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The 5 principles of retail wayfinding

You can lead a customer to water, but it’s not always easy.

There’s a science to the way customers move through a retail space, and ‘wayfinding’ is all about making it as easy as possible for people to, well, find their way. It takes into account where people make decisions in store, and how much information they need in order to do so. At its best, retail navigation should be a seamless, even almost-invisible, part of the customer experience.

It’s a bit of design, a bit of psychology and some good old-fashioned intuition. Here are five simple principles we use when guiding clients on the path to perfect retail wayfinding.

1. Choice is confusing.

Ever heard of ‘overchoice’? The more choices we’re presented with, the more difficult it is to make a decision. Customers don’t need to know everything at once, just what’s important.

For example, our renewal of the Marks & Spencer Food stores (see above) used clear, simplified signage to guide customers. When they’re shopping for fruit, they don’t need an immediate list of every kind of apple available in order to make their way to the fresh produce section – FRUIT & VEG will do. Customers know they can head to that glowing sign, then make their next choice.

2. Be clear not clever.

Navigation needn’t be clever – it needs to be clear and to the point.

Don’t say “Moo Juice” when you mean milk, don’t say sporting goods are “Just a hop, skip and a jump down the middle aisle!” Milk is in the dairy section, sporting goods are in aisle 3. There’s no need to get overly esoteric.

3. Customers don’t typically look up or down.

To think customers take in messaging above their head and below their feet is one of the biggest mistakes we see in retail. Sure, you can use high level in certain sightlines, but don’t assume customers are always going to stop and look up and down. Most of the time, it ain’t gonna happen.

4. Don’t recede, don’t POP.

Navigation should be there when you need it, but it doesn’t have to grab your attention, that’s the job of campaigns.

Additionally, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to navigation. Our refresh of the Keells stores in Sri Lanka (see below) used smaller ‘bus stop’ signs placed in strategic locations along the aisles, and we lowered the shelving height so that people could see them more easily at a glance. It’s an elegant solution for a large retail space with many different products.

5. The simpler the better.

Keep the messaging short and simple, and leave the cleverness to the design. Sometimes less really is more.


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