Monday, March 21, 2005

Atoms - Frozen Fish Sticks

Grocery store layout is somewhat like Web information architecture. You categorize products and their proximity to other products based on relationships much like content is categorized and placed into various info buckets.

Recently I ventured to a grocery store, starts with an "R" and went to the frozen foods section to pick up a box of fish sticks. Another woman, with three sugar-soaked kids were looking for the same thing. Thinking I just couldn't see the fish sticks, I walked the three-frozen food isles at least four times. If men don't ask driving directions, do they also not ask where frozen fish sticks are? I eventually did ask and the manager said he'd show me.

By the direction he took off for, I knew they were in an entirely different area of the store. As we passed the lady and her kids, I told her to follow as the manager was showing me where they were. We walked to the northeast corner of the store, next to the meat counter where the fresh fish counter is. Next to this counter is a small frozen food display, where frozen fish sticks and a couple of other fish products are available. I asked the manager what the hell they were doing way over here. Using this methodology, I may also want chicken strips and does that mean I need to go to the butcher counter? Or maybe I want vegetarian hamburgers, made with black beans so I need to go to the produce section? He and I could both tell I was being a smart-ass but still, he thought frozen fish sticks should be next to fresh fish and not in the frozen food isle.

He soon left and the woman and her three kids walked up. She was confused but glad to finally find the fish sticks, although her kids had changed their minds and now wanted chicken strips.

This is what makes designing Web sites tough. For the vast majority, one option will work. But for the few that can cut themselves with a bar of soap in the morning, fish sticks are with fish, chicken strips are in frozen foods, frozen pizzas are next to frozen bagels.

I've seen this a few other times. During Christmas, certain products are pulled from the location in the store and placed at the end of the isle for promotional purposes. Most stores have the product in both locations, so if you want to pick it up from where you normally associate the product you can do so, or at the promotion spot. Every once in awhile, they pull the entire product and just put it at the promotion site at the end of the isle. I then have to check the end of each isle.

Now if the store wants me to walk each isle and every isle, that's just plain mean. As the customer, I want to get in and out fast and the store that helps me do that is the one that's going to get my business. Whether it's online or in-person it makes no difference.

A PDA download of the grocery store layout would make all of this a mute point. I could download it into the Palm when I enter and then query the frozen fish stick isle. The recent SXSW conference did this for me with all the keynotes, panels and featured speakers. It proved to be a very useful tool. However, I realize conferences are different than retail or food marketing. Grocery stores want me to walk to the very back of the store for the gallon of milk, just so I can pass all the other stuff that doesn't sell as well or that we really don't need.


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