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The Zone System

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Anyone that has spent time observing shopper behavior in their store has noticed that there are distinct areas, or “zones”, that customers pass through. Some of these areas are high in traffic, some low. Other zones might be full of people who seem to be just standing there.

Gelson's Market - Calabassas, CA

There are also zones unique for what types of products a retailer is offering there or just the amount of space made around product offerings.

Understanding that many various types of zones exist is key to knowing what types of signs will maximize sales and guide customers moving through these zones.

  1. High Traffic Zones: These are the main thoroughfares in a store that customers go through to get to the High Demand zones. The types of merchandise to put in these areas depends on where these zones are in a store. Typically, high traffic zones are near a store’s entrance, areas adjoining the checkouts, and around the perimeters of a store.

  2. Idling Zones: These are the areas of the store where customers find themselves having to wait for service. Prepared Food counters such as Bakery, Deli, and Fresh Meat areas, and, again, the the checkout area are all areas where customers find themselves waiting in lines. These are the zones in which retailers place impulse items (like batteries, gum, candy, and magazines near the checkout counter).

  3. Decompression Zone: Just inside the entrance of a store. It’s freezing or really hot outside and suddenly, once inside, the temperature is perfect, or a customer has just left a low stimulus environment (outside) to a high stimulus environment (inside) where he is suddenly bombarded with merchandising visuals, music, a higher concentration of people close-by. This is the area where a customer’s blink rate actually goes down and he is mesmerized by the amount of selections that can now be made.

  4. Low Demand Zones: These are the areas of a store that carry cooking staples, spices, rare ingredients, seasonal products, kitchen and bath cleaning and paper products. These are all products customers know are in a store, will go straight to when on their shopping lists, but aren’t the kinds of things a customer thinks of on a weekly or semi-weekly basis. Walking by these products on their way to high demand departments might result in impulse or “whoa, forgot I was out of that” types of purchases.

  5. High Demand Zones: Most retailers will place high-demand products at the back and perimeters of a store to draw customers through the low-demand zones of a store to get to them. These zones offer merchandise found in dairy, bakery, meat, and deli departments--the kinds of items a customer might return for more than once a week.

ShopRite - Deer Park, NY

Moving customers through these zones is the job of décor and signage. The retail journey starts at the front door. This is where many retailers want to make a lasting and very general positive impression on their customers. Freshness and abundance are qualities many stores opt for here. That's why produce, and lots of it, is often found right at a store's entrance. At this point, Customers are in a decompression zone. Their minds are most susceptible to many types of suggestion here.

.ShopRite - Deer Park, NY

Although this is a high traffic zone, it is not the zone for featured products or important promotional materials. It is a great place for expensive specialty items, though. Big-box stores like BJs, Costco, Walmart place items like big-screen TVs, jewelry, electronics right here. Most customers have not come specifically for these products, but when a special gift or need occasion arises, they will have walked by these big ticket items enough throughout the rest of the year to know exactly where to return for them.

Signage in this zone, if it exists at all, is often more visual than literal. Colors and images, not words, will pull the customer through this department to the next one.

The next step for the retailer is to let her customers know where the weekly staples, or high demand items are that he probably came in for. This is why the largest and most impressive décor and signage is often placed around the perimeter of a store. It has to get a customer's attention from across the entire selling floor. It has to work from a distance and subliminally begin at the moment the customer first enters.

But along the way to the High Demand Zones like Bakery or Delicatessen around the perimeter of a store, smaller POP signs and Aisle Markers will serve as reminders for lower demand items the customer might need.

Once a customer has walked through the store and finds himself in the High Demand Zone he came for, he might find that he is in what I've noted above as an Idling Zone. That's because these high demand zones are often a service department, like the butcher, delicatessen, or even the bakery. Here, Cross-merchandising and small POP signs are of paramount importance.

So while waiting for deli meat to be sliced, a customer can peruse the packaged products and specialty cheeses set up near the deli counter.

And customers waiting their turn in line to pay for their groceries can pick up last minute gift-wrapping supplies, a cold drink, some gum, or a magazine. Note the special lighting in the shelving units to attract a shopper's attention. The pharmacy is another place where a customer might have some time on her hands. While waiting for a prescription, cookies and/or sunglasses could be tempting if properly displayed.

Off The Wall works closely with clients not only in the design and fabrication of effective decor and signage, we can also work on creating a store's layout that will guide customers through a satisfied shopping experience.

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