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Improving Retail Customer Experiences with Strategic Space Planning

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August 12, 2022

There are 23.5 square feet of retail space for every person in the United States, which is more than any other country in the world. All this retail space is critical to our economy as more than 90 percent of the nearly $6 trillion consumers spend in the US take place inside brick-and-mortar stores – so much for the retail apocalypse.

Managing all this square footage well requires strategic planning and operations, as it can mean the difference between keeping the doors open or shuttering for good. High costs are certainly one implication of poor retail space planning and operations. However, the bigger impact may mean the inability to create a positive customer experience inside retail stores by presenting a clean, warm, inviting, and highly functional physical space. That is bad for your brand uptime and as a surefire path for failure.

Whether you are opening a new brick-and-mortar retail location or want to optimize an existing space, strategic space planning means taking a fresh look at your stores, evaluating square footage use, and retooling your space. 

In this post, we are breaking down the step-by-step process for how to effectively improve your in-store customer experience – in ways that drive sales and leave customers happy. 

Evaluate Current Space

Before making any changes, retailers need to first take a close look at their current store and space utilization. The goal is to get a holistic sense of the space and understand how customers are currently experiencing the store. 

Here are a few specific areas to evaluate: 

    • How are customers moving through your stores? Spend some time observing customers as they move through the space. Watch where their eye goes when they first enter the space. Are they more apt to peruse the first section, or do they have a clear destination? Taking notes on these observations will help identify customer patterns and have a better sense of how the current store layout is performing. 
    • What is the current floor layout, including vertical space? Walk around your store and look at how floor and vertical space is being utilized. What products are at eye-level? What is the feeling evoked? Are you appealing to consumer psychology? 
    • What do customers think? Any retail store’s success is because of loyal customers. Talk with customers to better understand their experience and where they believe improvements could be made. Ask about any frustrations they have with their in-store shopping experience. Don’t be afraid to make small changes – even temporary ones – to gauge customer reaction and response.  

With a better idea of customer shopping patterns and experience, as well as current space utilization performance, you’ll have a framework to begin optimizing. 

Develop Proactive Strategy for Space Utilization

When thinking about improving customer experience and space utilization – and taking a more proactive approach – there are three key areas to consider: 

1. Facilities Maintenance

The foundation of an optimal retail space is proactive maintenance. Instead of reacting when things go wrong, a proper facilities maintenance strategy tackles and schedules preventative maintenance over the course of the year. This type of program ensures maximum uptime and enables retailers to deliver a comfortable, clean, consistent store experience. 

Critical building systems (HVAC, lighting, restrooms, etc.) need to be maintained – if these important functions are out-of-order for any length of time, customer experience will be impacted. For example, it would be a disaster to have an HVAC system go down at the height of the summer heat, or have multiple exterior lights out on a sign or a parking lot. 

For smaller facilities, this could be tracked in a spreadsheet, but for larger or multiple retail locations, there is specialized software available where retail facilities manager can track and manage assets, create a database of reliable vendors, and schedule routine maintenance tasks. With increased efficiency on preventative maintenance, managers have more time to devote to optimizing their retail space. 

2. Store Layout and Customer Flow

When a customer enters your store, where do you want them to go first? How do you want them to move throughout the space? How do you want them to leave the space? Shoppers are looking for convenience and ease, so don’t overburden the space with too much merchandise or busy displays. 

If reconfiguring a space, the most important consideration is the placement of more permanent installations, such as registers, the location/orientation of different departments and the width of aisles. These will serve as the anchors of the space.

While other elements – shelves, displays, tables – are more adaptable, their placement should consider the convenience and experience of the shopper. Execute any layout changes during off-hours (ideally when the store is closed) to minimize any impacts on customer experience. 

3. Design and Atmosphere

With a maintenance plan and anchor pieces of the store layout in place, the third component is to make the space unique. Essentially, how do you want customers to feel when they are in your store? With multiple locations, it’s important to have consistent elements, while optimizing for the distinct space. For example, a retail location with a high ceiling may want to incorporate a distinctive lighting to showcase the space. Through installations, decorations, and visual elements, retailers need to create a space that represents the brand and appeals to its customer base. 

Final Thoughts

While there’s so much focus on optimizing retail experiences from a digital perspective – and for good reason – there’s also incredible opportunity to provide customers with an in-store experience that truly sets your brand apart. The ultimate goal in taking a fresh look at your space utilization and optimizing with customer experience in mind is to create happy, loyal customers that come back to buy again and again. 

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