Shopper in Tesco

There are fundamental principles that all good category strategies obey. One of these is to properly understand the shopper.

Shopping would be cognitively exhausting if shoppers tried to take in all the range and information offered to them in a store. So they adopt coping strategies to save time and energy. Much of their shopping is semi-conscious and their full attention is rarely activated. In this context, it is critical to know how to attract attention, get messages across and influence buying decisions.

How can categories achieve this? Three things are key.

First, category visibility. If you are not seen, you are often not bought. Instant recognisability can be delivered by brands. Obvious, perhaps extreme examples are Belvita and Old el Paso as “beacons of colour” for categories. But visibility is also about clear signage, not just to help those searching but to trigger the thought “oh yes, I need those”.

Position in store is also important. Very few shopper trips cover even 50% of aisles in a supermarket. I recently saw a snacking category with massively varied conversion rates in different stores, dependent on position in store. Of course, not every category will get the position it wants, and if you are “off the beaten track”, then secondary space such as the value aisle or checkout becomes even more important.

Fundamentals of category management, 9: Category growth

Second, ease of processing. Once the shopper has arrived at your aisle or bay, it should be easy and intuitive for them to understand how it is organised and find their way round. Cheese is a category that is typically well set out in the UK – obvious sections for snacking, sliced, grated, indulgence and block (cheddar).

Sainsbury’s simple colour coding to demark the different types of fresh meat is another good example. Category owners sometimes spend too long looking for clever answers to layout, driven by complex analysis. Often the best answer is simple and product led – bottles vs cans and standard vs premium in beer. Keep it simple. Focus more effort on spelling it out at the shelf and standardising it across the industry. So long as it makes basic sense, shoppers will happily work with it.

Third, orchestrating attention. Not all shelf positions in the category are equal. Nudging the shopper’s attention towards the products that you want to sell can have significant benefits to your numbers. The same product range merchandised differently can result in a different mix of sales. The most obvious benefit is “nudging to premium” – giving more expensive or higher margin products every chance to be seen, before cheaper alternatives. A shopper looking for a side of plate vegetables might happily buy Tenderstem broccoli (a premium product). But if they see standard broccoli first, that might be a good enough solution, and they will move on to another category before they even notice Tenderstem. It isn’t about hiding the lower priced products, but about drawing attention to the premium ones.

This is all important stuff. But it does not take away from the basics of good shop keeping. Offering the right range, excellent availability without excessive waste, cleanliness and (in relevant categories) freshness and product life. These are musts on which everything else is built. But visibility, ease of processing and orchestration are very important too.

Jeremy Garlick is a partner at Insight Traction