Retail store walks are a critical part of any winning sales and marketing strategy. It’s up to brands to make a habit of putting boots on the ground to experience their entire product category through the eyes of the end user.
Consumers are certain to form impressions of your packaging, the value of your products, the variety of your SKUs and how you stack up to the competition. The ultimate goal of branding is to steer these impressions, but your efforts can only succeed when they are preceded by a thorough understanding of the retail landscape.
Sales and marketing professionals who visit retailers often come armed with a store walk checklist, but what do your observations mean about the status of consumers’ attitudes and competitors’ operations? More importantly, how can your brand act on your insights to optimize your position on shelves?
On your next Lowe’s or Home Depot store walk, supplement your walkthrough checklist with this simple eight step process, and bring the deepest-possible insights back to your team.
1. Forget everything you know.
Take a step back from your expertise and look at your product category through the eyes of a first-time shopper. What makes one leaf blower better than another? What are the benefits of a cordless drill? Is the premium brand of hedge trimmers worth the cost?
Shopping certain categories can be intimidating to novice buyers and it can be deeply frustrating when the information that’s needed to navigate the choice isn’t readily available.
Unclear merchandising can also frustrate and confuse Pros who need to make quick purchasing decisions on the way to a job site. When a Pro is looking for a fastener in an unorganized bay and can’t find it, it can create an unfavorable impression and waste time they don't have to spare.
Bewildered customers used to seek out sales associates, but now that nearly everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, shoppers are likely to conduct their own research right there in the aisle. Online browsing can introduce brutal competition on price and cost you (and your retailer) a sale.
Anticipate shoppers’ questions and use your packaging and signage to provide answers they don’t have to search for. Clearly communicate your value proposition and simplify the buyer’s journey, and you will gain a competitive advantage.
2. Look for consistency in assortment.
Take note of how your brand is positioned amongst competitors in your bay. How many SKUs do other brands offer? If competitors are taking up more space, it’s a good idea to consider why.
Competitors’ mix of SKUs may prove the need for greater variety in your design options or price points. Conversely, holes in other brands’ product lines can reveal important opportunities for your business. If your company manufactures a tool that is favored by professionals, is there an unmet need for a version of your product that is more accessible to DIYers?
Evaluate your product mix against others’ and look for opportunities to close gaps as well as create disruptions within your category.
3. Check out the price progression.
Consumers have different needs, as well as different systems for evaluating the “bells and whistles” that brands use to justify the higher cost of premium SKUs. Ideally, your product category as a whole should offer a steady and logical price progression with options for any budget.
Take barbecue grills, for example. The most basic models may start at under $200, while the highest-end models on the floor approach $1500. Notice the space in between. Are there options for consumers looking to spend $400, $450, and $500? If you identify significant gaps in price progression, you will create opportunities for your brand to meet an unaddressed need, with less consideration for the competition.
4. Compare packaging within your product category.
On your next retail store walk, be sure to take a step back from the bays that house your products, and see what you notice about your category holistically. Is there a great deal of similarity in package design and presentation between brands?
Some choices are classic for a reason. Black and red evoke the flames and heat consumers associate with grills and grilling accessories, while bold green packaging reminds consumers of the purpose of gardening tools. While these choices make sense in isolation, brands need to consider how their products look on shelves in the context of the competition.
If you notice that your products are lost in a sea of sameness, you’ve uncovered a chance to make bold choices that help your brand stand out.
Beyond aesthetics, great packaging speaks for itself. Does your design clearly convey the purpose of your product and how it can solve consumer problems? Don’t count on retail associates to be knowledgeable about your product category. Use your packaging to engage and educate, and you will set yourself apart from other brands in your bay.
5. Look for empty hooks.
Who is in stock, and whose products are MIA?
Widespread pandemic-related supply chain issues have many brands scrambling to fill orders. Bare spots in bays speak volumes, especially when double-facing hooks are standing empty – they indicate that products that typically sell faster than associates can restock them are currently unavailable.
Before COVID-19, proof of a secure supply chain was a basic requirement of a winning product line review. Under current conditions, however, brands that can faithfully fulfill orders have a tremendous advantage in the eyes of their merchant.
Your competition’s setbacks are your opportunity. Take note of the gaps, and position your brand to fill them.
6. Do the white-glove test.
While empty shelves are a reliable indicator of operational struggles, full hooks aren’t necessarily proof of success.
Fully-stocked shelves may mean you are moving product – or that you’re hardly moving any product at all. Look for aged, worn, and dusty packages. If any of your or your competitor’s SKUs have gone stagnant, there may be important lessons to learn about how consumer needs have changed.
Take this information back to your company and roll up your sleeves. Thorough research can uncover whether stalled sales are due to issues with price receptivity, disruption from the competition or a combination of factors.
7. Shop around.
Inventory and consumer behavior can vary from one Home Depot to the next, even within the same city. To get a complete picture of how your marketing strategy is performing in the real world, visit multiple locations and a variety of retail stores, even those that don’t currently stock your brand.
Take note of how products are positioned and arranged from one store to the next. Retailers have a brand of their own. It’s generally accepted, for example, that Home Depot caters to construction professionals while Lowe’s has historically appealed to DIYers.
Compare and contrast product category composition between retailers, and use that information to identify gaps. When competing brands have exclusive deals with one retailer, it can create opportunities for your brand to offer comparable SKUs to the other.
Winning sales strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all – what works well in one retail location may work against you in another. Stay introspective, honest and agile.
8. Be proactive in your branding.
You’ve been insightful and intentional about each touchpoint of your branding – how can you make sure your brand voice translates on the retailer’s shelves?
Brands’ control over how their products are arranged in bays or on the showroom floor isn’t absolute and can be subject to retailers’ broader plans for arranging merchandise. Don’t rely on store associates to showcase your product in the best possible light. Include the tools and signage that your retailer needs to catch consumers’ eyes and explain your value proposition.
Store walks are a crucial opportunity to notice where you are and aren’t succeeding. Ensure that display models are in excellent condition, packaging is eye-catching and the key features of your product are prominent and front-facing. Look for ways to help your product succeed within your merchant’s retail environment, and you will win sales that benefit you both.
If you are a retail brand in search of a strategic partner for store walks, get assistance with data collection and an actionable analysis of your findings. Schedule a consultation to review your brand’s goals at retail with sales and marketing specialists.