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Trapped by IKEA: How retail space makes you buy more

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.

Penn at University College London said standard shopping theory holds that consumers have a set amount of time in mind when they go shopping. Then, if they get done quickly, they feel good about themselves and will treat themselves to something they had not planned on buying. "And so supermarkets are set up to get you through as efficiently as possible through the shop and fill your shopping list so you will feel pleased with yourself and treat yourself with some chocolates or a CD or something else on your way out of the store," he said." And so they put all those impulse purchase things usually at the convenient location at the way out of the store at the till."

IKEA does the opposite, Penn said.

Disorientation and impulse purchases

There are three basic areas in an IKEA store: The showroom, the marketplace and the warehouse. Penn said the goal is not efficiency. In the showroom, the first goal is disorienting a customer so they have to submit to the store.

The normal shopping experience is a relationship between the buyer and the seller, Penn said. "And all stores manage that experience," he said.

Stores have window displays to get buyers across the threshold. Many stores have eager salespeople ready at the door to help buyers. "The last thing I want is to be snared by one of those people," Penn said. "Because you can never get away without buying something."

IKEA does then same thing, Penn said. "They snare you by losing you," he said. "So you are lost and you can't get away except by walking through the whole thing, by which time you've picked up all these impulse purchases."

And impulse purchases are important for retailers. Penn said that something in the order of 60 percent of purchases at IKEA are not things people had on their shopping list.

Muir said IKEA gets people disoriented by eliminating the landmark in the showroom of furniture. There are twists and turns and pretty soon there is no spatial memory. The feeling is disorienting and uncomfortable. "So they are forcing you to be lost in the experience, which forces you to be primarily visually engaged. Which means you are looking at the product," he said.

They don't want you to go through the store in an efficient way, Penn said. After the showroom, the person is led to the marketplace where there are hundreds of smaller household items. "They waste your first half hour, at least, before they even let you have the trolley (shopping cart)," he said. "And at that point you start treating yourself. Because by then you realize there is no way you are ever going to find anything again."

If a person sees a nice candlestick or basket in the marketplace, he or she will put it in the shopping cart because there is no way you are going to backtrack.

After the marketplace is the warehouse, where people pick up the flat-packed furniture — all arranged by aisle and number. A person might think the trip through the checkout area is the end of the IKEA experience. But then the strong scent of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls washes over everybody waiting in line, adding another impulse purchase to buy on the way out the door.

Submit to IKEA

Perner at the University of Southern California said there are several ways to be more financially responsible when going to a store. "The most important thing is to come in with a mind-set that there are going to be a lot of temptations," he said.

Bringing only the cash needed is a way to make sure a budget is not exceeded.

And understanding the way space affects a person can help them make better decisions.

But in the case of IKEA, Penn thinks people would be happier if they just submitted to the experience, give control to the retailer and follow the arrows leading people through the store.

"On one level that is quite a nice thing to do," he said. "You no longer have to worry. 'I'm just in IKEA. They are in charge now. I give in. All I have to do is put things into my trolley.' " TWITTER: @degroote FACEBOOK: