Modes of Shopping Behaviour

Modes of Shopping Behaviour
May 23, 2021 Omnibus

As a consultant I usually ask my clients about their customers. “Who are your customers?”

It’s not unusual to get an answer – at least in a semi-big retailing organization – like this: “Oh, yes, we have a research somewhere. Well, according to the market research company, 45 % of them are female, 18 – 49 year old, medium income, with completed high school, a high recency factor, … and blahblahblah.”

OK. But what does it say? Based on this kind of research, what can we really say about any of the persons coming from this segment in-store behaviour?

The answer is very foggy. Because it’s hard to say anything that would really help us change our offer, take steps to adjust it to the needs and expectations of this kind of buyer.

The reason:

retail customer segmentations often get too remote from real shopping situations.  

RFM Analysis, Shopper Personas, Demographics, Psychographics, etc. are widely used, they might have some analytical value, but down on the shopping floor, their informational value is seriously limited.

Can we get closer to the customers, get down to the real shopping floor and see what happens there – but at the same time don’t get lost in the variability of individual answers?

Yes, we can.

For starters, it’s easier to predict customer’s behaviour when we know that Person A is here at the store on one of her shopping missions – based on shopping goals.

For the grocery stores, some regular shopping mission statements we all know are:

  • “Quick meal” / “Healthy quick meal”
  • “Something for family dinner”
  • »Fill up my fridge and food cupboards«
  • “Indulge me”
  • “Guests are almost knocking!”

These statements not only bring customers into the stores but also strongly determine how the shoppers buy individual categories. As such, shopping missions* work as frames of customers’ behaviour in the store.

The same Person A buys coffee differently when thrusting into a store for a morning coffee, or when at the weekend she struggles with her stock-up purchase.

Just like video game developers predict and test the user experience, all store format developers must direct the flow of customers inside the store.

Understanding and managing shopping missions is the key to store success.


To find out more about the mechanisms behind shopping missions, a few years ago my team – with full support and understanding of a client – conducted unique in-store research of shopping behaviour.

For 14 days, we RFID measured the movements of all shopping carts in the national supermarket in Maribor (Slovenia). The shopping path data was gathered and statistically analyzed first through the dashboard and then via data queries.

We analyzed the shopping paths of all the shopping carts and gathered data on the duration of the visits, the footfall, the attention, the shopping zones visited, etc.

To this hard data, we also added material gathered from the field through observation.

Finally, we grouped the shopping paths into proper clusters based on in-store shopping behaviour.

Let’s mention some:

  • big weekly stock-up trip: longer trips over 20 minutes, buying many items from different categories
  • emergency top-up trip: focused trip for particular items / categories
  • quick and easy meals on-the-go
  • lunch-time shoppers
  • snack and treat Friday night shopping
  • after-work meal planning
  • budget shopping of price-seekers
  • etc.

Example: visualisation of a particular shopping path as shown on dashboard (c) Omnibus, 2018-2021

* It’s out of the scope of this article to get into into shopping missions. For a deeper dive, I might recommend other articles on this website, especially “In-Store Customer Behaviour“.


What I’d like to show here, is another shopper’s behaviour insight.

Each shopping mission is a mixture of different shopping modes.

On the same trip, we as shoppers, get interested in particular categories while we shop other categories completely automatically.

We classified the patterns of behaviour into 4 distinct modes. Each mode defines customers’ expectations and influences their interest & attention & actions.

The highway mode

This shopping mode resembles the behaviour of the passengers while driving on the highway.

Just imagine daily home-to-work commuting from the settlement connected by highway to work in the city. It’s habitual, repeat. Your interest in the surroundings is close to zero.

The same with shoppers. In this mode, they move fast from points A to B, then to C. Their focus is strictly attached to finding the products from the shopping list. It doesn’t have to be a real list of paper. Maybe it’s a digital reminder or an unwritten form of items.

Shoppers switch to auto-pilot mode. All outside stimuli generally mean only disturbance. Where is that damn brown sugar of the same brand I always buy? Ok, I got it. How about dishwashing detergent of brand X? And a can of beans. And … That’s the only thing on shoppers mind at that particular moment.

It’s a “grab & go” mode. As one other research shows, at least 60% of grocery shopping falls into this category.

The traffic jam mode

One example: waiting in a queue before the checkout or service line.

Each second usually seems too long, overdue.

Though, under a certain threshold, a shopper is open for a thing or two. Within limits, some impulse products might be considered if the context is right. Examples: spices while waiting in the meet department or maybe glass cleaning cloths while in the check-out area.

With passing minutes, sometimes seconds, agitation increases. Up to a point of general dissatisfaction. Handle with care!

The discovery mode

Shoppers’ attention spans are wider. They are open to new proposals, feel like browsing around, suddenly checking new products. Special offers or seasonal product areas might trigger this mode. Sometimes retailers also manage to transform highway mode into a discovery one (maybe by storifying the dull wine shelves or providing local milk product trials etc).

The story mode

The cellar with wine, cheese, sausages, winemaker stories – smells, tastes, flavour, words, colours, a mix of our primary senses, evokes the emotions and brings experience to life.

If managed properly this mode might be the pillar of any retailers gross margin!

One step further: not only gigantic Ikea, but also much smaller Danish variety store chain Flying Tiger are retailers who succeded to organize the store around the discovery & story mode. The “feel good” shopper experience underpinned with “rational price / performance” perception gives them an almost unbeatable market position.  


Retailers might leverage discovery & story zones for extra margin (and better customer satisfaction as well!)


