Where to place the organics?

Organizing the assortment to increase choice and perceived variety for ‘special’ products

Have you ever noticed how in some supermarkets the organic products are placed in a separate section of the store, all next to each other, while in other supermarkets the organic products are intermixed with mainstream products? We noticed this and wondered which placement is more effective in increasing the choice of organic products, and also whether it would change the way people think about the organic products. Take a moment to think about this. Are people more likely to notice the organics when a separate section is devoted to them, and will this increase choice? Or are people more likely to encounter the organics when browsing through the mainstream products, and will this placement increase choice?

When a subsection increases choice (and when it does not)

Whichever of the two options you chose, you are correct. It will increase choice, that is, it will increase choice for some people. In a study on assortment organization, which I have conducted together with Anick Bosmans, we show that people who are interested in organics are more likely to choose organic products when these are placed in a separate section. In contrast, people who are not all that interested in organics are more likely to choose these products when a mixed display is used.

The reason for these effects is that people focus their attention on that part of the product assortment that is most relevant to them. So, when organics are placed separately, people who are interested in organics will focus their attention on these products and are likely to choose one of the organic products. People who are not that interested in organics, however, can just ignore the section with organic products altogether and thus are less likely to choose an organic product.

Impressions of variety

This focused attention not only affects product choice, but also perceived variety. When people focus their attention on a subsection, and compare the products in order to make a choice, they have the impression that a lot of variety is offered. So even when a retailer offers the same number of organics and non-organics, separating them into sections will ensure that organic lovers think there is a high variety of organics, while those consumers who are more interested in the non-organics think there is high variety in non-organics. This holds as long as the number of products is large enough. When a store offers, say, only four organic products, organic lovers focus their attention on these and will realize that this is not much variety.

Thus, food retailers can direct consumers’ choice as well as their perception of the variety that is offered, through the way they organize their assortment. Importantly, using a separate display for a category of products, in the hope to increase sales of these products, will only be effective when the category is sufficiently large and when consumers are interested in the category. This holds for organics, but also for other products. We used organic wines, fair trade teas, and caffeinated versus decaffeinated teas in our studies, but really, it should hold for any category.

Erica van Herpen

About Erica van Herpen

Erica van Herpen is associate professor in consumer behavior. Her general research topic is consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase in retail settings. Topics center on (1) general store context (store layout, atmospherics, social influence), (2) on-shelf product presentation (shelf organization, product packaging, health claims), and (3) the use of novel research tools such as the virtual supermarket. In addition, Erica examines consumer food waste.

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