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In Search of the Endless Aisle
12 November 2012

In Search of the Endless Aisle

One of my clients talks about the concept of the endless aisle. He means the virtual extension of the capacity of the store and its range via the use of online shopping terminals. So you needn’t have absolutely everything in stock- the customer can fill in the gaps by ordering from you online what they can’t find in store.

It’s an interesting concept. It means that you can literally buy anything from where you are. I encountered a prime example a few years ago in HMV at Westfield London. There was a small kiosk where you could purchase all the music and films in the store (and a lot that wasn’t in the store) from one small terminal and download it to your portable device. So this could become the store, I thought. But now you don’t even need the kiosk to purchase music and films, so what happens to the store?

It’s not enough just to create the endless aisle. If we are to continue to have stores, it’s about getting the customer to visit the store in the first place. It’s not about duplicating the online offer in store. The store and the online offer need to do different things.

An Internet terminal gives you access to a huge virtual warehouse where you have almost infinite choice of what you purchase. Now that this endless aisle is available in stores retailers are free from the burden of having to carry huge ranges of stock. We only need to carry what is relevant to most of our customers. In the words of Nordstrom, the biggest service we can give to our customer is to sell them something.  After all, that’s why they visit our stores. And in doing this we should work on making their choices very easy.  Part of this is presenting a highly edited range- but presenting it so that it looks authoritative.  We just designed a new prototype store for Rebel Sport with a redesigned shoe offer. Customers are remarking on the huge range of shoes on display- even though the new range has been edited. Buy what’s there is beautifully lit and presented in a simple but theatrical way with associated merchandise. It’s enough to display authority in sports shoes but the editing and aids to selection make for an easy choice.

Customers are now making choices in how they spend their time. I predict that grocery shopping will change greatly in the next few years. Customers will order low engagement goods online for home delivery or pickup, and make more frequent shopping visits for their fresh goods, which are much more fun and engaging to shop for. Shoppers may well put in an advance order for their toilet paper, dog food and canned tomatoes, and pick it up at a customer service desk after visiting the supermarket to personally select their fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. The non fresh grocery aisles in supermarkets could be replaced by tightly packed compactus like structures where customer selections are robotically picked and assembled for collection. Don’t laugh, this is the way prescriptions are handled in many pharmacies- it’s just on a larger scale.

Simply responding to customers’ needs is a form of engagement. Our client, Woolworths, recently opened their Wolli Creek store, which features a pizza oven as well as their now well-known sushi counter.  The idea is that you can order a freshly made pizza with your selected ingredients, on a partially baked base, take it home and finish it off in the oven. So having sacrificed your cooking time for shopping, you can now have an almost- ready meal to take home. It’s all prepared just the way you like it in front of your eyes. The theatre provided by the aroma of baking and the sight of sushi chefs busy at their work is a natural extension of Woolworth’s fresh offer, and a great reason to visit your local store. It’s one aspect of the business that can only happen instore.

A few years ago, before Borders disappeared from our malls, I proposed a completely different retail model to them. What if instead of a huge sea of aisles full of books, CDs and DVDs, we built a series of smaller rooms that were just nice places to shop in? They would be themed according to people’s interests in that area. A crime room, for example, would contain crime novels, true crime stories, crime movies and soundtracks- as well as associated complementary merchandise. A differently themed room might relate to gardening or cooking-or Japanese comic books. Reference books and commodity merchandise would be housed in a dense “bookstack” area on a different level or at the back of the store- you could either browse it like a library or order from a terminal. A café would be at the centre, where you could order refreshments or anything else in store or online, simply by browsing with a tablet. All of this merchandise can be bought online but the idea of bringing it all together into a new shopping experience would provide the theatre necessary to engage customers.

By creating a customer experience with the fun stuff and making the routine and the hard to find stuff available and easy to locate and purchase, we can achieve what Jack Hanrahan at Westfield has referred to as Total Retail. It really doesn’t matter where and how the customer purchases, whether online, in store, instore online, or click and collect-as long as they purchase from us!



Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design and a regular contributor to Inside Retailing. You can reach him at

12 November 2012
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