On some store visits, customers operate just in one mode. Other shopping trips might blend all the modes together.

Some stores help us switch the modes. And some stores don’t.

Stores that manage to successfully a) follow and b) set their customers in different modes have a huge advantage over those that don’t.

Key advantages of such stores:

  • higher value of a shopping basket
  • customers are more satisfied with the overall shopping experience
  • the switching of shopping modes gives customers the unique retail experience that provides an unbeatable advantage over competition that provides “logically arranged products and services”

Once again, let’s not overlook the strategy of the discounters like Hofer / Aldi and Lidl. They’re the kings of the no-frills, high-speed, highway mode, right? Sure, at every touchpoint they show us how valuable our time is to them.

But another aspect is just as crucial.

Have you ever noticed what happens in the central part of retail stores there? Yes, where the wire containers piled high with items called special buys, like cooking utensils or televisions or gym equipment, is located?

People suddenly stop! More than that: they voluntarily, of their own free will, spend additional time and carelessly browse through the special offer.

And now compare this behaviour to other grocery stores – when was the last time (save from the fruit & vegetable and deli section) you’ve seen such devotion for browsing in regular supermarkets? Probably, you’ll have to think hard.

Yes, in Hofer and Lidl, at certain points people stop. They take time. They browse. They engage. They share attention. Voluntarily. That’s a measure of successful retailing in the digital times!

Mixing the grab & go zones with discovery zones increases shopping basket and influences visitors time spent in the store


As customers, we expect that our basic highway mode will run smoothly, without friction. But that’s just the first part of our expectations. We are also more eager to return to the stores that bring us into discovery or story mode. That makes us happy, that makes our endorphins jump.

This brings up another hugely important fact for the retailers success: when we are in the story mode, we engage more and consequently we are willing to buy more.

Understanding and respecting those modes is essential for a successful store format.

Those retailers that help customers in switching the modes voluntarily are more successful than those that don’t.

Table bellow gives us an overview of the relationship between customer shopping modes and the store zones.

STORE ZONE Description Fixtures, elements Shopper engagement Experienced Time Margin per minute
HIGHWAY mode Shoppers just automatically picking products – A, B, C … Grab & Go Shelves, gondolas, aisles Low Want to be over as soon as possible. Low
TRAFFIC JAM mode Waiting in a queue Counters, service lines Volatile Alert! Every second drags to infinity. Varied
DISCOVERY People stop of own interest in front of products they didn’t actually intend to buy. Baskets, pallets, open spaces Interested We have some time for browsing. Medium
STORY Appeals to our senses, touches our emotional side, brings experience to life. Areas with emphasized design Highly engaged Time just stops. It doesn’t matter anymore.  



A less successful retailer will maybe struggle with heavy promotions within highway (grab & go) zones. You might recognize it with all the signage screaming about discounts.

A successful retailer might approach the customer much more elegantly. Less promotional areas, fewer screaming advertisements. His extra margin is won in story zones while “grab & go” zones are bringing in stable income due to overall customer satisfaction. 

Taking the above as a tactical foundation, we might easily say that the good retailer

  1. provides easy navigation and supports fast searching in a Highway zone
  2. provides enough Discovery zones that makes us interested

The winning retailer adds another dimension:

  1. engaging our emotions, and transferring us in a zone where there is no time = Storytelling


Physical store layouts could be elevated to a competitive advantage. Even more so. When they succed to combine appeal to rational side of shoppers (eg. “price / performance” position) with emotional (eg. “feel good”) experience that makes for an almost unbeatable market position.

A further view on the topic, especially about the dangers of the auto-pilot trap, is provided in our special based on shopping path research.

Here are some questions that could help retailers to trim & improve the performance of their store layouts:

  • What shopping missions are crucial for the success of your store format?
  • How do you manage the 4 main modes within your format?
  • Is your store offering all the modes? Can you mark the discovery zones on a store layout? What % of the overall store is given to each?
  • Do you pay enough attention to providing highway mode in an intuitive, time-friendly manner?
  • Is there a particular traffic jam issue that could significantly increase your customer satisfaction level?
  • How about the story mode – do you include it? Do you build an extra margin on it? Do you tell your stories well?
  • Does your store layouts combine rational side of the shopping with emotional appeals?

If you’d like to get the answers with us, don’t overlook our #leverages for remarkable store spaces.

This is a product that combines insights from unique shopping traffic research and knowledge gathered from our long-time interest in the anthropology of customer behaviour. #leverages help retailers reorganize the store layouts for better performance and tight connection to customer flow. As our case shows, in a particular supermarket remodeling resulted in lowering the inventory level by 31% and increase of the sales by 18%.

We don’t claim this figure has to do only with #leverages as the client’s team successfully introduced some new content as well. On the other hand, #leverages were the focal point of store remodeling.

For manufacturers:

  • Do you know how your products perform in each mode? Leaving your shelf efforts mainly to auto-piloting might mean troubles not only for the retailer but also for you. Especially, when you know that interested customers on average choose between 180 products in 27 seconds (see our shopping path research).
  • When you use additional locations for promoting your products, do you consider at what positions the most impact will come from?
  • Leverage your wide portfolio of products: why wouldn’t you provide a retailer with valuable insights on shopping missions shown through the lens of your products? Win – Win?

Free PDF #leverages with info and case description is available on the link.  For now, only in Slovenian. If you’re interested in the English version just send us an e-mail or fill the contact form and we might arrange a Zoom introduction to the contents!


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