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Customer needs are changing and front-end merchandising strategies should, too

Shoppers may complain about being time-constrained and look to get in and out of stores as fast as possible, but they are still willing to take the time to check out items at the front end.

Industry observers point out that during the last 15 years, the front end has undergone some dramatic changes. What once was a haven for convenience-based consumables has now turned into a hot spot for convenience-based non-consumables, as well.

Front-end power categories — including candy, beverages and magazines — remain some of the most sought-after items, but increasingly best practice retailers also are featuring such general merchandise items as houseware gadgets, cell phone accessories, batteries, lighters and eyewear.

“Front-end winners are impulse items that can produce volume,” said Steve Liebers, president of Select-A-Vision, based in Collegeville, Pa. “Candy offers the volume, but at a lower ring. The optimal front-end item needs to quickly stimulate an immediate want or need, and produce high volume at the highest possible price point.”

As several observers noted, health-related products — both consumable and non-consumable — are in hot demand at the front end. Christina Gohl, director of sales for Santevia Water Systems, the Vancouver-based maker of water filter systems, said if brands can develop products that convey both a message of health and quickly educate the consumer on product purpose, they will win with impulse buyers. “With healthy-oriented products, easy-to-understand, condition-specific key words on packaging are necessary to engage the consumer and drive purchasing,” Gohl said.

In describing the current mindset when it comes to capturing impulse sales at the front end, Tim Humanik, senior vice president of consumer insights and analytics for Comag Marketing Group, located in Princeton, N.J., said they are seeing more retailers trying to maximize the high traffic nature of the front end with the opportunity to generate incremental sales and profits. “As a result, many new items and categories have been introduced from meat snacks and healthier food options to assorted general merchandise items and gift cards,” Humanik said.

One of the biggest changes, he noted, has been that shoppers no longer determine value solely based on the lowest-priced item. Rather, he said, value is now defined more as something important or beneficial to the shopper. “The desire for a reward or treat is increasingly prompting these impulse purchases,” Humanik said.

He pointed out that within the magazine industry, incremental sales have been produced by such title launches as Pioneer Woman and Magnolia Journal, and the creation of new special interest publications from such publishers as American Media, Hearst, Centennial and Bauer.

In examining the changes that are and need to take place at the front end, Mark Mechelse, vice president of insights and communications with Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Global Market Development Center, said that the front end must be faster, more productive, personalized and satisfying.

“General merchandise along with health, beauty and wellness products are an important part of any front-end strategy as shoppers buying non-edibles from this part of the store have bigger basket rings (6% more),” Mechelse said.

A custom GMDC study also found 94% of millennials and 91% of Gen Xers are attracted to new products smartly curated in strategic areas, such as the front end.

GMDC also sees strong opportunities to offer select personal and self-care items, such as trial and travel, demo size and other items that would promote easy conversion to new and innovative brands. Officials suggest retailers remain open to offering traditional products at the front end, noting that classical how-to and children’s books continue to appeal strongly to sellers within the publishing category.

With this in mind, GMDC has identified several front-end next practices that retailers should be following to future-proof their businesses. For instance, in stressing the importance of connecting stores to their communities, GMDC officials noted that retailers located near schools should consider highlighting mobile chargers, earbuds and batteries, while those near commuter stations, gyms and offices might focus on hand sanitizers, hydration products and food storage options near the front end.

Retailers also might consider theming each checkout with a different assortment of products, GMDC officials said. One lane, for example, could include winter car care products aimed at men and another could feature skin care and beauty implements for women. Easy views of these strategies from far and near will help stimulate interest and give shoppers control of their experience, Mechelse said.

Merchandise with purpose
Given that the front end is the only area 100% of shoppers pass through in a store, Santevia’s Gohl said front-end management can alter revenues, noting that poorly managed front-end departments result in retailers leaving significant money on the table. She suggested retailers focus on the following areas:

Clear, effective signage. The front end can easily get messy and overwhelming, and a confused consumer doesn’t buy. Help orientate consumers with clear signage describing a category focus so they can easily locate items to buy.

Merchandise self-checkouts. An unmerchandised self-checkout is lost revenue. Utilize your point of sale data to determine your primary demographic and curate your offerings to that demographic.

Natural is trending. Keep your top sellers prominently placed and rotate out the poor sellers. Use that space to feature more natural products to align with consumer interest.

Above all, she stressed that the front-end is changing rapidly, due in part to shrinking store footprints and consumers who are spending less time at retail than before. “Retailers are faced with the challenge of how to attract an increasingly distracted and impatient consumer,” Gohl said. “The solution to both problems seems simple, but few have managed to innovate — blend multiple consumer focuses into one product in less space.”

Gohl said Santevia is helping its retailers capture this growing trend with the development of a unique add-to-water Power Pouch Energy Boost formulated to naturally boost energy. “The Power Pouch Energy Boost allows our front-end partners to not only capture the natural and energy drink consumer, but also to house 24 units in 2.5 inches of space,” she said.

New times, new look
As Select-A-Vision’s Liebers noted, during the last decade retailers have been getting creative in terms of redesigning their stores to capture more impulse sales. Many big-box stores, he noted, have redesigned their front-end areas and traffic flow patterns to take advantage of consumers’ open-mindedness at checkout. Lighting has been added to better highlight the area and draw consumers in.

“By reimagining the front end, retailers have been able to create additional space for impulse sales. Home Goods and TJ Maxx have been doing a good job at this, and now we are seeing new checkout traffic flow redesigns at Staples and Bed Bath and Beyond that are intended to capture additional impulse purchases,” Liebers said. SAV, which specializes in offering reading glasses, has developed an impulse item that offers a solution to reading small print. “Our new Ultra-Magnicard is a credit card size magnifier with a built-in light. With it
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