Inconspicuous Consumption: Lessons for Web Design from Mall and Retail Design

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“In many ways, websites are like shops in a mall —even websites that are not primarily intended for commerce.”For those of us who approach design as a problem-solving discipline (Erickson, Rowland, 1993), one of the ongoing challenges and delights is finding fresh sources of ideas for framing problems and designing solutions. In fact, some assert that the characteristic that sets apart the best designers is the size of their “bag of tricks;” that is, the number of ideas that the designer can draw on at any given moment.

Although in-discipline techniques are usually the best source of applicable ideas, after a while, they don’t always seem fresh. So sometimes, designers must look outward. In fact, Jerry Stead, CEO of Ingram Micro has suggested that “the best solutions come from non-competitors,” (1999); meaning that some of the most applicable solutions to a given problem come from outside the immediate discipline.

So while many scour the web for new ideas on web design, others are looking elsewhere. In an earlier article, published in Technical Communication (the Journal of the Society for Technical Communication), I explored lessons for web design learned from museum exhibit design (Carliner, 2001). But, in many ways, websites are like shops in a mall —even websites that are not primarily intended for commerce. They compete with other websites for “traffic,” just as stores compete with one another for shoppers. Stores try to hold onto shoppers until they make a purchase, just as web designers try to promote “stickiness” until users complete their intended task. Stores also hope that first-time customers become regulars, just as designers of websites hope that first-time visitors will return again and again.

These similarities suggest that the retail environment, which has centuries of experience behind it, might have a few lessons to teach those of us in the emerging discipline of web design. This three-part article explores some of those lessons. This first installment explores two lessons; the next two articles will describe seven more. Although the lessons range from broad issues of information architecture to specific issues of content design, they are not intended to be comprehensive. They are intended to provide a number of small “aha!”s and “of course!”s, rather than a single epiphany about web design. But in these small insights, I hope to help you expand your bag of tricks.

But first, some clarifications
Although I explore the relationship between mall and retail design and web design in this article, please be aware that the vantage point is a little off-standard. When I refer to mall and retail design, I mean the bricks-and-mortar kind, not an online mall or e-commerce site.

Second, I intend for these lessons to apply to functional websites whose primary job is to share information that people need to complete a task or perform a job, not e-commerce sites, whose primary task is marketing products and services.

Finally, this article does not emerge from a scientific or systematic study. However, it does emerge from a sustained reflexive study of the retail environment; in other words, I’m a mall-a-holic. I have visited hundreds of malls in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia over the past two decades (and made multiple visits to several of them), followed retail news in business and trade publications, and performed consulting work for retail clients. Although I have visited malls and read about the retail environment in Europe and Asia, these lessons emerge primarily from experiences with malls and retail establishments in North America.

Lesson one: A morphing medium
On Display: During the days of the American frontier, the majority of
the population lived in rural communities, and their primary shopping
needs were served by a general store (or, on the frontier, they just
made, grew, or traded their own goods). General stores carried a broad
range of merchandise (hence their name), from foodstuffs to clothing
and household supplies.

As the population urbanized in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, forward-thinking general stores morphed into department stores. Like their predecessors, department stores carried a broad range of merchandise, but organized it into separate departments (hence the name). For example, Baltimore’s Hutzler’s department store carried household supplies such as toilet paper and household cleaners in addition to linens, cookware, and clothing. Department stores differed from general stores by their size (department stores have several floors of merchandise, general stores were typically one floor), and their broader and higher-ticket selection of merchandise, such as furniture and fine jewelry. They largely served the growing middle classes. Most department stores were characterized by large flagship stores located in urban centers (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society, 2002).

Other general merchandisers were replaced by five-and-dimes, stores that sold a wide variety of merchandise for 5 or 10 cents (hence their name). Like department stores, five-and-dimes had many departments, but they competed for a lower end of the market.

As America suburbanized in the latter half of the twentieth century, shopping patterns changed significantly. At first, the shopping patterns mimicked those of the pre-World War II years, with shoppers going to strip malls (and later, enclosed regional malls) where they often found the same stores that they would find in urban centers. Department stores opened branch stores in the mall, which contained most of the merchandise found at the flagship stores. Five-and-dimes also located in malls.

But suburban life and concurrent social developments brought about more fundamental changes, which changed the retail landscape (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society, 2002). The growing women’s movement and economic anemia of the 1970s sharply increased the number of working women. As a result, a large group that once had many hours to shop (and would spend much of the day going to the large department stores to buy all their merchandise, have their hair done, and meet friends for lunch or tea (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society , 2002)), now had significantly less time for shopping. They sought convenience over elegance, and they became increasingly price conscious.

