much stronger emphasis in the layout of floors on organisation by brand, particularly in fashion (clothing and accessories) departments. The course of the shopping trip is affected as a result. Shoppers are driven to search first by brand rather than by attribute of the product type they seek. That is, a shopper would search and examine a variety of articles (e.g., shirts, trousers, sweaters, jackets) displayed in a section dedicated to a particular brand before seeing similar articles from other brands. It can make the trip more tiresome if one is looking for a type of clothing by fabric, cut or fit, colour and visual pattern. But not everything on a floor is always sorted in brand sections, like a shop-in-shop; often a shopper may find concentrated displays of items like shirts or rain coats of different models from several brands. Furthermore, there is still continuity on a floor so that one can move around, take along articles from different brands to compare and fit together, and then pay for everything at the same cashier.

In some cases, especially for more renowned and luxury brands, the shop-in-shop arrangement is formal where a brand is given more autonomy to run its dedicated “shop” (known as a concession), making their own merchandising decisions and employing their own personnel for serving and selling to customers. The flexibility of shoppers may be somewhat more restricted when buying from brand concessions. However, even when some “brand shops” are more formal, much of the merchandising is already segregated into brand sections, and shoppers frequently cannot easily tell between formal and less formal business arrangements for brand displays. The sections assigned toView over terraces in a multi-storey department store specific brands are usually not physically fully enclosed and separated from other areas: some look more like “booths”, others are more widely open at the front facing a pathway. Significantly, shoppers can still feel they are walking in the same space of a department or floor, and then move smoothly to another type of department (e.g., from men or women fashion to home goods). That kind of continuity and flexibility while shopping is not affordable when wandering between individual shops and stores in a shopping centre or mall. The segregation of floor layout into dominant brand sections or “shops” within a department store (and some architectural elements) can blur the lines and make the department store seem more similar to a shopping centre, but not quite. The shopping experiences remain distinct in nature and flavour.

  • “With so many counters rented out to other retailers, it is as though the modern department store has returned to the format of the early nineteenth-century bazaar.” (English Shops and Shopping, Kathryn A. Morrison, 2003, Yale University Press/English Heritage.)

Department stores have gone through salient changes, even transformations, over the years. In as early as the 1930s stores started a transition to an open space layout, removing partitions between old-time rooms to allow for larger halls on each floor. Other changes were more pronounced after World War II and into the 1950s, such as  permitting self-service while reducing the need of shoppers to rely on sellers, and accordingly displaying merchandise more openly visible and accessible to the shoppers at arm’s reach. These developments have altered the dynamics of shopping and paved the way for creative advances in visual merchandising.

Department stores have also introduced more supporting services (e.g., repairs of various kinds, photo processing, orders & deliveries,  gift lists, cafeterias and restaurants). In the new millennium department stores joined the digital scene, added online shopping and expanded other services and interactions with consumers through the online and mobile channels. In more recent years we also witness a resurgence of emphasis on food, particularly high quality food or delicatessen. Department stores have opened food halls that include merchandise for sale (fresh and packaged) and bars where shoppers can eat from freshly made dishes of different types of food and cuisines (e.g., KaDeWe, La Rinascente, Jelmoli in Zürich).

Department stores in Israel have always been in a smaller scale than their counterparts  overseas, a modest version. But they suffered greatly with the emergence of shopping centres. The only chain that still exists today (“HaMashbir”) was originally established in 1947 by the largest labour union organisation in the country. Since the first American-style mall was opened near Tel-Aviv in 1985 the chain has started to decline; as more shopping centres opened their gates the stores became outdated and lost the interest of consumers. By the end of the 1990s the chain had come near collapse until it was salvaged in 2003 by a private businessman (Shavit) who took upon himself to rebuild and revive it.

The chain now has 39 branches across the country, but they are mostly far from the scale of those abroad and about a half are located in shopping centres. Yet in 2011 HaMashbir opened its first large multi-category store in the centre of Jerusalem, occupying 5000sqm in seven floors. It seems the stores have gone through a few rounds of remodelling until settling upon their current look and style. They are overall elegant but not fancy, less luxurious and brand-laden, intended to better accommodate consumers of the middle class and to attract families.

