Editorial: Enough with the retail mazes

  • People walk past an Amazon Go store in Seattle. AP

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Sometimes big problems – war, poverty, climate change, political incompetence – have to take a backseat to pet peeves. Today is such a day, a day to vent at being treated like a lab rat or a sheep en route to slaughter by more and more retailers.

Merchants have long used clever marketing strategies, some might say cheap tricks, to entice shoppers to buy more products, including stuff they don’t need. That’s why necessities like milk, eggs and bread are always at the back of a supermarket, often in opposite corners. It’s not a well-meaning way to force a customer with a cart full of donuts to get more exercise. The more time in the store, the more items in the cart is an equation proved countless times per day.

Savvy merchandising calls for putting cheery, bright-colored items at the store’s entrance – fruit and produce in the case of supermarkets – to subtly put shoppers in a buying mood. It means plenty of sale signs, two-for-one deals, prices that end in 99 cents and lots of inexpensive, impulse-buy items lining checkout lanes.

Fine, we can live with that, though it means a lot of needless walking and wasted time. But more and more stores are forcing shoppers to disappear into head-high mazes of racks and shelves loaded with all manner of low- and modestly priced trinkets, baubles, geegaws, snacks and sweets just to pay up and leave the store.

Some of the checkout mazes now have three or more turns and add scores if not hundreds of feet of walking for a customer who may have just one item.

Shoppers are expected to navigate the whole maze even when there’s no one else in line. Most people obediently do. Some, and we’re naming no names here, consider the mazes suggested routes and take shortcuts. One outlet even forces every customer to walk down one side of a 50-foot wall of goods and then back down the other side just to get to the aisles carrying the majority of its offerings. Once again, a suggested route.

Retailing is tough and getting tougher every day. But retailers are creating and extending mazes, and packing aisles with so many floor displays that it’s making shopping unpleasant. Contrast that trend with what Amazon, which recently purchased Whole Foods, is doing. It’s opening Amazon Go stores, small outlets stocking both necessities like milk and bread plus ready-to-go meals and upscale gourmet goods. Shoppers who download the company’s app to their phone can walk in, fill a bag with items and walk out – no checkout lines. Technology tells Amazon what each shopper took, bills their credit card and sends them an electronic receipt. No mazes, no hassle.

We question, now that it’s easy to buy almost everything, including groceries, with just one click of a mouse, if it’s time for a different retail strategy – a maze-less future that places a premium on convenience and minimizes aggravation, wasted time and needless travel.

We can only hope.