Retailers morphed again to address this price-conscious, convenience-seeking market. Five-and-dime, Kresge’s, remade itself as K-Mart (ultimately replacing all of its five-and-dimes), and department store chain Dayton-Hudson opened Target stores. Five-and-dimes could not compete with the broad selection of discount department stores, much less the prices. As a result, nearly all of the five-and-dimes closed, including former industry leader Woolworth’s, and department stores got a run for their money.

Department stores found that notions and other household items sat on the shelves because consumers could purchase them elsewhere at a lower price. The same happened with restaurants, hair salons, and travel agents, which consumers visited elsewhere in the mall. Even consolidation in the industry, in which local chains of department stores were purchased by larger chains, could not curb the trend. In fact, several major chains of department stores filed for bankruptcy protection in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Macy’s, Allied, and Federated (which eventually bought the other two chains).

To survive, these chain stores decided to focus on their most profitable merchandise and slowly shed their slow-moving, low-profit stock. Ultimately, most department stores focused entirely on fashion (clothing, jewelry, cosmetics), linens, housewares (primarily cookware) and, in some cases, furniture. Most department stores shed their electronics, notions, toy, book, and greeting card departments, and their restaurants, hair salons, travel agencies and automobile shops. They conceded this business to the growing discount department store chains.

In other words, discount department stores focused primarily on price, while more traditional department stores focused primarily on fashion. The strategy worked well. By the boom years of the mid-1990s, most department stores had returned to profitability, and most discount department stores set sales records.

Focus has become especially important as these traditional retailers try to survive the current economic slump in the U.S. Target, which has carved a niche for itself as “cheap chic,” has performed extremely well. It focuses on high fashion at a reasonable price. In contrast, K-Mart focused on low price in theory, but in practice, it lost its focus. As a result, consumers perceived that other retailers offered a better selection of merchandise at lower prices. Customers shopped at rivals and K-Mart filed for bankruptcy protection in the first quarter of 2002.

Similarly, department stores have tried to distinguish themselves as fashion retailers. Most are surviving the current slump. The ones having the most difficulty are Sears and JC Penney, both of which maintain the large selection of products and services that their competitors have shed.

Lessons for web design: The experience of retailers offers two insights “Although most people apply the concept of branding only to e-commerce sites, brand identity also applies to technical support and e-learning sites.”to designers of functional websites. The first is preparing for constant change in response to the changing needs of consumers. Admittedly, designers of functional websites recognize that changes are inevitable. Most expect that the content will change, especially on sites about software and telecommunications. Designers should be aware that the technologies used to design, develop, and display websites also change constantly, and should prepare to adjust their websites in response.

But the most fundamental changes may be social. As retailers had to re-think their physical layouts, departments, and pricing strategies in response to changes in shopping patterns that were themselves affected by changes in society, so website designers should remain in touch with the changing social and business environments in which their websites operate and be prepared to respond to them. In some cases, these changes in society will render existing research-based knowledge out-of-date, because the context in which that research was based may no longer be relevant.

The second insight is providing your website with a strong, clear focus. Just as shoppers like to know what a store is all about, visitors to websites want to know what a website is all about. This concept is called branding. According to Baxter, “the corporate brand [is] the image that customers and stakeholders have of an organization as a whole, as opposed to its individual products and services” (2000).

Although most people apply the concept of branding only to e-commerce sites, brand identity also applies to technical support and e-learning sites. For example, many software experts regularly visit Microsoft’s product support site, because that’s where they expect to find the latest fixes and related technical information. Many desktop publishing specialists regularly visit the technical support sections of Macromedia’s and Adobe’s websites for the same reason. Finally, many people visit their internal training site as their first source for education.

In years past, some organizations felt the need to develop portal sites, essentially one-stop shops for all of the information about a particular company or topic. But just as traditional department stores learned, in the 1960s through the 1980s, that consumers did not really value every department, so website designers have found that consumers do not always value a portal. Although a portal does provide the convenience of one-stop shopping, in some areas, users do not really want that service. For example, many e-learning portals, which were intended to provide one-stop shopping for online education, failed (Kiser, 2001). Perhaps one-size-fits-all corporate portals might consider the divide-and-conquer approach— have different sites for different needs: one for sales, another for support, a third for e-learning, and another for corporate visitors, like investors and job seekers.