It is rather surprising that Tel-Aviv is still awaiting a full-scale department store. The chain has stores in two shopping centres in Tel-Aviv but none left on main streets. At least in two leading shopping centres the stores have shrunk over the years, and one of them is gone. The latter in particular, located once in a lucrative and most popular shopping mall in a northern suburb, was reduced from two floors to a single floor and gave up its fashion department amid the plentiful of competing fashion stores in the mall, until eventually it closed down. Another store remains near Tel-Aviv in “Ayalon Mall”, the first mall of Israel.

Tel-Aviv has the population size (400,000) and flow of visitors on weekdays (more than a million) to justify a world-class store on a main street. Such a store has also the potential of increasing the city’s attraction to tourists. The detriments for the retail chain are likely to be the high real estate prices, difficulty to find a building suitable for housing the store, and the competition from existing shopping centres as well as from stores in high-street shopping districts. Yet especially in a city like Tel-Aviv a properly designed and planned department store is most likely to be a shopping and leisure institution and centre of activity to many who live, work or tour the city.

Shopping centres and department stores can exist side by side because they are essentially different models and concepts of an enriched retail complex in enclosed environments. Unlike the shopping centre, the department store is a world in itself of retail and not an assortment of individual retail establishments. The department store engages shoppers through  its structure, design and function given the powers the retailer has to plan and manage the large store as an integrated retailing space. Consequently, a department store engenders customer experiences that are different from a shopping centre regarding the customers’ shopping trips or journeys and how they spend their time for leisure in the store. One just has to look at the flows of people who flock through the doors of department stores in major cities, most of all as weekends get nearer.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The location-based technology of beacons is a relatively recent newcomer in the retail scene (since 2013). Beacons provide an additional route for interacting with shoppers in real-time via their smartphones as they move around in stores and malls. Foremost, this technology is about marrying between the physical and the digital (virtual) spaces to create better integrated and encompassing shopping experiences.

It is already widely acknowledged that in-store and online shopping are not independent and do not happen completely separate from each other; instead, experience and information from one scene can feed and drive a shopping experience, and purchase, in the other scene. In particular, mobile devices enable shoppers to apply digital resources while shopping in a physical shop or store.  Beacons may advance retailers and shoppers another step forward in that direction, with the expectation to generate more purchases in-store. The beacon technology was received at first with enthusiasm and promising willingness-to-accept by retailers, but these subdued in the past year and adoption has stalled. A salient obstacle appears as consumers remain hesitant and cautious about letting retailers communicate through beacons with their smartphones and the implications it may have on their privacy.

In essence, beacons are small, battery-powered, low-energy Bluetooth devices that function as transmitters of information — primarily unique location signals — to nearby smartphones with an app authorised to receive the information. The availability of an authorised app (e.g., retailer’s, mall operator’s) installed on the consumer’s smartphone (or tablet) is critical for the communication technology to function properly. Upon receiving a location signal, the app is thereby triggered to display location-relevant content for the shopper in-store (e.g., product information, digital coupons, as well as store activities and services).

Additional requirements may be in force such as the retailer’s app being open during the shopping trip or that the shopper consents (opts-in) to allow the app receive information from beacons, but these do not seem to be necessary or mandatory conditions for the technology to work (e.g., an app may be set with ‘approval’ as default). Ambiguity that seemingly prevails about the extra requirements could be one of the sour points in the technology’s implementation. On one hand, the application of beacons is more ethical when setting up at least one of these requirements, and should endow it with greater credibility among consumers. On the other hand, any additional criterion for access of beacons to smartphones — assuming the app is already installed — could limit further the number of participating shoppers and reduce its marketing impact.

  • Only smartphones (and tablets) support apps, not any mobile phone. It should not be taken for granted that everyone has supporting smartphones, hence raising another possible limiting requirement on access for beacons (though in decline in developed countries). Another problem, yet, concerns the distinction between Apple iPhones operated with iOS and smartphones of other brands operated with Google’s Android — beacons have to work with either type of operating system and compatible apps but they do not necessarily do so (e.g., iBeacons are exclusive for Apple’s own mobile devices).

