Trapped by IKEA: How retail space makes you buy more

Published: Monday, Jan. 30 2012 6:00 p.m. MST

The IKEA store in Draper, Utah January 18, 2012.

Michael De Groote, Deseret News

It was like being lost in a jungle.

Alan Penn's first experience in an IKEA was discombobulating. "I got lost very very quickly," he said. "I was disorientated. I did not enjoy the experience."

But Penn, professor of architectural and urban computing at University College London, felt "like a kid in a sweet shop" and quite enjoyed the stuff. "There are all sorts of things to look at," he said.

Penn had gone to the store to buy a mattress for an IKEA bed frame he had been given. After a few hours, he left with an IKEA mattress — and a lot of other things he hadn't planned on buying.

The way a store is arranged affects how people buy. Penn studies the way people interact with space and looks at virtual reality models to learn how behavior is affected by surroundings. Being aware of how retailers design their stores can help consumers make smarter choices on what they buy.

And knowing how people interact with space explains not only how people get lost in IKEA, but why the store chose to make its showroom that way.

Serve yourself

In the 1950s in the U.K., Penn said the grocer would be behind the counter and lop off a chunk of cheese if a person wanted cheese. The grocer would then wrap it up and take the cash or write a note and the person would take the purchase to the cashier.

When the supermarket first came to be, they had a job of educating the shopper on how to go around the store and pick up prepackaged items off the shelf without a grocer's help. Penn said the new stores used the familiar example of a library to train people to find their way.

"The library model was the best model they could come up with. It is easy," he said. "You can find meat, its on the aisle marked 'meat.' "

To sell more items, the stores figured out ways to get people to move past more of the store. For example, they put commonly needed items, such as milk, at the far end of the store.

Lars Perner is an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California and studies consumer behavior. He said studies show many things about how people interact with stores. For example, most people will turn to their right after they cross the threshold of a store. This affects where stores will put items that have the highest profit margin.

Jungle instincts

Entering a store is like hunting in a jungle.

Prescott M. Muir, director of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah and the principal of Prescott Muir Architects, explained how people react when they enter a space for the first time. "There are behavioral patterns in the ways we negotiate space," he said.

What people typically do is look up and across a space for a landmark, Muir said. The landmark gives spatial orientation — a fixed point that says, in effect, "You are here." Then a person will move through the area and create memories of the space.

It is like being in the jungle chasing after game. The mountain range keeps the hunter oriented. The hunter constructs a memory of the path, chasing the game so he can get back to the village after making the kill. "It's a natural thing built up over millennia," Muir said. "And we still have that built into us."

This is why a person entering a new space is visually oriented. The person looks for a landmark in the store and builds a memory along that pathway. "Once you have accomplished that, you revert to a habitual way of navigation less relied upon visual and more based upon innate spatial navigation," Muir said.

In a store people are familiar with, they will go through by habit. They know exactly where to find a product, Muir said. And quite often they are not looking at anything until they get to that place in the aisle where they know that product to be.

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