How retailers can influence the walking speed of customers

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Managing the flow of customers can be a challenge for retailers. When customers rush through the store, they miss interesting products and buy less. But spending too much time in front of the shelves could lead to annoying congestion in the aisles, which also leads to declining sales. Research by Bram Van den Bergh of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), demonstrates that floor markers can help retail managers nudge customers towards the ideal pace on their shopping trip.

It has been known for some time that walking speed plays an important role in shoppers’ purchasing decisions, says Van den Bergh. But until now it was unclear what retail managers could do to influence the pace of their customers. This research was set up to find out how they might achieve this.

Floor markers

In the study, the researchers pasted lines on the floor across the aisles of a supermarket. In the first experiment, the lines were close together. For customers, this created the illusion that the aisle was longer than it actually was. Researchers observed that this illusion slowed down customers as they moved down the aisle.

They then created a set-up in which the lines were farther apart. This gave customers the impression that the aisle was shorter, says Van den Bergh, which in turn, made customers speed up.

Goal gradient

This effect of people speeding up when they see fewer barriers between themselves and their final goal, is called the ‘goal gradient effect’, Van den Bergh says. It predicts that people become more motivated to reach a particular goal when they are closer to it. In this case, fewer floor markers, spaced farther apart, gives people the impression that they are closer to the end, since they have only a few more lines to cross.

This happens in other marketing contexts as well, says Van den Bergh. When participating in loyalty programs, for example, people tend to accelerate the rate at which they are purchasing when they are closer to receiving their bonus reward, such as the free coffee they receive after handing in a fully stamped card.

Airports and swimming pools

Van den Bergh says his results are not just useful for retail managers. The right application of floor markers in railway stations or airports could also encourage passengers to walk faster and thus catch their train or flight on time. Conversely, in swimming pools, a dense floor pattern might help to slow down visitors and prevent them from slipping and falling, Van den Bergh concludes.

The paper: Van den Bergh, B., Heuvinck, N., Schellekens, G.A.C. & Vermeir, I. (2016). Altering Speed of Locomotion. Journal of Consumer Research, 43 (3), 407-428

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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