Supermarkets of the future: Aisle have what they're having

The days of milk at the back of the store, baked bread aromas and endless choice are out. Supermarkets are overhauling their layouts and product selections to suit time-poor shoppers

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The Independent Online

For years supermarkets went out of their way to try and keep shoppers in their stores as long as possible, like a Las Vegas casino hoping you would keep spending money in endless aisles of slot machines and roulette tables.

Bread, milk and eggs would always be near the back in the expectation that shoppers would grab an impulse purchase along the way – and anyone looking to whip up a meal from scratch would have to trek through several aisles to find the individual ingredients.

However, the old mindset appears to be changing as supermarkets wake up to the time constraints on shoppers – that they are much more likely to give up than wade through a maze of signs and endless varieties of what is basically the same product.

To combat shopper fatigue Tesco has launched a trial in 50 stores in an attempt to help customers out and get them on their way quicker.

Simple but effective initiatives have been brought in, such as tinned tomatoes sitting next to the herbs, spices and salt, with pasta nearby. And home baking products will all be together to help those consumers inspired by Bake Off.

In even simpler examples, American mustard will now sit alongside the French and English varieties.

The move follows the decision of Tesco’s new boss Dave Lewis to scrap thousands of lines from shelves, in part to persuade suppliers to raise their game, but also because supermarkets are moving away from the previous assumption that customers want massive choice.

The change comes as discounters Aldi and Lidl, which only offer between 2,000 and 3,000 lines, continue their march to high-street domination. That compares with Tesco’s 90,000 lines before Mr Lewis arrived. He has cut around 20,000 of them.

Retail expert Steve Dresser, who regularly visits stores to check the products and layouts, explained that in many cases less is more. Before the new boss started, he pointed out: “Tesco have a really bloated range, which is arguably part of their issue across so many categories. They just offer too many products, which makes it difficult for customers to shop ... too many products, prices and offers.”

Within its dishwasher tablet range, there are an overwhelming 64 different types. Even Asda and Sainsbury’s only offer 48. Aldi, by comparison, has four.

For years psychologists have suggested that providing too much choice can create anxiety, as shoppers fret over the vast amount of products in front of them.

Some psychologists have suggested this is the reason for Aldi and Lidl’s impressive growth – that the choices are stripped back.

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, the psychologist and author Barry Schwartz points out that the US has some of the highest levels of consumer choice in the world – and yet the highest levels of anxiety and depression.

He writes: “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before – and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy – we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

In an article entitled “The Tyranny of Choice”, he added: “It is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better; people who care about having infinite options will benefit from them, and those who do not can always just ignore the 273 versions of cereal they have never tried.

“Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.”

The shop layout changes are not exclusive to Tesco, which has also removed the endless signage for certain brands, which pay thousands for the privilege. Others are taking notice. Morrisons’ new boss, David Potts, revealed on Thursday that he wanted his stores to be simpler.

The supermarket has already removed messages such as “great offers” from overhead, just leaving the store navigation signs. Unit prices are now bigger, so customers can quickly compare prices of products that are different weights, instead of agonising over mental arithmetic.

Mr Potts also revealed his belief in less is more when he said end-of-aisle promotions will feature just two or three products on display, instead of the typical seven or eight.

At Sainsbury’s there are also changes under way. Earlier this year bosses showed off new technology, with apps that allow consumers to put in their shopping list and be directed to the exact location on the aisle, to save time.

And with the rise of convenience stores, supermarkets have been quick to catch on to the trend that customers want to “scratch cook” – putting meal deals for stir fries, with meat, vegetables, noodles and sauces, all on the same shelf.

So, gone are the days of supermarkets thinking the best way to lure customers in is with misty vegetables and aromas of freshly baked bread being pumped through the store. And now here come the days of hi-tech stores wowing customers with innovations and simplicity that could get them spending again.

Supermarket sweep: Tesco’s changes

1 Tinned tomatoes will be with other “ingredients” such as herbs, salt and spices

2 Home-baking products will all be together to help ‘Bake Off’ consumers

3 Olives will move to sit with other pickled products such as pickled onions and gherkins, because customers consume these side-of-plate products the same as snacks at home

4 Italian products will be grouped together for ease in collecting Italian meal ingredients

5 Malt vinegar will sit with balsamic, wine and cider vinegars, rather than with ketchup

6 American mustard will move alongside English and French mustard rather than BBQ sauces