Monday, September 1, 2014

Boosting Your Conversion Rate: Lessons From Your Neighborhood Grocery Store

Ever wonder why most grocery stores are arranged pretty much the same way? By trial and error, they've learned how every detail of their business can maximize their sales as people visit. And anyone trying to make some money online can learn some important lessons from how they do it. In this post, I'll discuss some of their secrets and how they may help you.

What's a Conversion Rate?

Conversion rate is the number of people who, upon visiting your website, actually do something, whether that's buy a book, sign up for your mailing list, or even click on some link (or ad) on your page.
Anyone trying to sell something online, which I obviously am (please glance to the right to see the array of products I offer), should put thought into how to boost  their conversion rate.

One approach to earning money from your website is just to accept your current conversion rate and try to dramatically boost the traffic to the site. To keep the numbers simple, let's imagine you make on average a penny per visit (I wish!). If that were the case, and you increase your traffic by a hundred a day, then you've just earned an extra dollar for your efforts.

But another approach to maximizing your success focuses on boosting, not traffic, but conversion rate. In this case, if you can boost your earnings to 5 cents per visitor, then you only need to gain twenty more visitors to achieve the same amount.

Lessons from the Grocery Store

Now, there is nothing inherently evil or dishonest about honing your site so as to maximize your success. In this post, I'm going to look at the ways grocery stores typically arrange themselves for success and suggest lessons anyone interesting in online sales might want to employ as a result. Some of these "tricks" of their trade are things that I, in good conscience, would never employ. Others include things I instinctively have done and which I believe have increased my conversion rate. Let me know if you achieve any success of your own by including any of these grocery store practices.

The Floor Plan

It is no coincidence that virtually every grocery store you enter has pretty much the same floor plan. The first major department you are funneled into is fruits and vegetables.

Now, the fact that people are more or less directed through the store should have profound implications for anyone wanting to sell online. This is essentially what is known as the "sales funnel." You should construct your site in such a way that a visitor who arrives for your content is then somehow enticed to explore something you offer, and by clicking along, they arrive at the checkout with something in their cart. 

But why are you sent into fruits and vegetables first? Personally, I am enough of a food hygiene freak that I don't like keeping anything that's supposed to be refrigerated out of the cold too long. 

There is a psychological purpose to sending you into produce first. You buy some fruits and vegetables. You know these things are good for you. And you're now congratulating yourself for how well you're going to eat this week. You're doing so good for yourself that you certainly deserve that treat that you're going to encounter as you continue in the store. 

Fruits and vegetables also (with the exception of organics) typically have a very low profit margin. The store is perfectly willing to sell you apples for a profit of pennies, knowing that you will later buy something they actually make money on.

Another feature of the typical floor plan of a grocery store is that the absolute staples, things like bread and milk and eggs, are situated at the complete far end of the store from where you enter.

This arrangement is also not accidental. You may be there in that store for many things. But you are eventually going to go where they have the bread and milk. And that means you will be forced to snake your way through the entire store to get there, and possibly pick up a number of items along the way that you spot and decide you might want.

Implications for Conversion Rate

The Produce Section: Hopefully the products you're selling online are either the fruits and vegetables people know they need, or they're at least the guilty pleasure people treat themselves to. But either way, the main take-away here is that your overall content needs to be something that the consumer will feel good about. If they don't have a positive attitude to your content and your site in general, they will be less likely to seriously explore a product you are offering on the page. So if your page makes the customer feel good, they will be more inclined to either reward you with a sale out of appreciation, or treat themselves to your product as well.

The Far-Away Staples: Theoretically, you could mimic this "trick" on your website by putting your "content" (the article they came to read) below a pile of ads and offers which the visitor would then be forced to scroll past before getting to that "gallon of milk" they actually came for. You see websites doing exactly this all the time, when they have a huge ad at the top of the article that nowadays even swells in size for a minute before finally letting you go.

Personally, I just would never attempt this "trick" on my visitors exactly that way. I do place product ads after some of my more popular posts, and just hope for the goodwill of people that have finished reading the post. Maybe placing ads first would get me a bigger return. I don't care, it just feels wrong.

Shelving Strategies

Your typical grocery store knows that the average person is something less than five feet tall and is generally looking straight ahead. For that reason, they employ "Eye-Level Shelving." There are frequently better deals placed above and below what they're trying to push at the time. And we don't see them because we generally don't change our gaze past the level of our eyes.

A similar strategy is known as "Kid-Level Shelving." Stores put the items they know children will beg their parents for just a bit below the parents' gaze.

Implications for Conversion Rate

We need to put our products on our web pages in the places our visitors are most likely to see them. That's sounds like a no-brainer, but where exactly is the web page equivalent of "Eye-Level Shelving"?

There are two places that seem to work best. One, is at the bottom of a post that you can reasonably hope a person will read in its entirety. As you probably know, most people spend about half a second on most webpages. They click on, and are immediately off in search of cat memes or something. But if they really do read your entire content offering, a product placement there at the bottom is very effective, because you have therefore placed your product right in the gaze of someone who is arguably well-disposed to you. 