Lesson two: Make ’em walk for what they want
On Display: Shoppers in supermarkets who merely want a bottle of milk almost always find that they have to walk past a pharmacy, household cleaners, health foods, and other distractions before reaching the milk. Shoppers who also intend to purchase meat, bread, and other staples encounter the same obstacles, and find that those staples are inconveniently located at opposite ends of the store. And when they check out, shoppers are forced past soft drinks, stacks of candy, and addictive tabloid publications and magazines like The National Enquirer and People Magazine.

Shoppers who go to a convenience store like 7-Eleven don’t have a much easier time. There, the milk and bread are also located in the back of the store. Or perhaps the shopper is a father on a mission to purchase a household staple such as diapers. Next to them, he is likely to find the six-packs of beer (Quesenbery, 2001). Even cafeterias, like Luby’s and Morrison’s (chains in the southern U.S.) place desserts first (the course that diners are most likely to skip), then offer appetizers and entrees, in that order. One might wonder whether retailers are purposely trying to make things inconvenient for shoppers.

Of course they are!

Aware of what shoppers are most likely to purchase, designers of retail outlets purposely give them a view of items that they may have an interest in, but are less likely to purchase, before directing them to the items they came to buy. This increases sales of non-essential items that usually yield a higher profit than staples.

Lessons for web design: Although conventional wisdom suggests that users prefer to find information of interest in three clicks or less, designers might consider directing visitors past non-essential content on the path to “must-have” content. If must-have content is to web users as milk is to customers of a grocery store, visitors to your site will likely tolerate a slight detour by the intellectual equivalent of the candy aisle before reaching the information they want.

More practically, you might place links to high-traffic content below links to lower-traffic content, in hopes of generating interest in the latter. As long as the links above the ones of interest look like links, and not advertising, users are likely to pay attention to them.

But don’t use this approach when the information of interest has “do-or-die” value. For example, like sick people who do not like waiting for doctors, users who visit a technical support website to troubleshoot a sick computer are not likely to tolerate a detour past the upgrades section. Similarly, first-time users to a website might be turned off by a detour.

In Part Two
If the best gifts come in small packages, why do web designers need to beware of big boxes? Check out the next installment in this series to find out.

For More Information (Part One)

  • Baltimore Jewish Historical Society. (2001.) Enterprising emporiums: the Jewish department stores of downtown Baltimore. An exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Baltimore, MD.
  • Baxter Robert. (2000.) The contribution of corporate brand image to the achievement of corporate objectives – with particular reference to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. MBA Dissertation, Henley Management College. Hong Kong.
  • Carliner, Saul. (2001.) Modeling information for three-dimensional space: lessons learned from museum exhibit design. Technical Communication. 48(1).
  • Erickson, Thomas. (1997.) Notes on Design Practice: Stories and Prototypes as Catalysts for Communication. From the website, EPSS InfoSite. Visited July 3, 2002.
  • Kiser, Kim. (2001.) Closed for business: Two years ago, learning portals popped up across the Internet’s landscape. Today, many are buried in the dot-com rubble. What happened?. Online Learning magazine. September 2001.
  • Quesenbery, Whitney. (2001.) Comments in an informal conversation on web design.
  • Rowland, G. (1993.) Designing and instructional design. Educational technology research and development. 41(1). 79-91.
  • Stead, Jerry. (1999.) Keynote presentation to the Training Director’s Forum. Bill Communications: Phoenix, Arizona. June 7, 1999.

Saul Carliner is a visiting scholar at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Designing E-Learning (ASTD Press), An Overview of Online Learning (HRD Press), and “Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Model of Information Design” (Technical Communication, 4Q2000).


  1. Interesting approach, Saul, and I agree that there are some real nuggets to be gleaned by studying retail design.

    IMO, however, “make ’em walk” is not one of them, because the success of this technique – and other revenue-generating, intentional confoundments of user desire – is premised on the linearity of physical space.

    Fine, put the milk at the back of the 7-11; I’m sure time-and-motion studies would indeed trace a path to it, with little clusters around the impulse items displayed along the way to the refrigerator case. But just try that on a website – you’ll see your audience click offsite faster than you can say “Gruen Effect.”

    I love and value highly interdisciplinary thinking, I just think it needs to be applied with discretion and care if it is to yield useful results…

  2. >”make ’em walk” is premised on the linearity of physical space [& therefore NOT transferable to Web-space]

    Actually, “make ’em walk” (Exodus) is more than just biology-in-space. Your forgetting a real experience (Gen 3:19) and consequent reward (value of labor) which does ‘pay off’ (Revelation) even in Web or virtual space.

    In other words, *to be self-sufficient* provides spiritual benefit — an expression of human accomplishment and mastery over environment — otherwise unattainable in a “no stopping” model.

