Squirrel Spotting: Turn Your Store Upside Down

IndependentsJan 16, 2018

Squirrel Spotting: Turn Your Store Upside Down

Change can be more powerful than you think, columnist Peter Smith writes.

Peter Smith has more than 30 years of experience building wholesale and retail sales teams. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems.

Do you ever become frustrated wondering why your salespeople seem always to want to sell what you don’t have in stock, while seemingly ignoring what you do have in stock? As it turns out, there may be a psychological reason for that.

In “The Power Of Moments,” Chip and Dan Heath wrote about the idea that we become inured to repetition and sameness and that by mixing things up, it can have an affect far beyond what might reasonably be expected from a given change.

One of the examples that the authors referenced was a study where subjects were shown images of a simple brown shoe. Over and over the image of the shoe continued to be shown and, when the subjects were sufficiently accustomed to the routine and repetition of the same image, they were then shown a single image of a clock, inserted within the cycle of brown-shoe images.

The Heaths wrote that when the subjects later were interviewed by the researchers (Vani Pariyafdath and David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine), they gave infinitely more weight to the image of the clock, believing it had been on the screen far longer than it actually was.

What the subjects were really responding to was the novelty, the change, the picture of the clock represented. The researchers referred to this as “the oddball effect.” They had become so conditioned to the routine that they unconsciously craved change, and they were willing to afford a good deal more benefit (more time on the screen) to the different image (the clock) than was warranted because they were hungry for change.

In considering situations in our business where we might insert our picture of a clock, one of the most obvious and least-practiced strategies is turning your retail store upside down. I don’t mean literally turning the store upside down (very difficult to do, unless you’re on a ship and then not advised if you are), but metaphorically breaking the pattern of sameness and predictability that can result in salespeople seeing products as, well, brown shoes.

One example of a store that changed things up in 2017, Hauser’s in Newport News, Virginia, lost a significant brand and used it as a catalyst to transform the entire store. They added new floors and case layouts, and reconsidered their product mix.
For most stores, there is an understandable pattern and predictability to how things are set up.


the customer walks to the right, she will see products, stories, brands and categories laid out in a certain order—bridal, fashion, watches, etc. To a great extent, the flow is rational and oftentimes the result of good judgement about why stuff ought to be where it is. And it’s likely been that way for years.

There are very pragmatic considerations for setting the store up the way we do. Some of those might include ease of set-up and breakdown at the beginning and end of the day. The familiarity can also help your team to feel comfortable in their environment, and that itself helps instill confidence and ease of transaction for your customers. There’s nothing quite like the disorientation one feels when you first start in a new store, thinking that you might never remember where everything is.

There are also security benefits to having a consistent and obvious layout; “Hey, did anyone see that diamond and tanzanite ring that was here?” If you knew that it was always in a specific spot, you are more apt to notice when it is missing.

Familiarity, however, can also be a very dangerous drug, and it is all the more so in jewelry stores. The last thing we can afford in an emotion-centric business is apathy or boredom. We can marry our own biases and seek only those products that appeal to us, while ignoring a great many products that have been relegated unconsciously in our minds and peripherally in our showcases.

Kit Yarrow wrote in “Decoding the New Consumer Mind” that, “Products located in the center of a horizontal display get longer looks and are more likely to be chosen than those on the left and right.”

That means that something as simple as how we choose to merchandise our cases can help to cement customers’ and employees’ views of a given product. If the products are typically merchandised on the ends of the cases, they are more likely to be relegated to the nether regions of our minds also.

A shot inside another store that made big changes in 2017, Brent L. Miller (BLM) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The retailer transformed a significant case-line into its own private-label story.

Making big changes is no small task. There are endless reasons and rationalizations for not doing it, or for postponing it. There could be signage affixed to walls, duratrans dedicated to specific brands or categories, in-case branding or color-schemes that can play havoc if changed, etc. Or, maybe you just don’t want the hassle of having to do it.

Making the big change, however, can help to reshape the mindset and revitalize the energy of your team, as it forces them to reconsider their conventions and routines. It can also delight and surprise your customers. My wife told me the other day that a key part of the Wegmans strategy is to move things around on a regular basis and surprise their customers.

Some members of your team may fight the changes and, if you really get after it, you might have to put in some extra hours to make it happen. You might even question your own sanity as you plan and execute it. However, a job well done will cast your store in an entirely new light and it will create that “oddball effect” for your staff and for your customers that Dan and Chip Heath wrote about in their book. It’ll break the monotony of the endless brown shoe images and force people to view things in a new light.

There’s no better way to start the year than by taking the conventional, the predictable, and the routine and messing it up.
Pull your team together and tell them that the meeting is designed to decide HOW you will do it, and not whether you will do it. And have some fun while you’re at it!

Happy New Year!

Peter Smith is president of Vibhor, a public speaker and author of “Sell Something” and “Hiring Squirrels.” He spent 30 years building sales teams in retail and wholesale and he can be contacted at,, or on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.
Peter Smithis an industry consultant, speaker, and sales trainer, and author of three books, “Hiring Squirrels,” “Sell Something,” and “The Sales Minute.”

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