There are some more variations in the application of beacon technology in retail. Beacon devices may be attached to shelves next to specific product displays or to fixtures and building columns in positions aimed at capturing smartphones of shoppers moving in a close area (e.g., an aisle). If the beacon is associated with a particular product, the shopper may engage using the app by actively approaching the phone to the beacon. Otherwise, the app communicates with the beacons without  shoppers taking any voluntary action. Furthermore, some applications of beacon technology suggest sending information other than location signals from the beacon, such as product-related information, and receiving customer-related information by the beacon from the smartphone.

Reasonably, retailers would be interested first in applications of the technology for practical marketing purposes in their stores. However, beacon technology may also be utilised in research on shopper behaviour, a purpose now appreciated by many large retailers.

Marketing Practice in Retail

The instant sales-driven idea of application of beacon technology evoked by retailers is to introduce special offers, discount deals and digital coupons for selected products as shoppers get near to their displays. Notwithstanding this type of application, location-based features and services enabled via beacons can be even more creative and useful for shoppers, and beneficial for the retailers.

Relevance is key in achieving an effective application of the technology. Any message or content must be relevant in time and place to the shopper. That is, the content must be related to available products when the shopper is getting close enough to them. The content should not be too general in reference to any product in the store but to products in a section of the store where the shopper passes-by. Triggering an offer for a product just after the shopper entered a store is less likely to be effective, unless, for example, there is a special promotional activity for it in a main area of the floor. The retailer should not err in introducing an offer for a product item that is not available in the specific store at that time. Furthermore, if the app can link product information with customer information, it may be able to generate better content that is both location-relevant and personalised. The app could make use of accessible information on personal purchase history, interests and demographic characteristics. This higher-level application surely requires greater resources and effort of the retailer to implement.

The beacons’ greatest enemy could be their use for bombardment of shoppers with push or pop-up messages of offers, deals, discounts etc. This practice is suspected as a major fault in the early days of the technology that may be responsible for the slowdown in adoption lately. There could be nothing more irritating for a shopper if every few meters walked in the store he or she is interrupted by a buzz and message of “just today offer on X” that appears on the smartphone’s screen. Retailers have to be selective lest customers will avoid using their apps. It is much more important to produce adaptive, relevant and customer-specific messages and content overall (Adobe, Digital Marketing Blog, 4 February 2016).

  • The grocery retail chain Target, that launched a trial with beacons in 50 US stores in the second half of 2015, committed, for instance, to show no more than two promotional (push) messages during a store visit (TechCrunch.com, 5 Aug. ’15).

More intelligent and helpful ways exist to apply the beacon technology in interaction with the app than promotional push messages. First, content of the “front page” of the app can change as the shopper progresses in the store to reflect information that would be of interest to the shopper in that area of the store (e.g., show hyper-linked ’tiles’ for nearby product types). Second, beyond ‘technical’ information on product characteristics and price, a retailer can facilitate shopper-user access to reviews and recommendations for location-relevant products via the app. Third, if the shopper fills-in a shopping list on a retailer’s app (e.g., a supermarket), and the app has a built-in plan of the store, it can help the shopper navigate through the store to find the requested products, and it may even re-order the list and propose to the shopper a more ‘efficient’ path.

Beacons are associated mostly with stores (e.g., department stores, chain stores, supermarkets). However, beacons may also be utilised by mall operators where the ‘targets’ are stores rather than specific products. An application programme in a mall may command collaboration with the retailers (e.g., store profile and notifications, special promotional messages [for extra pay], content contributions).

In another interesting form of collaboration, the fashion magazine Elle initiated a programme with ShopAdvisor, a mobile app and facilitator that assists retailers in connecting with their shoppers through beacons. As an enhancement to its special 30th anniversary issue, Elle launched a trial project in partnership with some of its advertisers (e.g., Guess, Levi’s, Vince Camuto) to introduce their customers to location-based content with the help of ShopAdvisor (focused on promotional alerts)(1).

Consumers are concerned about tactics of location-based technologies like beacons that get intrusive and even creepy; they become adverse towards the way such apps sometimes surprise them (e.g., in dressing rooms). Indeed, only shoppers who installed an authorised app can be affected, but for customers who installed such a retailer’s app, with other benefits in mind, it can be disturbing at times. The hard issue at stake is how the app alerts or approaches its shoppers-users with location-based messages. Shoppers do not like to feel that someone is watching where they go.

