• Design Principles Right Place, Right Time

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The right turn preference

Alex Whitlow
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A retail design theory that we often get asked about, especially here in the UK, is the ‘Right Turn Preference’. Also known as the ‘Invariant Right’ this is a principle that suggests that we as human beings have a tendency to turn to the right when we begin to navigate a space or enter a room.

There are several arguments why this preference might exist. Some suggest it is simply a result of right-handed dominance (90% of humans are right handed) whilst other theories point to more cultural influences. Is it down to how we process information; most cultures read from left to right? Or is it a result of the majority of the world driving on the right-hand side? Whilst there is certainly less explicit evidence of this theory in countries like the UK and Australia (where people drive on the left) the belief is that a general right-side bias still exists. In Paco Underhill’s book ‘Why We Buy’ he entertains the idea that if you were to shout ‘Fire’ in a British theatre, everyone will automatically head towards the doors on the right.

But how can retailers use this principle to benefit the in-store journey? The obvious approach, that many retailers adopt, is to locate the core product range to the right-hand side of the store entrance. Whilst this may work for some retailers (consider the location of the bestsellers in many book stores) others need to think more carefully about how or where they locate their core product categories.

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Bestsellers located to the right of the Waterstones store entrance

At Quinine, we spend a lot of time watching people in store to understand customer behaviour. Having reviewed many hours of time-lapse footage from our clients stores we acknowledge that there may be a subtle urge to turn right (especially in North America). However, the more powerful observation that we make is that if a customer is on a specific focused ‘Functional’ mission, they always find what they are looking for regardless of where their ‘target’ is located. If the ‘Right Turn Preference’ does exist, these customer types are able to overcome it in favour of their focused mission. Given that ‘Functional’ retail missions make up almost 50% of all shopping missions, if these customers find what they need in the first 10ft of the store (on the right-hand side) it means the retailer has a huge number of customers who are not experiencing the rest of their store.

To help contextualise, let’s look at Supermarkets who are notoriously sophisticated in catering to our innate psychological preferences. If they adopted ‘the bookstore bestseller approach’ they would locate all commodity products, such as milk, at the front of the store near the entrance. However, they don’t. Understanding that customers will find the milk regardless they typically locate it at the rear of the store. This encourages the customer to navigate the whole store and discover (and purchase) other products along the way.

High demand handsets relocated to the rear wall in the EE Store

It is this approach that we adopted in creating the new EE Showcase store format. The majority of customers coming into telecommunications stores are there to explore handset devices. As a result, historically telecommunications brands have typically located these on the front right wall as you enter the store to attract and demonstrate their range. We challenged this and decided to locate handsets all the way at the back on the rear wall. In doing this we knew shoppers would walk the entire store, giving them greater opportunity to discover the whole suite of products that EE has to offer (Broadband, TV, Home Security); not just handset devices.

So, what did we do in the front right-hand side of the store? Part of the brief of the new store format was to showcase new innovative products and services in store. With this in mind we positioned a ‘Showcase Stage’ on the right, immediately inside the entrance of every store. Whether as a result of a ‘Right Turn Preference’ or simply the fact that its presence and impact meant that it was difficult to miss, encountering this dynamic and immersive experience first, set the tone for the rest of the store visit. Not only was the customer now aware of the broader EE offer, from this point of the store journey onwards customers would perceive the EE brand as an innovative tech leader.

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New products and services feature at the front of the store

For many, defining a store format around the idea of ‘The Right Turn Preference’ remains up for debate. What we do know is that by carefully thinking through where you locate key products and services, you can start to predict some customer behaviours and curate the flow of their journey.

At Quinine we understand and specialise in people and how they engage with the built retail environment. We do not claim to be behavioural scientists, but we do see a great deal of crossover between the observations we make and some of the outcomes of the more scientific research into consumer habits. We take our findings and translate them into physical, tangible solutions that work for retailers. The ‘Right Turn Preference’ is just one of many considerations we have when working with our clients.

Design Principles is a feature on our blog where we share a ‘shallow dive’ into different theories, concepts and principles that underpin our work. The aim is to better understand design principles and their practical application in retail environments.

References and other readings:

'Why We Buy, the Science of Shopping' by Paco Underhill.

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