Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting People In the Door: Design Tips from the Retail World

Are museum visitors "customers?" Are library patrons "shopping?"

The retail analogy falls in and out of fashion in cultural institutions. Some swear by it. Some eschew it. Last week, I learned to think about it in a new way. I don't think cultural institutions should be more like retailers in how we treat visitors who are already in the door. But we have a lot to learn from how retailers attract and encourage people to enter in the first place.

I attended a workshop by Bob Gibbs, an urban planner who designs malls and shopping districts around the US. He started by saying "In the next three hours, I will show you how to increase sales in your store. I'm going to talk about the theory and practical techniques for doing so. We're not talking about values or how to make your city better or how to change the world. The focus here is on increasing sales."

What followed was a fascinating assortment of statistics and tidbits about how design influences how people shop. Some bits were familiar from my experience in exhibit design (i.e. people like to travel counterclockwise, don't over-clutter displays) but a lot was new to me. Some particularly useful ideas:
  • It takes eight seconds to walk by a typical storefront. Once someone is two seconds past the door, they will not turn around. You have to grab them in the first four seconds while they are approaching.
  • Within two seconds of entering a store, 70% of people know whether they will buy something. Stores use simple window displays and a "front and center" table to clearly and quickly convey what's hot, and most train a staff member to welcome customers immediately upon entry.
  • An open door generates 35% more business than a closed door. Doors that are flush to the sidewalk are more inviting than recessed doors. Outdoor planters and a lot of downlight can make a recessed entry more welcoming. How many museum and library entrances are hard to find, dark, and require opening a heavy door?
  • The highest-performing malls and shopping districts (in terms of sales) have lots of clear sight lines from one storefront to another. People like to be able to see the fronts of other stores and are more likely to browse a high volume of stores if they can see store windows from multiple locations. In a museum or library, this translates well to being able to see across to other exhibits or areas (especially when visiting in a family group that frequently splits and recombines).
  • People like to walk in a loop. They avoid "cul de sacs" that they can see are dead-ends, because they don't want to get bored walking through the same merchandise twice.
  • People really care about the cleanliness of doors and windows, especially at entrance. This is most important to parents; some people will not visit a store with children if the door looks too dirty. If there are public fixtures in front of your storefront (trashcan, hydrant), you should spruce those up to maintain a clean, friendly image of your store.
  • 75% of American spending occurs after 5:30pm and on Sunday. Stores should be open when people want to shop.
  • The average shopper in America does not like shopping. She's a single mom with very limited time. She wants to get in and out quickly, with a good deal on the thing she needs. The only time she likes shopping is when on vacation. Shopping is one of the most popular vacation activities, and many Americans plan their trips in part around shopping.

Where Cultural Institutions and Retailers Fall Short and What We Can Learn from Each Other

Both museums and stores sometimes commit the sin of not respecting people's intelligence, but they do it in different ways. Museum staff tend to treat visitors as people who want to be there, who need a little help, who might be a bit confused or overwhelmed by the experience. We talk about trying to break down "threshold fear"--the uncertainty some people might feel about whether they are qualified to enter the museum at all. Museums may deter potential visitors by treating them as not smart enough or worthy enough to enter.

In contrast, most retailers treat potential customers as imminently smart and worthy but once inside, grant respect only for their purchasing power. The customer is always right, but if she doesn't buy anything, she's a waste of time. Bob talked about eradicating "threshold resistance," not threshold fear. People aren't afraid to enter a store, but sometimes they don't want to. Retailers use all kinds of tricks used to get people to buy and buy more, to boost their confidence and positive feeling about shopping.

Retail stores are good at dealing with potential customers. Their design and staff approach focuses on attracting people in the door and making them feel confident and happy once inside. Cultural institutions, on the other hand, are good at dealing with customers who are already in the door. Their design and approach offers people a wide variety of ways to experience the content and encourages them to do so in whatever path works best for them. You're not just as good as what you buy, but what you learn, what you share with others, and what you contribute.

Museums and libraries don't need to be more like retail stores inside. We don't need to offer sneaky sales or push impulse purchases at the register. But we do need to find better ways to communicate what's available inside from the outside. If your institution was a store, would you walk in?
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