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Case Study

shopper experience improved, costs cut for grocery retailer



Spanning a few months in the years 2002 and '03, a Vancouver-Island-based grocery chain contacted Articulate Consultants in hopes that principal consultant Glenn R Harrington would take on a new project. The chain then of 19 stores wanted Harrington’s wholistic approach to consulting, retail sensibility, and leadership as a project manager. The project would address several problems relating to shelf signs and shopper experience, leading to an integrated new approach to store shelves and displays.


The grocery chain's marketing department had gone to Articulate before, mainly for editorial work on special promotional flyers. Through this, the insider who had chosen Harrington for the shelf-sign project knew that he could be relied upon for:

  • thorough, resourceful information gathering about current strengths and weaknesses
  • situation analysis with a thoughtful, well-informed, big-picture approach to problem-solving
  • shrewd, feasible recommendations to resolve current problems and leverage ongoing strengths
  • proactive mitigation of possible difficulties associated with a new approach to shelf signs chain-wide.

This is precisely what they got. Once implemented across the chain, the new shelf-sign program would save a six-figure sum in reduced costs each quarter while improving shopper experience, supporting increased sales and engagement.


the problem

As a discrete part of this retailer’s operations, shelf signs (all in-store signs identifying products on shelves and in display cases) were, as one insider said, “a whole world unto themselves.” This included dedicated staff (File Maintenance Clerks) and equipment (printers, laminators, and various devices to hold and display signs).


As a whole, shelf signs had involved a significant ongoing cost of doing business. Net profit margins are slim in the grocery industry, so Harrington had to make dependable recommendations to improve cost-efficiency and increase effectiveness.


The grocery chain was interested not only in reducing the costs of shelf signs, but also in improving shopper experiences related to them. It wanted to make shopping in its stores a more brand-distinct experience and viewed a new shelf-sign program as way to do that in every aisle, if cost-effective.


For example:

  • Each store individually printing, laminating, cutting, and affixing every shelf sign involved significant ongoing costs in staff time, materials, and use of equipment. Savings had to be found.
  • Even the smallest shelf sign in use in the most suitable mounting device on hand would obstruct shoppers’ view of products. This could frustrate shoppers and reduce sales.
  • Various standards of the current shelf-sign program were unknown, misunderstood, or applied differently from store to store. For instance, hand-written signs were used inconsistently across the chain. This diminished the consistency of shopper experience and created problems in maintaining tidiness in certain departments of certain stores.

Moreover, each store had file maintenance clerks, a manager for each department, and a store manager — each with their own responsibilities for and habits regarding shelf signs. Hence, a trusted non-staff expert (an external consultant such as Harrington) was needed to gauge the situation wholistically, to prescribe an integral solution, and to lead its adoption and implementation.


the solution process

To minimize resistance to the new shelf-sign program proactively, Harrington conducted in-store interviews with every department director from head office, every store manager, and a file-maintenance clerk from every store. The interviews took place on the shop floor in all 19 stores. Harrington asked the same 17 questions of each. The manager of each department where an interview took place also had a chance to be heard.


These interviews not only created a sense of engagement and inclusion among and within the stores but also reduced the margin of error and broadened the context for interpreting the findings.

Then, new questions arose, largely to gauge the suitability of formative recommendations.


Articulate research included secret visits to several competing stores in the same geographic markets. Thus, Harrington sharpened formative recommendations. He then crafted of a second set of 17 interview questions for a select group within the client organization.


Again fully documented, the second set of in-store interviews occurred in various stores of the chain. This time, Harrington took a more exploratory approach with fewer people, chosen for the value and variety of their perspectives. This also sharpened formative recommendations and readied Harrington to select and speak to prospective suppliers.


Harrington reviewed product catalogues, websites, and estimates from prospective suppliers for paper, printing, and sign mounting devices. He also reported all progress and his intended direction to senior people in the client organization to their satisfaction. He then held in-person discussions in the client’s offices with decision-makers and representatives of short-listed suppliers.


The result of the process was a report of findings and recommendations. It included:

  • both interview questionnaires filled out with statistics for the quantitative results and concise summaries of the qualitative
  • digital photographs representing shelf-sign problems across the chain common and anomalous
  • digital photographs depicting strengths and weaknesses found in competitor stores (showing how the client had shelf-sign problems both common in the industry and unique to its own stores)
  • all pertinent details on both sets of interviews
  • facts and analyses of the perceived and actual costs of current shelf-sign practices.


The findings and recommendations report also included:

  • specific recommendations regarding shelf sign themes/messages/designs, dimensions, materials, and mounting devices
  • observations of opportunities to create a more distinct shopper experience economically
  • digital imagery depicting the proposed shelf-sign practices, including in-store uses of prototype signs and sign mounting devices.
  • facts and analysis of the proposed shelf-sign program, including estimated costs and savings.

Accompanying the report:

  • tangible samples of the proposed shelf-sign material in proposed dimensions demonstrating proposed themes/messages/designs as well as proposed mounting devices
  • a first draft of proposed policies and procedures for the new shelf-sign program
  • an offer to oversee a pilot of the new program in the client’s choice of store and department.

the solution outcome

First in the bakery of a top store, the grocery chain followed Harrington’s guidelines to implement the new shelf-sign program. The pilot involved printing signs on new material — a paper/plastic hybrid that eliminates the need for lamination, even in cool-damp and hot-dry display cases. New sign themes/messages/designs, created by the Art Director of the client's marketing department, were more distinct; less similar to competitors'. Better new mounting devices would display all signs.


Once the pilot in the first bakery proved satisfactory, bakeries in other stores adopted the new signs and sign holders and adapted improved sign-handling practices. The store managers understood that their whole stores would soon do the same. File maintenance clerks and others across the chain exchanged information and resolved concerns so that, after six months, all 20 whole stores were using the new signs and sign holders. (A new store opened.)

the results

Now more than 20 stores, the retail grocer has for a few years enjoyed the following benefits from using signs on its store shelves as Glenn R Harrington of Articulate Consultants recommended:

  • enhanced shopper experience
  • greater consistency across the chain
  • increased differentiation from competitors
  • increased convenience to staff in placing and replacing signs
  • improved visibility of all goods on display, including small packages
  • millions of dollars saved in reduced costs (materials, staff time, equipment use).

In sum, Harrington’s immediate contact said to him, “We did everything we set out to do. You made it happen quite ably. Well done.”



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