You may have heard this well-known retail statistic: 90% of people turn right when they walk into a store. That’s a mind-boggling insight into shopping behavior.
Anthropologists, experience designers, interior designers, brand managers, and data scientists have spent countless hours searching for the perfect bones and outer-layers of a store layout to optimize the raison d'être for retail spaces — also known as moving merchandise. Those hours of work have uncovered some amazing insights into human behavior that have developed into best practices for retail.
If you’re looking at opening a new retail shop or you have a shop you want to redesign, you’re likely doing your due diligence into interior layouts that could work for your space. But you don’t need to spend a dime on research and development, as we’re sharing some of the top retail store layouts and interior design tips that science has to offer.
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Since moving merchandise is the name of the game, the store layout should help to achieve that goal by guiding customers through the store, exposing them to product, all while managing important stimuli that encourages purchasing behaviors. How people experience your store is a big part of your brand that needs to be as carefully crafted as other aspects of your brand.
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That’s a lot to consider, but layouts are a great place to start. Store layouts are the foundation that will guide the experience of your retail space.
There are four commonly used store layouts:
- Loop (Racetrack)
We’ll take a closer look at each of them, but let’s look at some of the commonalities each of the layouts share first by looking at a generic store with a blank interior.
Exterior signage and window displays are curb-side appeal for your store’s real estate. Doing a good job here can help to convert foot traffic into store traffic. Check out these tips on how to create a compelling curb-side story.
Once a person steps inside, they enter the decompression zone, which is the first five to 15 feet of your store. Think of this as a transition space — customers take a broad, sweeping look at the store and anything placed right in this area will likely not be noticed. Avoid placing key items here like shopping baskets or high-demand products.
Notice the empty space at the front—the decompression zone helps customers transition into your store. Image Credit: RMSE
As we mentioned above, studies show that 90% of people tend to turn right after entering a space, starting a circulation trail through whatever store layout you’ve designed. Thus, placing your high-demand product or premium promotion in this space will ensure it’ll be seen. This area is known as your power wall and it can be both an excellent promotional and brand-building space. Use it to strike an impression.
A power wall at American Eagle Outfitters. Image Credit: Ispira Blog
Beyond these common features, store layouts highly influence the remainder of the circulation path and experience of your store — so let’s examine the four most familiar layouts now.
We’re all familiar with the grid. Nearly every convenience store, pharmacy, and grocery store utilizes this familiar layout. Reams of merchandise are displayed on a predictable pattern of long aisles where customers weave up and down, browsing as they go. The grid maximizes product display and minimizes white space. This layout is all about product, product, product. A standard grid layout looks something like this:
The grid features long aisles with impulse purchase items near the front and staple items at the back. The ends of aisles are prime real estate and many stores use additional features such as wing shelves to further highlight products. If you ever wondered why milk is at the far end of a grocery store, it's because this design forces customers to walk past an assortment of impulse purchase items both on the way to and from the staple item that they need.
While far from standard, if you have the room, 4’ wide aisles help prevent customers from bumping into one another. This is something you really want to avoid, given that when this happens, most customers leave your store within five minutes.
- Best for stores with lots of merchandise, especially when products are varied
- Lots of exposure to products, as the layout encourages customers to browse multiple aisles
- Familiar for shoppers
- Predictable traffic flow means you can put promos where you know customers will see them
- Lots of infrastructure suppliers, such as shelving, are available as this layout is used so much
- Best practices within this layout are well researched
- Least likely to create an experiential retail space; this layout is a dime a dozen
- Customers may be frustrated they can’t shortcut their way to what they need
- Customers may not understand your product groupings, leading to frustration and questions (or worse, departure)
- Few visual breaks and lots of merchandise can make customers feel overwhelmed
- Cramped aisles often lead to customers bumping into one another
If you operate the type of shop where customers pick up multiple types of items that aren’t naturally grouped together (think shampoo and greeting cards), you may want a layout that makes it easy for customers to browse the whole space and find what they’re looking for.
The grid creates natural barriers that serve to simultaneously group like products together and separate different products. This can help to clear up confusion about where to find things in a shop with a high number of SKUs. Furthermore, customers are highly accustomed to this layout, so flowing up and down aisles is second nature to most shoppers.
Some of the cons of this design can be addressed through some creative interior design that builds in improvement beyond the bones of the layout alone, such as using shorter shelving so make the space feel more open and help customers see how you’ve grouped products through visible signage.
A modern grid layout in a store — notice the promotional areas at the ends of each aisle. This shop cleverly uses shorter aisle shelving so that staples at the back are still clearly visible, which opens up the space, improves wayfinding, and helps to reduce thefts. Aisles are spacious, helping to avoid the butt-brush effect. Image Credit: DesignTAXI
If you think the grid may be best for your merchandise, but you have a very long, narrow retail space, the herringbone layout is one to consider.
The herringbone layout has many of the same pros and cons as the grid, with a few notable exceptions.
- Suited to stores with lots of product, but minimal space
- Warehouse-style stores open to the public may also find this layout works
- Limited visibility down ‘side roads’ can increase shoplifting opportunities
- Can feel cramped, and customers easily bump into one another
Tuck shops, small hardware stores, and many small community libraries use the herringbone to pack a tiny space full of wares. The side roads can be used for promotions, but by adding some welcome visual breaks within the promo areas, you can add some much-needed breathing room to an otherwise overwhelming space.
