How to Be a Purple Cow

Mike Lawshe, President and CEO, Paragon Solutions

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When CSP asked me to write a piece on design, my first thought was: Where do I begin? Do I focus on the do’s or the don’ts? Over the years, we have had many people proclaim that they had the answer. We have had home plates that were supposed to fit every site and every situation and we have had many equipment companies with the answer with the newest, latest and greatest gadget.

The answer always seemed to be whatever they were selling. Do you remember the triangle shelves? I always felt like a pinball in those stores, bouncing from shelf to shelf with no idea where I would end up. Was there any strategy to the merchandising with those shelves, or was it just a great job of marketing? Was the home-plate design the panacea, or was the creator an amazing salesman? Does McDonald’s have the best hamburger or just great commercials? I think history has given us the answers to these questions.

Why, then, do we seek out and follow these fads? It is a typical human characteristic to be more comfortable with what we know than what we don’t know. We are more willing to follow the pack than embark on a new, never-beforetaken strategy.

Have you read Seth Godin’s book “Purple Cow”? It is all about standing out and being different. As he describes it, “Something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. Exceptional. New. Interesting. It’s a Purple Cow. Boring stuff is invisible. It’s a brown cow.”

We have been trained by some companies to be a bunch of brown cows, all the same. From the architecture and graphics to the merchandising and displays, we follow instead of leading. We even price the same. The result is a homogeneous group of stores that can be classified only as brown cows.

Look at the Look and Feel

What is the solution? It is really quite simple, when we look at it strategically. First and foremost, don’t be afraid of color. I get the privilege of seeing hundreds of stores per year, and let me tell you: White is not a color when it comes to retail and restaurants. Embrace warm spice colors mixed in with textures and materials that give depth to your store. Plan to freshen up the stores periodically with new paint and finishes. This should be done at least every five years, or more often if possible.

Second, I think we have to take back our stores and develop our own merchandise sets based on sound design principles, not on free racks and equipment salesmen. It is important to invest in fixtures that give you the flexibility to merchandise what you want when you want. The “free” racks simply lock up that endcap or space for that vendor until we get another free rack. On one store visit recently, I counted 27 free racks. None of them matched in color, dimension or utilization, but they were free.

Third, I think we have to get back to basics in design. One of my favorite books is Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy.” In this book, he talks about the basic principles of using traffic patterns and customer tendencies to design a store that maximizes the selling process by focusing on the consumer’s “buying zone.” The core principle in retail design is to give the customers what they want (and then show them something that goes with it). We all like to shop in a clean, well-lit, well-organized and well-stocked stores. These are givens. We all like to be entertained with design that appeals to all the senses, especially sight, sound and smell. This is where it gets fun. Finally, we all like to feel like we’re appreciated. Invite them in, give them what they want, offer them more than they expected and thank them on the way out. This all sounds so simple. So how does it translate into design?

Getting into the Zones

The first principle, as cited by Underhill above, is to give the customers what they want. These are the demand purchases and services. They come into our stores expecting soft drinks, cigarettes, ATMs, restrooms and basic snacks. These offerings should be strategically placed as far away from the door as possible to pull the customer through the store. The exception to this is, of course, the cigarettes that are regulated to be serviced by the employees. The wayfinding to the cooler, restrooms, ATM and snacks should be executed well but not overemphasized. Finishes should be durable and attractive.

Special care should be given to differentiate the light quality and light levels throughout the store to suit the individual requirements of the area. For example, the cooler should be lit with LED lighting to present the product in the best way. The customers typically know that they will purchase these items and use these services long before entering the store.

Once they have accomplished their task of using the restroom or purchasing from the cooler, they will be more receptive to impulse. Don’t fall into the trap of shortening the buying cycle by putting the restrooms and ATMs up front or small, “free” coolers near the door. This simply reduces the amount of impulse opportunities the customer is exposed to. The customers will come in and complete the mission they came in to accomplish and then head for the door. At this point in the buying cycle, they should be as far from the door as possible.

Now we start to use all the senses to pull the customer through the first buying zone. This zone should have all the high-margin, grab-and-go and impulse snacks. The finishes and graphics should be significantly different than that of the cooler area. We want to entice the customer with sights, sounds and smells that spark their senses.

Colors should be warm food colors with strong suggestive subtleties. Materials should be durable but with a homey touch. Bringing in the materials that you would use in your own kitchen, such as granite, solid surfaces and tile, gives the customer a feeling of quality with the taste of homemade. Music and flat screens in this area enhance sensory impulses and make the customer feel at home and connected at the same time. This is the area between the cooler, restroom, etc., and the cashier. While they make their way to the cashier, we need to show them what’s new, what’s fresh and what they want. Foodservice programs and the dispensed-beverage categories need to be amped up to capture the customer’s impulsive nature.

Brown vs. Purple

Once they make their way through the first buying zone, they arrive at the paragon of buying zones, the checkout counter. We have all heard that if you want to sell something, put it on the counter. This is basically true. However, the Purple Cow creates a buying zone filed with new items that are sure to stimulate the taste buds of our customers: fresh fruit, hot food, local favorites, seasonal items, the unusual, just arrived and “as seen on TV.” The Purple Cow has custom racks with digital signage and rotates the product on a regular basis in a planned format. He makes sure the margins are above average in this area and the products are highly impulsedriven.

The brown cow places cardboard boxes and “free” racks with typical candy, gum and mints. Boring! The brown cow lets the individual manager fill this area with stuff. The result is a checkout area that underperforms, and we wonder why. Ultimately, the checkout area is the customers’ last best opportunity to leave our store with a little more than they thought they would get, and smiles on their faces.

With all of these principles taken into account and executed correctly, good design can and will have a highly positive effect on the bottom line.

The question I leave you with is this: Are you a Purple Cow or a brown cow?

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