How Grocery Shopping Can Help Your Site Architecture (And More!)

April 07, 2014

Creating a site map for a new website can be incredibly overwhelming, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a ton of great content to share with a lot of different audiences. While there are many possible ways to organize and prioritize that content, the one you choose to employ can make or break a user’s experience—which is why understanding how and where users expect to find your content, and developing an organized, structural framework for your site is a crucial first step in planning. So what does all of this have to do with a grocery store?

Well, I’m a bit of a foodie and with that comes a serious LOVE for nice grocery stores. I can’t always afford to do my shopping there, but sometimes, I will go just to browse – yes that’s right. So when our Creative Director, Leigh, recently compared site architecture to the local supermarket, I immediately started daydreaming of colorful produce and well-curated displays. It was a metaphor I couldn’t let go of and one that I wanted to elaborate on and share.

The Entrance, The Homepage

No matter what grocery store you shop at, I’d be willing to bet that the produce is near the front entrance. It’s pretty, it’s colorful, it’s fresh, it captures your attention and it makes you feel good. But did you realize it’s actually a strategic play? If you’ve ever shopped at Whole Foods, you’ll understand when I say — they know what they’re doing! For me, the produce section is a lot like the homepage of a website. It’s usually the first impression that a visitor has (good or bad), it needs to stay fresh with rotating dynamic content, and it provides context and direction for where the visitor should go next.

From the produce section, you might typically notice the signs that label each of the aisles and sections — you know the ones: Dairy, Deli & Bakery, Canned Goods, Frozen Foods, Pet, etc. As you work your way through the store and consider what you need, these signs guide you in your decision making process, much like a website's navigation. They are there in order to help you decide which aisles/sections you should invest your time in browsing, based on what you need.

What's In A Name?

Aisle names are always direct and nearly universal from store to store – they aren’t gimmicky. Consistent, clear naming conventions allow shoppers to quickly identify interests without wasting time trying to decipher a fun, whimsical, or otherwise ‘creative’ name. While there is a place for creativity on a website site, it’s not in your naming or information architecture. Your site’s labeling and information architecture (IA) should focus on making sure that users can easily understand how information is organized, and not on how witty you are. In other words, don’t call the chips & snacks aisle “Delectable Delights” — because I might assume that I can find chocolate cake there, and when I don’t, I will be sorely disappointed.

Catching Eyes With Curated Content

Heading towards a specific aisle you might find an eye-catching, end-of-aisle display along the way. You know, those ‘curated’ collections of assorted products that the store has chosen to feature. These displays are often thematically related or seasonal collections of products that are designed to tease you and ‘suggest’ products to you. Displays such as these are a lot like creating strategically targeted landing pages on a website — whether it be a page of featured products, or a page geared toward a key audience that aggregates useful, related content into one place.

Once in an aisle, you notice that the aisle itself often has sub-categories. For instance, in the Bread aisle, you might have buns, bagels, croissants, muffins, doughnuts, etc. Think of these like you would a site’s secondary navigation. Again, clarity and consistency are key in helping users have that “aha” moment — finding the item that they need.

Using Callouts & Data To Spark Interest

Ever try a sample at Trader Joe's? Those are akin to callouts on your site – used to spark interest in a featured offering or tie related offers together. The metaphor even extends into ongoing marketing tactics. Think about the coupons you get from the store... the ones based on all the things you’ve bought before? It turns out grocery stores have been "retargeting" long before we were doing it online!

Grocery and other retail stores have become very adept at understanding their customers – Target may know you are pregnant before anyone else does. It's a practice website owners could learn from.  They continually study shoppers’ habits to learn: What are people looking at? Who is buying x, and what else do they usually buy? After someone picks up toilet paper, where do they go next?

Adopting the thought that website users are a lot like “shoppers” can not only help in planning great site architecture, but it can also help to inform post-launch site improvements. People may be creatures of habit, but habits change—which is why you can’t be afraid to study (set user metrics), learn (analyze performance), and iterate (let your data drive ongoing improvement).

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