Some herringbone book shops that want people to linger set up a comfy chair at the end where people can leaf through their choices before they decide.
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You’ll find large warehouse style stores use the herringbone layout as well. IKEA’s convoluted loop track (which we will examine more below) is replaced by the herringbone when you’re in the pickup area and the intention of the shopper changes from browsing to purchase intent.
A big potential downside with the herringbone is the potential for theft. But one way to mitigate the risk is to park security cameras at the end of the side roads as visibility from the checkout is likely to be limited to none.
The loop, or racetrack layout takes the grid’s fairly predictable traffic flows a step further and creates a deliberate closed loop that leads customers from the front of the store, past every bit of merchandise, and then to the check-out. Customers are exposed to the most merchandise this way, but the path they take is controlled.
A basic loop layout is shown below — the white path represents the main corridor that traffic would flow through, although the central area would be populated with a micro version of any layout, which suits the product offerings and fits the space.
- Maximum product exposure
- Most predictable traffic pattern; easiest to place promotions and have highest assurance they’ll be seen
- Can be experiential — may work with retail where a journey makes sense and time spent in store doesn’t need to be brief
- Customers don’t get to browse at will
- May waste customer’s time who knows what they’ve come for; they may avoid this shop in the future when buying intent is specific
- Not suited for shops that encourage high traffic turnover, or carry products that people need to spend little time considering before purchase
IKEA takes the loop layout to the extreme, and if you’ve been to one, you’ve probably experienced both the pros and the cons of this design depending on your intent in the shop. If you’re there to browse, the experience can be quite nice — it encourages perusing and their creative displays spark ideas for your home. However, if you’ve gone there for a few specific items, it’s a daunting, frustrating place to be — it’s no coincidence that haunted houses use the loop layout too.
The loop doesn’t have to be frustrating though, so long as it’s carefully selected for the appropriate purpose.
One well-considered loop layout application are those pop-up gift shops that accompany time-limited museum exhibitions that continue the story of the exhibit where the shop becomes a natural extension of the display rather than a sudden, jarring retail space.
A well-executed loop layout can let retailers tell a story, albeit within very well-defined parameters.
The free-flow layout philosophy is almost a rejection of the others. With free-flow, there is no deliberate attempt to force customers through predictable traffic patterns; wandering is encouraged. Therefore, with free-flow, there are far fewer rules, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any — don’t forget about the commonalities that are based on natural human behavior.
A sample free-flow store layout below demonstrates that exterior signage, window display and most likely start path and power wall still remain the same. But beyond that, it’s a very creative layout to work within.
Free-flow has been called the simplest store layout because there’s no defined pattern, but arguably that’s what makes it the most complex. How you organize your merchandise in a free-flow store is limited only by your square footage and your imagination. With so few rules, it’s easy to go wrong. However, the biggest mistake you can make if you decide to go with this layout is thinking there are no best practices — human preferences and behavior still matter and need to be considered for this layout to be successful for your shop.
- Great for small spaces
- Also works within areas of loop and spine layouts (more on that below)
- Creates more space between products
- Less likelihood customers will bump into one another
- Better suited to higher-end shops with less merchandise
- Most likely to create an experiential retail space
- Often less space to display product
- Easy to forget there are best practices that still should be followed; breaking the unwritten rules can turn people off and away from your store
- Can be confusing for customers
Image Credit: Retail Design Blog
Well-designed free-flow layouts can encourage browsing and impulse purchases. They are ideally suited to more creatively focused shops or upscale brands that want to prioritize experiential retail as a key component of their brand.
The flip side is that because there’s so much variety in free-flow shops, it’s easy to do the wrong things and discourage customers. Setting shelves too close together, not creating enough visual breaks, or putting check-out in the wrong part of the store can encourage departure rather than purchase.
Using Multiple Layouts
You don’t have to select just one store layout. The loop layout lends itself to more than one — a loop on the outside and grid or free-flow in the centre. Large sized department stores often use multiple configurations connected by a single power aisle.
Nordstrom, for example, uses several layouts to differentiate between various branded shops that live within the store. The department store transitions from a grid layout Nike store-within-a-store to a free-flow, high-end designer label embedded within the space. They cleverly mix and match store layouts to create the feeling of different shops, even though they’re all under the same roof and umbrella brand.
A main corridor acts as a spine connecting each of the shops, while visual décor helps customers understand where one embedded shop ends and another begins.
The spine is clearly seen at Kid’s Cavern, which is flanked by free-flow layouts. Image Credit: Architectural Digest
Final Layout Selection
When deciding upon a layout for your retail space, carefully consider your products, desired consumer behavior and square footage you have available. If you have a lot of dissimilar products, consider the grid. A smaller number of products may work well in free-flow arrangements. If you want shoppers to slow down and browse, consider mixing loop and free-flow styles.
Picking the bones of your store matters a great deal and can directly impact your sales.
What layouts do you prefer for your shop? Let us know in the comments.