In-store cameras to monitor shopper behaviour and hi-tech virtual shops have helped United Co-op, in partnership with Unilever, to come up with its first 'Perfect Store'.
The project to find the ultimate store layout kicked off three years ago when Unilever was looking for a retail partner to work in collaboration with. It found United Co-op and quickly the two companies picked a store in Bradwell, a typical 3,000sq ft community store, on a parade of shops and in a high chimney pot area.
After a year of Unilever scoping out the project, cameras were put into Bradwell to find out how customers were shopping the store over three consecutive weeks. The findings were quite alarming. Susan Beetlestone, general manager for marketing at United Co-op, explains: "The majority of customers - 70% - walked up the first aisle, which was good because the fresh offer was at the end of that, but then we were losing 20% of them at a break in the gondola run that came before the fresh offer, so 50% of customers weren't seeing fresh and dairy at all."
The two gondola ends in the first aisle break both featured promotions but these weren't being shopped either. "Customers weren't interacting with promotions if they were either side of them - they were only buying promotions if they hit them face on," says Beetlestone. "They were really just using the gondola break as a navigation device."
The research also revealed that the food-for-now products weren't being shopped as expected either. "The food for now was in a cold area of the store, which we found surprising because it was near the entrance and till point," says Beetlestone.
Analysis of the behavioural research led to a focus on three shopper missions - food for tonight, food for now, and top-up - and the creation of three clear areas in store so that customers on a particular mission could find everything they need to satisfy that mission.
Rather than plough ahead with layout changes based on this research, Unilever commissioned a 3D virtual world of the proposed layout, as well as the existing one, to validate the proposal. Five hundred Bradwell shoppers were then recruited to shop the existing layout and the theoretical layout on computers in the virtual world with a particular shopping mission in mind. How customers shopped those layouts in the virtual world compared to the real world were then analysed.
With the proposal looking positive, United Co-op set about making the changes, and in November last year, Bradwell unveiled its new look. Since then, average weekly sales are up 10%, average basket spend is up 9.1%, fresh participation has increased by 2.4%, and margins are up by 9.7%. Comparing this to ordinary store redevelopments, the increases, in some cases, are almost double.
With such promising results, United Co-op has now kicked off an eight-store trial using non-typical stores such as smaller shops or awkwardly-shaped stores, with a view to rolling out the new layout across the United Co-op network

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