Inverting the supermarket



What if we put the milk up front? Every day, we’re talking about designing technology around the user, taking the user point of view and ruthlessly following his or her preferences and needs. When we build apps or websites, the user-adoption is so important that we try to completely understand the users through personas and scenarios. Why then, when we go to a supermarket, is the milk still put in the back corner (and not upfront) making the ‘user’ cross the entire store to buy this most needed commodity? Is that for the benefit of the customer, or for the benefit of the store?

It’s common knowledge that this is done to generate business, to lure the customer deep into the store to make him or her buy more things. But what would happen if we really design a supermarket to optimize user experience? Recognizing there are different kinds of shopping trips and trying to offer the ‘shortest path to checkout’ for all of them?

When I envision such a store, I see an almost concentric circular store, with an inner ring that is very functional, aimed at the bare necessities with minimal frills. Bright lights, stuff in boxes and aimed at mass efficiency: milk, bread, toilet paper, etc. This is where everybody goes. This is where you can do a quick in-and-out shopping trip. Then, in the rings around that are the things that are still commonly bought, but less so, this is where some staff is available to find things or recommend. And all the way in the back are the things that are luxurious, rarely bought and more expensive. At this end of the store, it’s quiet, there is soft lighting, classical music, a butler with white gloves for maximum personal attention. This is where you find the real delicatessen, the fanciest brands, caviar and champagne. This is where you go to get spoiled, to feel special and rich. I bet people would love to go there!

I would love to do this, as an experiment… but it’s probably an expensive thing to try, especially knowing that margins in retail are low to begin with. And that’s where we have the great advantage in the digital space: it’s cheap to try things. In the digital space, it’s easy to segment, to consider alternative uses and optimize for all. But still… does anyone have a supermarket to play around with?

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SogetiLabs gathers distinguished technology leaders from around the Sogeti world. It is an initiative explaining not how IT works, but what IT means for business.

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  1. Ann Wuyts May 18, 2015 Reply

    Sounds like a lovely and more time-efficient trip. However, supermarkets benefit immensely by letting us walk past things we do not need. When passing something, you often think “oh yes, that would be nice” and grab it, even if it wasn’t on your list. Wandering the isles is big business to them? (Let’s say that for me, I bring home about 25% more than was on my grocery list to start with.)

    • Erik van Ommeren May 18, 2015 Reply

      Yes, my point exactly: retails has perfected the trick of seducing us into buying things we didn’t perhaps set out to buy when we left home. My suggestion is to experiment with store-setups where depending on your mood (‘quick, no time’ or ‘Let’s explore’) you can choose a different path, ultimately perhaps even ending up in more business.
      One other thought that crossed my mind though: by now, everybody knows where the milk is, so when you move it, probably people get lost. We may all have been conditioned into a sub-optimal store layout forever! 🙂

  2. James Hatfield May 18, 2015 Reply

    Very interesting hypothesis.

    You could partner up with a brand Lidl or Aldi in Germany/EMEA Like a Sam’s club but way more popular.

    When I coordinated an ecommerce study in US, Germany and China for Fossil Group in 2012 (unfortunately ignored for the most part), we found that german shoppers did all of their research in advance and felt that ‘discovery and engagement’ content was just getting in the way. They pretty much just searched and bought. In China this was inverted. The entire shopping process was about discovery and research. They wanted as much info as possible all in one place and would take their business to the store that provided the best one-stop shop (TaoBao is of course the model store for China). Looking abroad you may find cultures that are already in better alignment. The US would just take more convincing and as you mention this adds risk.

    I also wonder if you could make shopping more personalized and relevant, maybe using something like the South Korean virtual shelves and a beacon device. This would allow everyday stores to sell luxury goods and more variety without having to maintain stock or worry about security.

    • Erik van Ommeren May 20, 2015 Reply

      Yes, I think mixing physical and digital is the holy grail for retail today. I’m not sure it’s really something customers are waiting for. Self-scanning helps a lot, as people are already using a device in store. Then again: when autonomous vehicles become a reality, shopping and home-delivery will be upside-down anyway, perhaps then finally only the social/discovery/research part of retail remains.

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