The shopper may believe that if the app remains closed on the smartphone he or she cannot be approached. But if, as reported in CNBC News, a dormant app can be awaken by a beacon signal, this measure is not enough. This may happen because the shopper previously allowed the app to receive the Bluetooth signal or the app “assumed” so as default.  The shopper must take an extra step to disable the function at the app-level or device-level (Bluetooth connectivity). Retailers should let their customers opt-out and be careful in any attempt to remotely open their apps on smartphones (so-called “welcome reminders”), because imposing and interfering with customer choices may get the opposite outcome of removing the app.

The app may display ‘digital’ coupons for the shopper to “pick-up” and show later at the cashier (or self-service check-out). It is reasoned that if coupons are shown at the right time shoppers will welcome the offer, no resentment. The manner shoppers are alerted can also matter, by not being too obtrusive (e.g., “Click here for coupons for products in this aisle”). Shoppers told CNBC News that if digital coupons were offered to them by the app just when relevant, they would be glad to use this option, being more convenient than going around with paper coupons, but they would want the ability to opt-out.

Shopper Behaviour Research

The beacon technology may further contribute to research on shopper behaviour in stores or malls. Specifically, it may be suitable for collecting data of shopper traffic to be used in path analysis of the shopping journeys. The information may cover what areas of the store shoppers visit more frequently, how long one stays in a given area, and sequences of passes between areas.

Nonetheless, there are methodological, technological and ethical factors retailers and researchers have to consider. At this time, there are distinct limitations to be recognized that may inflict on the validity and reliability of the research application of beacons. Ethical issues discussed above regarding the provision of access of beacons to mobile apps furthermore apply in the research context.

This methodology involves tracking the movements of shoppers. Beacon technology may record frequency of visits in each area of the store separately or it may track the presence of a particular shopper by different beacons across the store. A beacon may also be able to send repeated signals at fixed intervals to a smartphone to measure how long a shopper remains in a given area. However, this type of research is not informative about what a shopper does in a specific location as in front of product shelves, and thus it cannot provide valuable details on her decision processes. Hence, retailers cannot rely on this methodology as a substitute for other methods capable of studying shopper behaviour more deeply, especially with respect to decision-making. A range of methods may be used to supplement path analysis such as interviewer’s walk-along with a shopper, passive observations, video filming, and possibly also in-store eye-tracking.

An implementation of the technology for research would require a comprehensive coverage of the premises with beacons, perhaps greater than needed for marketing practice. It should be compared with alternative location-based technologies (e.g., Radio Frequency Identification [RFID], Wi-Fi)  on criteria of access, range and accuracy, and of course cost-effectiveness. For example, the RFID technology employs tags ( transmitters) regularly attached to shopping carts — if a shopper leaves the cart at the end-of-aisle and goes in to pick-up a couple of products, the system will miss that; smartphones, however, are carried on shoppers all the time. Beacon technology may have an important advantage over RFID if location data is linked with customer characteristics, but this is a sensitive ethical issue and at least it is imperative to ensure no personal IDs are included in the dataset. All alternative technologies may also have to deal with different types of environmental interferences with their signals. Access would have both technical and ethical aspects.

A mixture of problems emerges as responsible for impairing the utilisation of beacon technology, according to RetailDive (online news and trends magazine), mainly consumers who do not perceive beacon-triggered features as useful enough to them and retailers troubled by technical or operational difficulties. Among the suggestions made: encourage pull of helpful information from beacons by shoppers rather than push messages, and speed-up calling staff for assistance via beacons (RetailDive, 17 December 2015). A recent research report by Adobe and Econsultancy on Digital Trends for 2016 indicates that retailers are becoming more reluctant to implement a geo-targeting technology like beacons this year compared with 2015 (a decrease in proportion of retailers who have this technology in plan or exploring it, against an increase in proportion of those who are not exploring or do not know). Conspicuously, there seems to be much more optimism about high effectiveness of geo-targeting technology at technology and consultancy agencies than among retailers, who seem to be much more in the opinion that it is too early (2). Agencies could have better understanding of the field, yet it signals an alarm of disconnect between agencies and their clients.