    Without user-commitment (labor) — there can be no heart or identity.

  3. Are you saying I can attain spirtual enlightenment by clicking alot? Perhaps we should make hyperlinks triple and quadruple clickable as attonement for others sins.

    Saying that I believe that user-commitment is important but making buying difficult runs against the principles of any free market economy


  4. >Are you saying I can attain spiritual enlightenment by clicking a lot?

    No. But I am saying spiritual enlightenment does not happen all-by-itself (Rev 3:20). Labor will be required. Nothing is free (birth-right).

    *Now* is the time of decision. So that —

    ….if the milk is at the back of the store the customer has the opportunity to go get it. Of course, convenience-stores have carved out their own niche-market but not everybody (read outside of IA / IT) regards as their ‘little darling,’ (wearing the rose-colored glasses), just as not everybody wants to always (as an act of conquest) shop at the Wal-Mart.

    You say you have milk in here somewhere?

  5. I’ve often used the supermarket analogy to re-enforce design concepts.

    It seems to help people to understand a medium or concept not readily within their grasp. Using a comparison to something they really do understand (supermarket/shopping) forges a leap between concept and reality.

    Retail is about making sales and moving people efficiently through a planned physical space. Our medium is about making people click (an information sale), and ease of movement through conceptual or anticipated space.

    I don’t see ANY difference there.

    Users require good value for their clicktime, just as they would want VFM or convenience from their shopping time. Basically, they want stuff, are browsing, comparing, or aspiring. Whatever, they want their stuff cheap, quick and convenient.

    The real issue for me, is about understanding (and meeting) human need, deploying some common sense and realising that most human activity remains fairly constant wherever it takes place.

    Whether ‘shopping’ happens in the virtual or in the virtu-mall makes no difference, we should aim to meet the underlying behavioural requirements of our users. If this happens, they’ll return time and again.

  6. I think one of the most valuable things we can learn from retail, especially supermarkets, is how to target our advertising.

    When you walk into a supermarket you don’t see a big sign in the middle of the entrance telling you that Ritz crackers, Heinz Ketchup, and Cod fish are on sale. Don’t necessairly devote your home page to advertising. Display your advertising on specific targeting content pages within the site.

    The supermarkets have become very creative at this targeted advertising, and I believe we can learn from this in the online world.

  7. First, thanks for the comments. I appreciate the conversation that you have generated regarding the first installment of “Inconspicuous Consumption.”

    I’d like to clarify a point on the supermarket analogy, which has generated a lot of conversation.

    My web experience is primarily limited to functional information–technical procedures, training, and post-sales material. And perhaps it’s not clear, but the focus of this article is on that type of content, not content that’s primarily intended for marketing or other types of pre-sales and general information.

    Although linking and non-linear structures are widely used in functional content, there are certain instances in which linear structures are used and users tolerate them.

    For example, some e-learning uses linear structures and, because learners either must complete the lesson as a job requirement or to get a much-sought-after certification, they move forward in the prescribed order.

    In situations like that, learners can be led past the cereal before getting to the milk (in a figurative manner of speaking).


  8. …which I think is precisely what accounts for the failure of e-learning as I’ve known it.

    Look, Saul, at what you’re saying: we’ve managed to take the process of learning – which can be engaging, sparkling even – and drain it so radically of interest that only externally-imposed carrots or sticks suffice to drag users trudgingly through it.

    “Tolerated,” yes. But I would hope we’re all aiming a little higher than that.

    (None of the above should be read as implying my disagreement with you on any of your broader points, however, which I think are quite sound.)

    Derek R., I’m finding the point you’re attempting to make incoherent.

  9. This is really an issue of anticipation. What’s the question in a users mind at a certain point (whether linear or floating) and what’s the logical next step…

    “I’ve got the cereal, now where’s the milk?” = “I’ll apply for this mortgage, but what about insurance?” = “I’ve learned business presentation basics, but what tools do I use to put one together?”

    Needs are never linear, but processes are. There’s a distinction, and identifying that distinction is part of the discipline behind quality design.

  10. Hi Saul,
    Its a really interesting reading. I had done one similar comparison to Information Structuring/Clustering and the Singapore Changi Airport. I think a lot can be learnt and adapted from successfull ‘offline’ models.

    About your comment – ‘they move forward in the prescribed order’
    In my opinion, this would work only with the first time users. It is quite frustrating to move in a prescribed order for a repeat customer/user and for someone who is not really interested in looking around, exploring things.

    – Satya

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