For many people, the act of making an everyday purchase follows a similar pattern. They'll visit their favorite store, find the section carrying the product they are searching for, compare it to the two or three others at the same price point, make a decision and head for the register.
If the lines at the register are a few customers deep, they'll head for the self-service checkout to complete the transaction. In fact, many purchases these days occur without any contact between the customer and a store employee.
"People, generally speaking, tend to avoid human interaction in stores," said Marcie Merriman, an adviser in digital strategy and retail innovation for global professional services firm Ernst & Young. EY counts 160 retailers and consumer products companies among its clients.
"Customers don't want to have to deal with someone to ask questions," Merriman said. "They want to do it themselves, and if they have a question they want to have it answered easily."
Whatever the reason may be, ranging from increasing cost pressures to a labor market where retail jobs can be somewhat lacking in prestige, the perception is growing that many sales associates are somewhat lacking in the knowledge they need to answer customers' questions. In many cases, it may be difficult even to find an associate able to provide assistance.
"Because so many consumers are doing research before buying a product, by the time they get to the store they feel like they're somewhat an expert themselves," Merriman said. "If they find themselves in a situation where they are asking questions of someone who may not have as much knowledge as they do, they can walk away feeling disappointed in the store."
Of course, many retailers are testing technological tools such as kiosks and interactive digital signage that can guide a consumer through his or her questions. While many of those tools show promise, traditional displays are still one of the best ways to capture a shopper's attention.
"While out shopping and trying to find out more about a product, consumers will interact with a kiosk or interactive digital sign to gather additional information," said David Anzia, SVP of Sales for Grafton, Wis.-based Frank Mayer and Associates, which specializes in creating in-store merchandising solutions including point-of-purchase material, custom fixtures, interactive kiosks and retail-ready displays.
"The information garnered from kiosks definitely plays a role in determining what I'm going to buy," Anzia said. "still, I'm not immune to traditional displays. If there is something that is really intriguing, I'm going to take a look. The items that are displayed more prominently in the store are the ones that are going to get my attention first."
Providing the right information
In the days before nearly everyone had a computer on a desk and a smartphone in a pocket, one of the key goals of merchandising was to provide as much information as possible about a particular product and attempt to answer whatever questions might occur in the customer's mind.
Today, it's safe to assume that in many cases shoppers already have a fair amount of information before they even enter the store. If they don't know details about the product itself, at least they know what task they are trying to accomplish.
Consider a hypothetical example of a shopper seeking to buy painter's tape. While that shopper knows that the goal is to end up with a professional-looking paint job, he or she might need answers to a few questions to make the choice between the 47 types offered at the local big-box home improvement retailer.
"With a product like that, you try to grab the consumer and make it easy for them to know the right thing to buy," Merriman said. "Without knowing what that is, there's a good chance the customer just might walk out without getting anything because they're afraid of getting the wrong thing."
So what makes an effective display, and what are the right things to incorporate into that display? The right answer to that question is that there is no right answer. It depends on the product, the retailer's brand, the space available and a host of other factors.
In general, though, it often comes down to doing something that attracts the attention of the buyer. Working with an experienced professional to develop an effective merchandising program may be the best option.
"People get bombarded with signage, and sometimes it's what is unique or a little bit of a surprise that can be most effective," said Linda Hofflander, director of vertical marketing with the enterprise business division of South Korea-based electronics giant Samsung.
"I live near New York City and often go into Times Square, which is so filled with signage that people are bombarded by it," Hofflander said. "One of them, though, is static signage, and I find that that's the one I look at."
In today's world, less is more, retailers say. Put too much information on displays and signage, then it all becomes white noise.
"With customers already armed with so much pre-purchase information, retailers have the ability to utilize less copy on their displays," Anzia said. "The marketer is able to simply their message and content copy and photos to distract the customer."
Some experts suggest identifying the two or three things that are most relevant to the target customer and focusing on those.
"A customer wants to know the most important ways the product will help them, not just everything it does or can do," said Kevin Lyons, senior vice president of e-commerce with home appliance and consumer electronics retailer h.h. gregg.
"For example, a 'super radiant heating element' on a stovetop means nothing to the average consumer, but 'boils water in 60 seconds' does." Lyons said. "Traditional signage takes on a new role in today's retail environment as it relates to supporting the mobile customer, those that are researching as well as comparing/reinforcing their purchases."
To continue reading, download the full report, ″Traditional Merchandising in the Age of Self-Service,″ sponsored by Frank Mayer and Associates.