There is potential to beacon technology with clearly identifiable benefits it can deliver to retailers and consumers. It is still a young technology and requires more development and progress on various technical, applied and ethical aspects.  Promotional messages are  important tools but must be used in a good and sensible measure. A retailer cannot settle for a small set of fixed messages. It has to develop a dynamic ‘bank’ of messages, large enough to be versatile over products, (chain) stores, and consumer groups, and maintain regular updates. However, retailers have to develop and provide a more rich suite of clever content and practical tools based on location. Consumers will have to be convinced of the benefits enabled by beacons, yet feel free to decide when and how to enjoy them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “App Helps Target Shoppers’ Location and Spontaneity”, Glenn Rifkin, International New-York Times, 31 December 2015 – 1 January 2016.

(2) “Quarterly Digital Intelligence Briefing: 2016 Digital Trends”, Adobe and Econsultancy, January 2016 (pp. 24-25). The findings are considered with caution because of relatively small sub-samples of respondents on this topic (N < 200).

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The collapse of a company is not necessarily an outcome of a single calamitous event. More likely, a final collapse will follow a period of several months or years of gradual deterioration in the management and performance of the failing company. The causes are usually a mixture of external events or market factors and not least internal actions or non-actions committed by the company. This seems to be the case with Mega Retailing, the second largest chain of supermarkets in Israel, that practically collapsed this month (January ’16) but the process of its deterioration may be traced through at least five years backwards.

The current Mega retail chain is in fact a successor of a consumer co-operative chain, “Co-op Blue Square”, established in the 1930s. That co-operative existed until the late 1990s when it could no longer sustain itself. Consumers who had a stake in the enterprise were required to sell their shares and a majority stake in “Blue Square” (73%) was acquired by the Alon energy group.

The company, renamed in Israel as “Alon Blue Square”, expanded since 2003 and added more business units in different retail areas. For instance, Alon brought under the rooftop of Blue Square (holding a 78% stake) its compounds of car fueling stations with adjacent trade services. The chain of supermarkets received the new brand name Mega (after going through an earlier short phase under the name “Super Centre”), instituted as a subsidiary in full control of Blue Square, its home company. Yet another critical move saw the establishment of “Blue Square Real Estate”, a subsidiary of the home company, which divorced Mega from control over its physical locations, making the real estate company its landlord. At the end, Blue Square is about to lose the core business that carried its name to begin with.

  • Alon Blue Square also acquired a chain of convenience stores (“am:pm”) that is separate from Mega but competes with it in city centres and neighbourhoods.

Multiple reasons can be given for the poor condition of Mega as proposed in the media. Some blame the high operating costs of Mega on wages and benefits for employees being higher than standard in the food retail industry; it is probably a legacy inherited from the older days of Co-op Blue Square when it was affiliated with a strong labour union. Not to be confused, employees in stores still earn relatively low wages, but with the low margins in the industry, the differences from competitors are claimed to be crucial. On the other hand, the management could be held responsible for keeping deficiencies reminiscent of the culture of Co-op in those older days. The owners on their part did not seem to be interested enough in what was happening to their supermarket company. Mega was lacking in strategic (marketing) thinking and mindset that would allow it to adapt better to new realities of a competitive market and higher standards of servicing and merchandising.

One should not go far to find what is wrong with the Mega chain. The problems of Mega show most visibly and strikingly in its stores. A particular branch is used here as an exemplar to demonstrate some troubling aspects. It is a neighbourhood store in the northern part of Tel-Aviv. The supermarket is not large (estimated at a little less than 300sqm or about 2500sqf) with a main hall (75% of its area) and an extension (two “corridors”). The store was established in the early 1970s and for a decade or two it was considered spacious and modern. The last major renovation took place about fifteen years ago but unfortunately within a few years it has lost much of its newly gained attraction.

There are six columns of displays across the main hall which leave too little space for moving in the aisles between them. In addition, the displays reach high above the head. The whole arrangement of this hall makes a shopper feel lost in space and closed-in. Bad merchandising appears to make the supermarket look crowded and untidy. A whole new concept should have been applied to this store with fewer columns, lower displays (e.g., no more than 1.50m) that would allow shoppers to look beyond the aisle, and fewer product types and brands (SKUs) on offer — in this supermarket ‘less is more’ would be perfectly right. Shoppers obliged to get essential products like bakery and dairy in corridors may find it unpleasant.

