Don’t put the milk in the front (e-tailers)

Grocery is an extremely mature channel.  Every conceivable study of shopper preference and behavior has been conducted.  Many of those have discovered where the customer would prefer the milk to be located: in the front (and the same for eggs and bread, the items my wife most frequently requests that I pick up).  Notice:  the milk is not in the front, but in the most distant corner of the store.


On the way to the milk, I pass frozen novelties, beer and wine, candy, coffee, etc.  Higher margin categories, perhaps?

There is a lesson here for a less mature channel:  e-commerce.  Website design is a thoroughly tested undertaking, I know, but often takes an approach of asking the customer what he wants, and building exactly that.   [Note:  I’m talking here about the site architecture and flow, not so much about offer and content tuning.]  If the customer prioritizes efficient achievement of his goal (like selecting a product and ordering), the designers test variations of the site and choose the one which optimizes for that goal.  This seems sensible, but since many customers desire to pay as little as possible and not buy anything extra, the more you do precisely what the customer wants, the less profit you may capture.  This is putting the milk in the front – compromising shareholder value based on a shallow approach to sales and customer satisfaction.

Back to the grocery store.  Store management realizes they are creating frustration for the consumer with the milk placement.  So, they make up for it.  First, they never move the milk.  I can walk into any grocery store and the milk will reliably be in the back corner, usually to the left.  Also, during my round trip to and from the milk, I munch a free sample, and grab a box of fudgesicles, knowing that my kids’ enthusiasm will counteract my wife’s annoyance.

When we build e-commerce sites, certainly we need to know what the customer wants, and give it to them.  But we also need to use our spiffiest analytical tools to optimize two things:  profit (dollars, not percent) and Net Promoter Score.  Carefully balance delivery of what the customer seeks, with the addition of unlooked-for benefit.  A great customer is one who leaves your site with something better than expected.  Maybe an engaging video helped her make a more confident choice;  maybe a well-paired accessory was suggested; maybe discovery of the company’s social responsibility initiatives validated her association with your brand.  Certainly, she found the milk, but you also sold the fudgesicle and she felt good about it.  Ultimately, you want the type of customer who doesn’t even think of your competition (I rarely shop for business clothing outside of Nordstrom), and who considers your brand part of their identity (see Harley Davidson tattoos).  This will not result from simply lubricating the path from the home page to the credit card validation.

Here is an example of a site that puts the milk in the front.  It takes only three clicks to get to checkout, and there is no attempt to tell why Abe’s (of Maine?)is better, other than price, and only a limp below-the-fold attempt to up-sell or cross-sell.


By contrast, met me at the front door with this hero spot about re-doing my interior.


They offer a low price, and sweeten it with free shipping, but also present an image of my transformed interior, supporting their brand proposition of great design for less.  [E-commerce manager, you are the stewards of your company’s brand!  More later on this.]  Clicking through, you see products from various categories, and even well into the cart, they cross-sell with matched items, Amazon style.


I also noticed Walmart doing a smart thing.  They entice you to have your online purchase shipped to the store for pickup (where you’ll buy a cartload of something else).  The whole time, they will reinforce their brand value prop of selling virtually everything, at everyday low prices.  They are probably hoping to sell some milk, which is in the back.


3 Responses to “Don’t put the milk in the front (e-tailers)”

  1. 1 JimForbes March 18, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Good Lord, this is the best blog on real life branding i’ve seen anywhere. Although i spent about 35 years in journalism, I once had a 64-tile office in Chicago at harvester managing Scout, and Transtar, and Traveall.
    Excellent from-the trenches experience and phenomenal advice.
    Thanks to DChurbuck for the pointer and i look forward to more of your posts.

    jim “Farmer” Forbes
    from retirement behind the avocado forests of rural northern San Diego CXopunty

  1. 1 The Challenge» Make it fluid Trackback on March 19, 2009 at 6:17 pm
  2. 2 Better bacon banner ad « Offering Trackback on May 7, 2009 at 8:10 am

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