This is a tale of two stores.
One store sells furniture and home decor items. The other sells books. One store is organized down to directing the flow of customer traffic. The other does the same, but through disorganized limitation. And each store does, indeed, sell. How can organization and disorganization work when it comes to sales?
They both function on a principle of discovery and permission, but do it very differently.
An Orderly Buying Experience
IKEA is a fun store to visit. Customers walk in, and the process begins — and it is a process. Everyone starts in the same place, and the layout of the store guides each person from one tastefully designed display after another. Customers can stop for lunch and take a break while staying within the system of the store. Each item is tagged and numbered for customers to write down and add to a cart later. IKEA sells using three key parts to their system:
- Management. IKEA presents their products in best possible way, giving the customer permission to let IKEA make the decisions and manage possibilities. They show an optimal setup in their showcase, but present it as merely a suggestion. The customer is free to decide as much or as little as they want on their own. They can be passive and accept what IKEA offers, or individualistic and creative and come up with their own ad hoc design.
- Efficient. The system of writing down the location and number of items to add to a cart at the end of the shopping excursion frees customers to pick up the smaller-ticket items as they walk through the store. Customers can avoid struggling with large boxes and fill their bag with smaller items (a win for IKEA) before the larger boxes are added at the end. While sometimes confusing (Aisle X, Row X, ID number), it is a system built on moving customers and products through the store efficiently.
- In Action. The showrooms present the products in action. Customers see what they want to buy in different settings. They can try them out first. If they stop for lunch, they will be sitting at tables on chairs that are what they’ve been seeing through the store. They can get a feel for what using the products will be like before buying them.
The IKEA method works for people who are highly organized, who carefully consider their purchases, and who want to see a product in an optimal setting to avoid the work of trying to envision it themselves. It is favored by those who like discernible structure with a clear start and finish. It works well for those who have a specific need in mind and want to find the solution.
A Chaotic Buying Experience
A local used bookstore in Mandan, North Dakota does something very different. When customers walk in, the entryway wall is covered in the signatures of other customers. There seems to be very little “white space” or places of visual rest in the store, with books stacked everywhere. Aisles are small and feel like paths through canyons; customers are directed through the store simply because there are limited areas to move. The bookstore uses three key ingredients when it comes to selling:
- Overlap. The store is divided into sections based on book categories, but the books overlap and bleed into each other. There is no clear division where one section ends and another begins. Customers find themselves being led from the store section by section without realizing it. They may have come for a cookbook, but they might find themselves in the history section without realizing it.
- Solidarity. Starting with an entryway with the signatures of other customers all the way to the core product — books already used by other people — makes this store as much about the community of reading as it is about books. Customers feel like they are part of a group, just by being there. They are part of something larger than themselves, something unique, just by walking in the door.
- Adventure. This bookstore is built on adventure. Customers don’t usually go in expecting to find a specific book. It’s meant to be a time of exploring, seeing what’s there, digging in stacks and finding gems. Sales happen less on the books found and more on the adventure it takes to find them.
Through disorganization, customers aren’t told what and how to buy. They are merely encouraged to come in and wander around. This method is favored by customers who aren’t afraid of impulse buying, and who don’t feel the need to plan out their purchases. For those who see buying as an activity and not a means to an end, it is the perfect commerce adventure.
The Similarities Between The Two
Despite the very evident differences, both stores have some basic similarities.
They are both built on a tangible system. IKEA’s is more apparent, but the bookstore has one, too. Both stores allow customers to serve themselves, and decide and buy at their own pace. There are salespeople, but there isn’t a constant pressure to decide on what to buy. Each store encourages a “wander and discover” sensibility.
And in that way, both stores have found the same key to successful sales that exists outside of the surface appearance of organization: the opportunity to buy.
No pressure. No constant up-sell. No “what can I help you find today?” to force a decision right when a customer walks in the door. No “buy now!”
Instead, a subtle system guides customers to a sale — if they want to do that — while leaving room for customers to enjoy themselves and not buy anything. The stores make suggestions for buying, and provide a way to do it if and when customers want to do that. The stores guide customers through their sales floor the way they want them to go, while letting customers retain a sense of autonomy.
When done correctly, customers will give us the permission to present to them what we want and how we want it, and they won’t even hold it against us. In fact, they’ll buy. And do it again and again.