Store Layout Definition

by Fraser Sherman ; Updated December 13, 2018
interior of modern fashion shop

The definition of store layout is simple: it's a retail store floor plan showing where everything goes. Where are the checkout lanes in proximity to exits and entrances? In a grocery store, should the milk or the cereal be at the back of the store? How much space do you want between displays of merchandise? Where do you put chairs and changing rooms? These decisions aren't arbitrary or aesthetic; they are one of the tools for increasing sales.

Customer Flow Matters

Successful retailers start thinking about store layout before they even open. That's because your store layout influences customer flow and customer flow influences sales. Customer flow is the movement of shoppers through your store: when they come in, how many come in and how they move around. Which areas do they visit first and most frequently? Which areas do they steer past? The answers shape the store design, which equates to the layout.

The reason most grocery stores put milk and eggs in the back, for example, is because large numbers of customers buy them. The placement forces egg-craving customers to pass down other aisles and see other products, inviting add-on purchases. That wouldn't work if they were right by the checkout counter.

It might seem logical to put high-priced items right at the entrance where customers are guaranteed to see them, but that's a mistake. The first five-to-15 feet inside the door – the bigger the store, the greater the space – is a decompression zone. It's here that customers pause, assess the store and look around to see what's what; they pay very little attention to signs and specials right inside the door. Giving them room to catch their breath makes your store seem inviting and encourages them to start browsing.

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Once the customers begin shopping, it's important to give them personal space. If they feel unable to maneuver because the aisles are crowded, they may not be comfortable sticking around. You must have enough space to meet the ADA-requirements for customers in wheelchairs or walkers.

After the store has been open a while, you can analyze customer behavior based on what you observe or which sections are seeing the most purchases. If you don't see the results you want, consider rearranging the store.

The Retail Store Floor Plan

Layout design of the 21st century isn't an art; it's a science. Years of experience and data crunching have enabled designers to come up with reliable designs you can use for your retail store floor plan.

  • The grid is the layout design in many drugstores and groceries, a series of long aisles between product displays. The store design maximizes the product display and minimizes unused space. Staples everyone buys are at the back; impulse purchases are prominently displayed on the way to the staples. It's familiar to everyone, which is comfortable, but it doesn't wow customers with your cool design sense. Some customers may find it dull.
  • The herringbone layout design has one big central aisle with side aisles branching off. It's often a better choice than the grid when the store layout has to fit within a narrow space. However the side aisles are narrow, and it's harder to watch them for shoplifters.
  • The loop layout design is a single path through the entire store and back to the entrance, with no side aisles. It guarantees that customers will walk past everything in the store. The downside is that customers who have to walk past everything when they already know what they want may feel you're wasting their time.
  • Free-flow layout designs can look unorganized, with the product along the walls and freestanding displays throughout the store. They give customers plenty of space and allow you lots of flexibility to get creative. It's well-suited to high-end shops that want to showcase a small number of expensive goods or create a distinctive visual style. Because it doesn't follow a standard store layout, it takes more effort to get the layout right than with a standardized grid pattern.

No one store layout works for all retailers. When deciding on your initial layout, there are some basic principles you should consider and criteria to meet:

  • The design meets your customers' needs.
  • You have an organic store design, meaning it feels like everything fits together.
  • The design encourages customers to buy.
  • The store layout is convenient for customers and minimizes annoyances.
  • You shake up the layout with regular changes, such as special displays on endcaps. 
  • Every few years, you should consider a major redesign. 

Added Store Layout Elements

There's more to your store than just the merchandise displays. When thinking about your store layout, you also have to consider other necessary features:

  • Dressing rooms are essential in a clothing store, even though they take up space. You can compensate by using the adjoining walls for promotional items and accessories such as belts.
  • Seating isn't essential, but it often encourages shoppers to stick around longer. You can place the seats near the checkout, or near the changing area. Bookstores often have chairs all over the place so that shoppers can sit and look at their potential purchases.
  • The checkout counter should be large enough so that customers want to set down their purchases and their handbags. That leaves their hands free to pick up last-minute impulse items.  

Designing Your Layout

There's no shortage of professionals who will draw up your store layout for a fee, but it's possible to get by without a pro. All it takes is time, thought and something to make sketches on. If you're using paper, an eraser will probably help, too. It's unlikely your initial design will be perfect.

Start with your brand and product mix and your vision for the store. If you want to create a shopping experience for customers, a free-flow pattern has more potential than a grid. If you're offering large quantities of discount merchandise to lure shoppers in, a grid might be a better choice. You want a plan that complements your branding and your product mix, accommodates the anticipated store traffic and works with your space.

Once you have a firm concept, start making sketches, either on paper or on your computer. If your first idea doesn't work, modify it, or erase it and start over. No matter how small your space, you need enough room for easy customer flow. Customers also like it if they can see an underlying logic to your store: books in one space, jewelry in another and skin care products all grouped in the same section, for instance.

When you find a design that works, get more detailed. Which merchandise goes where in the store? If you're going to have displays for sale items, bargains or hot new product – for example, the new Harry Potter book, a discount designer handbag – figure out where to place them for eye appeal. Make the best display spots versatile so you can constantly change them to showcase different goods. Keep lines of sight clear so that customers approaching a wall display won't find the view blocked by another display.

Read up on customer-behavior research as you work. Left to their own devices, customers prefer to turn right when they enter a store, then circulate in a right to left pattern. Set your promotional items out so they'll be on the right side, put your checkout counters on the left. That fits with the way your customers feel is normal to move and maximizes sales.

About the Author

Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com

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