Another troubling matter in the store concerns the shopping carts and baskets, or rather the lack of them. To pick-up one of the few shopping carts available one has to pass across the cashiers and away from the entrance. Even if one was lucky to get a shopping cart, he or she would find the cart difficult to navigate with in the aisles, especially as the store, like the whole chain, moved to larger carts definitely not useful in this specific store. What shoppers should have been provided are hand-held baskets (or wheeled baskets), and these should have been arranged in ‘towers’ near the entrance of the supermarket (not hidden under cashier desks). The baskets would serve a much better purpose in the entry area than a large unappealing promotional stand positioned there. As a result, the store also does not have a welcoming and convenient “decompression zone”.

  • Considering the competition in vicinity (e.g., a large supermarket of the leader chain “Supersol” in a nearby shopping centre; a minimarket store across the street), the approach in that  Mega’s store, whether out of flawed thinking or lack of care, could not be affordable.

Similar problems can be found in other Mega stores: (a) A delivery service interrupts and blocks the way out for customers who take home their shopping bags  — delivery boxes are piled in a passage on the exit from cashiers, personnel are handling deliveries in the same area where customers should complete their shopping and leave, and preparing deliveries for some shoppers halts others for long minutes; (b) The staff arranges merchandise on shelves during the day, often blocking aisles with box-loaded shopping carts or boxes left on the floor — shoppers have to make their way competing with personnel on access to displays; (c) Product displays do not look neat and tidy, some items get out-of-place, some are falling to one side or another — even if shoppers are responsible for not leaving items in place, a store worker should always pass by, check and fix displays. If shoppers find a store in good order, clean and tidy, they will (mostly) feel obliged to make an effort to keep it that way for everyone to enjoy.

It does not seem to be a question of good will. Mega stores are missing order and organisation. Moreover, the employees may not have a guiding hand and initiative they need from either general management or store managers to get the supermarkets look and feel the way they probably aim at. In a  presentation (in Hebrew) of a strategic plan from 2013 (Blue Square’s website) the management of Mega shows that on top of every other goal they want the customers to love their stores; Mega’s vision through its history is “At Mega (we’re) listening to you! Always, at every place and in every encounter, because we really care.” Yet the stores could not show for it. The employees may have wanted it to happen but the management was not behind them to show them how, and it is still unclear why store managers were not helping or how well coordinated they were with top management.

A seasoned consultant in marketing and retailing (Galit Moor, “Shopoholist”) told “The Marker” Israeli business newspaper about rivalries and non-coordination between the trade and operational departments of Mega — the trade people would reach agreements with suppliers but operations people would not respect them and not follow them through in the stores, causing confusion and loss of trust of suppliers. She also related to lack of understanding of consumers and not really listening to their concerns, a top management detached from the stores, and mistakes in running stores, particularly failures in dealing with details at the store level (MarkerWeek, 24 July 2015). The management was not focused, undecided whether to compete on price (e.g., to fight off discount chains) or on enhanced customer experience (blending price perception, service, convenience, variety and quality of products), and therefore it must have had difficulties setting clear priorities to staff at stores. It is not too surprising that staff and managers could neither treat properly details of service and merchandising in the stores.

In mid-2015 Mega was in debt of 1.3 billion shekels (~$340m), 700 million shekels of which owed to suppliers and the rest to banks. The delay in payments to suppliers has led to sour relations with them, where some have also froze or reduced further supplies to the retail chain. Mega started with an aggressive plan of cuts, primarily closing stores, but it could not save it at this stage. By the end of 2015, just before the court intervened (stay of proceedings), the debt accumulated to 1.5 billion shekels, half of which to suppliers who largely lost confidence in and patience with Mega.

