Wayfinding in retail – an exploration

Wayfinding in Retail
Looking for a challenge I thought 2012 could be the year where I expand my brain a little and explore an area of wayfinding I have little working knowledge of. I have worked as a Wayfinding consultant for almost 5 years now and I’ve worked in areas including airports, rail stations, urban environments and hospitals, but the closest I have ever got to retail is a project in a large shopping centre.

When I hit the large department stores on Oxford Street or pop to my local supermarket, I often wonder who devised the Wayfinding system (especially if I’m totally lost) and most importantly who keeps the system up to date, monitors it’s success and ensures it is doing it’s job? I also wonder how advanced the area of wayfinding is within the retail sector compared to areas like healthcare or aviation? For example:

  • When did the retail sector begin to realise the importance of wayfinding?
  • What do retailers hope to achieve with instore signage and graphics?
  • What is best practice, is there an industry standard?
  • Who are the leaders in the field?
  • How much academic research has been done on the subject?
  • Are there any official statistics on how a good signage system can effect sales?

Many stores commission designers to create beautiful new systems, but once the designers have left the building, who is left to ensure the well thought out designs adapt and grow appropriately as the store evolves? How much effort is put into the strategy behind the system and its upkeep in comparison the the physical appearance?

Selfridges Signagedesign of the year . graphicSelfridges Signage
Selfridges London designed by Cartlidge Levene

GTF for M&SM&S Signage
M&S cardboard signage by Grafic Thought Facility and yellow vertical circulation at M&S

Sainsbury's WGCSainsbury's WGCSainsbury’s at Welwyn Garden City has a complete refresh of its instore brand look and feel by Twelve Studio

Do all department stores, large supermarkets and flagship stores have a signage manager or a team of people looking after wayfinding? If so what background do these people typically have? Are they designers, store planners, interior designers, visual merchandisers or faciltity/estate managers?

In many environments wayfinding is about getting from A to B as quickly and as efficiently as possible, but with retail there seems to be an element of wanting customers to explore or stumble across things they were not looking for and sending them on strategic routes encouraging them to stray off their original path without feeling lost. In some stores like Ikea the tactic is for you to spend as much town wandering around as you can!

Alan Penn from Space Syntax looks at the shopping experience at Ikea

My own assumption of what retail signage aims to achieve is:

  • to direct customers to right area or floor
  • to provide information about products/services
  • to enable customers to browse the store with confidence
  • to encourage people to buy from the store
  • to encourage people to visit again (by creating a good is user experience)
  • to help communicate the brand and create a strong visual identity.

I also believe that much of the above could be achieved through good store planning, interior design and visual merchandising, rather than just signage and directories. This again leads me to the question of who takes responsibility for it?

So my first task in attempting to learn a little more about the retail sector will be to confirm wether my assumptions on the role of wayfinding are actually correct. Secondly I want to find out how much retail has acknowledged the value good wayfinding brings to the business and how those who have embraced it have achieved their goals through excellence in wayfinding. Finally armed with all this new found knowledge I want to form opinions on what is currently out there and explore wether there might be room for improvement? Watch this space…

If anybody has any useful links, examples of information on existing research, works in this sector or has their own opinion on the subject please feel free to post a comment or contact me directly.

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5 Responses to Wayfinding in retail – an exploration

  1. Hayley
    Good probing questions – I will try and catch up with you at the next SDS Talk. We operate in the Shopping Centre world where the approach to wayfinding is becoming more and more sophisticated. The importance of understanding people and providing to their needs first rather than the retailer or operational requirements is core to what we do and we have learned much from how shoppers behave in department stores. There are others in the SDS group, including retailers, who may be able to share their views – could be a good discussion.

  2. Rose says:

    Hi Hayley – interesting blog. Air also work in the retail destination sector, and our CEO Alan was recently in Moscow speaking at an event on the importance of wayfinding in this context. For us it’s all about the user experience and how that can inform our work to the benefit of everyone. There’s a slimmed down version of his speech on our blog if you’d like to check it out: http://www.airblog.tv/

  3. wayfindinguk says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m looking forward to delving a little deeper into the subject, but glad it has attracted some good responses so far.

  4. IDN published an issue on the topic of Wayfinding a bit ago. Some good examples of signage worth checking out. http://idnworld.com/mags/?id=v17n5

  5. Pingback: Systematica » Wayfinding in retail – an exploration

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