For the more transitory visitors, it seems that the best place to position an ad or a product is on the right-hand side of the page (which is exactly where you can see my books advertised). And this is simply because we read left to right. (Reverse this if your page is in Hebrew or Arabic.) Every time your visitor reads a line, their eye is moving steadily toward your product. And you can therefore hope they will possibly notice it there.

Unambiguous Pricing

Many stores, in particular the bulk providers like Costco, have learned that people respond positively to straightforward and large price signs. If I can see the product and know exactly how much it will cost me, I can then make an informed decision on whether to part with my money at that advertised price. The sheer honesty of the transaction breeds a positive feeling toward the product. 

Implications for Conversion Rate

In response to this, I added to my websites pricing on all my books. I used to content myself with knowing that, were they to click through, they would be informed by Amazon as to what my novels cost in paperback or Kindle. But I decided to mimic this "Costco" strategy as a way to be fully transparent with my audience about the fact that I am selling books and they have specific prices. And I'm open to the world on those details. 

The Illusion of Opulence

Ever notice how stores display dozens of items of the same product right on top of each other?  I mean, theoretically they could keep just about as many of the item on the shelf as they sell in a week and then restock as necessary. Instead, they show you probably more than they sell in a month. You'd think that the fact this product looks like it will never run out would tell you subconsciously that there's no rush in purchasing it now. But the opposite ends up being true. The sheer abundance your eye beholds makes you feel as if you are in the presence of riches. And that makes you feel good and makes you want to participate in it through your purchase.

Implications for Conversion Rate

I'll be honest, since I want to sell my products, I experimented for a while with imitating this on my own websites. It's easy to cut and paste multiple copies of the same link-embedded product image. And I found absolutely no response to this experiment. So I decided instead to just use a straightforward presentation of all my books as the best way to replicate the "Illusion of Opulence" on my pages. In other words, there are so many books and novels here that maybe you'll want to buy one to share in the opulence. (Hey, nothing wrong with trying!)

"Deals" That Aren't Really Deals

Grocery stores frequently present products as somehow being on sale that really aren't at all a deal for you the consumer. They advertise products as being at a discount when you buy two of them when, in fact, you can get the same savings when you buy just one.

Again, there are things in good conscience which I would never do just to sell more of my books. I suppose one could place false claims of deals on their products, perhaps claim that the book used to cost 12 bucks but now it costs just 10. Amazon Kindle does allow writers to put their books temporarily on sale. If the sale it truly legitimate, there's nothing wrong with publicizing it. But this is yet another case where I personally will not imitate every trick in the grocery store's inventory just to move more product.

Related Item Grouping

A few summers ago, I was in Romania at a supermarket. I needed coffee filters. Now, where would you go if you needed them? The coffee aisle, right?! Nope, they were just not there. I asked someone stocking shelves and was directed to a different aisle altogether. And when I arrived I thought, no, they seriously didn't do this. No. But, sadly, yes. The coffee filters were in the same aisle as notebooks and printer paper. You see, they're all made of ... paper.

I hope this sadly true anecdote entertained you, but the take-away is that, in a well-run grocery store, of course the coffee filters are with the coffee. And the peanut butter is with the jelly. And, even if you do keep most of the salsa in the Mexican food aisle, you also keep an assortment of it next to the chips. 

Implications for Conversion Rate

And so, if you are selling products, you should certainly arrange them in places that align with both other products you offer and also sub-pages of potential interest.

Now, if you are selling anything on Amazon, they are actually already doing this for you. Take a look at what Amazon suggests, were you to click to buy one of my books:

They inform you of what other people bought at the same time, which might mean that you also would be interested in that additional item. And theoretically, my books show up as the "also bought" item on searches for other authors.

But another way I try to employ this best practice is by recommending items on my own pages based on people's potential interest. So, for instance, in my novel In Saecula Saeculorum a group of teenagers go back in time to ancient Rome. The novel even includes a smattering of Latin in the dialogue. This is the novel is listed first on my pages containing Latin resources. Similarly, on my page offering free resources for learning Romanian language, I highlight a novel I wrote which is set in Romania.


Finally, grocery stores and the products they sell know that bright colors catch your eye and, potentially, your interest. I experimented once with making all the links to products on my pages green, based on the assumption that, subconsciously, people know that "green means go" and therefore they would be inclined to click.

Nope. Nada. Zilch. Yet another failed experiment!

Instead, there are two color-based strategies you may want to try.
First off, the massive success of Amazon has possibly predisposed people to click on yellowish buttons, which is their signature style. So, maybe see if moving to yellowish buttons improves your conversion rate.
Another thing to experiment with is a replication of Marissa Mayer's now famous experiment with shades of blue while she was still at Google. After studying tendency for click-throughs when presented with different colors, she concluded that people were much more likely to click on an ad when the color of the link was a bit more purple than if the blue were a bit more green. And so, willing to try new things, the product links on my pages do trend toward purple.


If any of the things I've suggested here help you achieve greater success, I am glad. I share these thoughts out of the philosophy that "rising water raises all the boats." Your success does not diminish my own. Good luck to you and God bless! If you do experience any increase in your conversion rates after experimenting with any of these ideas, please let me know. And I'd sure like to hear of anything you discover that helps us all achieve greater success!