In the previous decade Mega has expanded while defining three sub-chains: “Mega City” supermarkets for serving neighbourhoods, large central “Mega”-stores, and large discount stores (“Mega Bull”, i.e., “target”). The latter was re-named just three years ago “You” and added more stores.  Mega was actually responding to a move similar in kind by the leading competitor Supersol with their sub-chains “My Supersol” neighbourhood  supermarkets, “Supersol Express”, and large discount stores “Supersol Deal” (a confounded fourth sub-chain of ‘warehouse’ discount stores “Big” was later eliminated). Probably not by coincidence, the restructuring of chains by Mega and Supersol resemble a strategic move by Tesco in the 1990s. The expansion, and especially the establishment of very large stores, has led the Israeli chains, like the British one, into trouble. The suspect reasons are failure to adapt in time to changes in economic atmosphere and consumer behaviour since 2008 vis-à-vis an inadequate reply to the challenge from new discount chains. (It is now revealed that Tesco faulted in delaying payments to suppliers, as Mega did.)

  • Mega operated in total about 185 stores in mid-2015. Initially the plan was to close 32 stores, mainly their “You” discount stores. However, it eventually closed at least 55 stores by the end of the year, and Mega is now left with fewer than 130 stores. Its number of employees was intended to be reduced from 6,000 to 5,000 but actually dropped to 3,500 (most of them were store employees, but the staff in headquarters was also significantly cut).
  • In the first half of 2015 Mega reported sales of 2.6 billion shekels (~$685m), down from almost three billion shekels in same period of 2014. Of total sales, 80% were attributed to the stores Mega expected to keep and 20% to the 32 stores intended to be shut down. In profit, stores planned-to-continue earned 55m shekels whereas stores planned to close lost 577m shekels. As it turned out, the initial recovery plan was not sufficient.
  • Mega is second to Supersol in the food retailing industry yet not so close behind: Supersol’s market share in 2014 was estimated 18% versus Mega with 9% (a ratio of 2:1). The private discount chains held together 28% [stable 45% attributed to open-air markets, groceries and minimarket stores]. It should be noted that according to predictions (2013-2015) the private chains were expected to gain mostly at the expense of Mega with a small but not negligible slide down for Supersol (The Marker, 30 Dec. 2014) — Mega found itself in a classic disadvantageous ‘sandwich’ position.

From start Mega committed to selling at lower prices than other stores in towns and cities. At the same time, it aimed for each store to be an integral part of its community, so that residents-shoppers will feel at home in their supermarkets. However, Mega did not succeed in maintaining its ‘low price’ position according to price comparisons published over time. It is questionable whether restructuring its chain, following Supersol, was necessary and suitable for Mega. The position of Mega City on prices may have been only weakened and diluted relative to its discount sub-chain. Mega has already had a well-entrenched network of neighbourhood supermarkets with emphasis on lowering cost to consumers — it should have concentrated its efforts on this chain. Yet, Mega did not succeed to keep lower prices as well as invest in the shopping experience and product variety in its stores, potentially conflicting objectives; it did not offer thereof a consistent value proposition.

It is difficult to understand how the owners of Alon Blue Square did not notice what was happening at Mega. They are accused of taking high dividends over time (the owners claim they have been misinformed about real profits, ringing bells from Tesco). The owners may have also acted irresponsibly by means of an over-charging rental policy of its real-estate subsidiary towards Mega’s stores.

The interests of the owners at this stage are vague. Blue Square chose to rent properties to chains that took over stores of Mega-You — was it to salvage Mega or to protect other interests of Blue Square? Proposals published to buy Mega retail chain actually focus on Blue Square Real Estate. Truly, one has to buy the properties in order to be able to continue operating stores in them, but that is only due to a status created by the owners that may now play against Mega. Hence, it could be a major difference if the potential buyer is a retailer or a real-estate developer. It is in the public’s and the food retailing industry’s interest that the buyer is required to take over also the supermarket business of Mega and not dispose of it. It is furthermore important that the supermarket industry has at least one other strong retail chain as a challenger to Supersol, not leaving Supersol over-powered against a competition too dispersed among several small and medium chains.

There is not really a good reason to miss “Blue Square” as a co-operative. A new competitive business ownership and directive has had an opportunity to re-create the supermarket chain and its brand. The chain was re-branded as Mega and yet it disappointed because core components of strategy, culture and implementation were flawed. It is now time to re-invent the concept of the chain and its brand. Nonetheless, the title “Blue Square” at Alon without the supermarket retail chain will be quite void and meaningless.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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