For those of you who are in the retail industry, you may have noticed a recent trend to clean up in-store environments – reduce shelf heights, remove dense ends and dump bins, widen aisles etc. – in order to increase comfort and make the shopping experience less stressful for customers.

The big question then becomes “does clean make customers keen? According to Walmart, arguably the largest and most successful retailer in the world, clean stores mean fewer beans (on the bottom line).

As reported in the New York Times, Walmart conducted a massive in-store experiment to improve sight-lines, rationalize the overall number of items offered, remove warehouse-like merchandising in centre aisles, and increase the width of core aisles. According to Walmart’s CEO William S. Simon, “(Customers) loved the experience. They just bought less.”

As a result, Walmart reverted back to its original strategy of offering more products, with tighter aisles, more clutter and lots of bargain bins in the hopes that customers would spend more because of a perception “there were bargains to be had”.

If you do a quick search on the internet, there are dozens of experts who subscribe to the view that a larger selection, more bargain bins, and sales signage equates to “better value”. In essence, the more you look like a market stall, the better it is to generate buzz and sales. They argue that if your merchandise is neatly presented on the walls and in well organized aisles, with no point of sale impulse offers and dense ends full of 2-for-1 specials, customers will tend to think your store is expensive (i.e. overpriced) and they will not buy from you.

And if you think about it, you can probably name a whole list of retailers who subscribe to this “clutter is good for business” philosophy and they seem to be successful. But how can we be sure that clutter makes customers keen? Have we been too quick and prematurely jumped to a conclusion that clean is a traffic and transaction turn-off?
Recent empirical evidence from the science of neurology sheds new light on how we think, and more importantly, how we make decisions. In fact, the decision making part of your brain responds strongly to certain stimuli only.

Did you know that your brain consumes 25% of your body’s energy? As a result, you brain wants to conserve energy so you tend to pay attention and be attracted to things that have sharp contrast, high visual appeal, strong emotional cues and a clear beginning vs. end message.

Now what does this mean for you in the context of your shopping environment?

A chaotic, cluttered store is cumbersome for your brain to navigate – you have to work hard mentally to hunt down and search for bargains. It may create some emotional appeal but it is likely perceived as having low contrast, low visual appeal and no clear beginning vs. end. Shopping in this environment takes time and energy and it also forces your brain to go into “thinking” mode. This is a critical point because thinking is counter-productive to deciding. Thinking takes place in one part of your brain (the neo-cortex), while deciding happens much more quickly (and automatically) in your old or “reptilian” brain.

So what does this research mean for the strategy and conclusions reached by Walmart?

Based on science, the strongest buying cue that you can give your customers is this – if your store (or business) has incredible bargains, people will buy (and even sift through a maze of clutter) because something is in it for them. The “what’s in it for me” (WIFM) principle is one of the strongest influences on the part of your brain that decides.

There is no hard evidence to suggest that clutter makes your customers keen.

Walmart and many others have come to a conclusion based on what they THINK people are doing to reach a buying decision in-store. However, neuroscience has empirical evidence to support the opposite conclusion is more probable. Clutter and chaos create an environment where your customers have to think too hard, which is exhausting for the brain. They will do it if they have to, as long as the perceived bargains and value are very high.

Doesn’t it make more sense to find another way to communicate good value and service without exhausting your customers and causing them to waste their time? Wouldn’t you be more likely to get more sales and word of mouth referrals from your delighted customers?

In the end, Walmart may be correct about the fact people buy more in a certain circumstances but they are wrong about WHY that is. The best way to create more excitement and sales is to make it easier for your customers to decide. You need to show them what’s in it for them, increase the contrast between your solution and your competitors and communicate a strong, clean visual message that compels them to say “YES”.

About The Author
Rhondalynn's life changed forever after the loss of her mother due to a senseless tragedy in 1992. She decided that despite her formal training and a promising career as a lawyer and chartered accountant, she wanted to do something more. So despite the fact she had already invested 10 years of her adult life in university and articling, she did the unthinkable. She left her high paid job as Commercial Manager for one of the largest corporations in the country, she re-trained herself in the sciences of the mind and she discovered a passion for writing and sharing her knowledge with business owners and executives. Rhondalynn has distilled the secrets to business success - that she learned from her life experience and working in GM level roles with Price Waterhouse Coopers, Max Factor, Village Cinemas, and Coles Group Ltd. - and produced a simple step-by-step process that you can apply to your business to boost your sales and bottom line. Rhondalynn can help you put strategies in place to grow your bottom line and ensure that your customers would never think of going elsewhere. She is the leading expert on harnessing the power of your brain and using it to improve your financial results in business. Rhondalynn is the author of On The Shoulders of Giants, Imagineering Your Destiny, Sobre Hombros deGigantes, Financial Foreplay®, and Sales Seduction. She has appeared on CNN, Bnet/CBS, Channel 7, Channel 9, Kochie's Business Builders and 3AW, and writes for Yahoo, MYOB, Fast Thinking, Sunday Life, Dynamic Business, Business Spectator and Australian Retailer.


  • By Mona Whetzel 08 Jun 2011

    This is certainly a terrific post. Thanks a lot for making the effort to explain all of this out for all of us. It truly is a great help!

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  • By Alexis Bullaro 10 Jun 2011

    Do you have any more information you can share on how the old brain works? I’m looking to understand why my customers are buying or not buying from me. 🙂

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    Best wishes – I got real value from this post. Be back again soon for more.

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  • By Goran 01 Dec 2011

    Hi Rhondalynn.

    I have been thinking about what you wrote. Researching, thinking and “hard working” sometimes gives a joy to a human when one achieves something. Buyers, readers, researchers.

    But on the other hand isn’t cleanliness and order, honestly showing what you offer to the customer and by that also showing that you value your customer’s time and showing what you have to show, not busying one with researching?

    This can be double–edged sword!

    • By Rhondalynn Korolak 03 Dec 2011

      Yes, we all like a surprise or a challenge, don’t we? 🙂 Thinking is the domain of the new brain. We do not decide with our new brain.

      The old (reptilian) brain makes decisions automatically and very quickly – based largely on visual input. It is solely focused on your survival. That part of the brain is not concerned with searching for a bargin – it is concerned with keeping you alive. Think of it this way… If a crocodile were trolling the aisles of Walmart looking for a meal, would it be concerned with getting a good deal (searching hard) or is it just concerned with killing it’s prey quickly and conserving energy. The part of your brain that decides is the same brain that we share with reptiles and it hasn’t changed signficantly in millions of years.

      If you have pain in some area of your life – the reptilian brain wants to solve it as quickly as possible by finding a solution. THe old brain doesn’t want a challenge (it doesn’t want to think too much) – it just wants to find the solution asap.

      • By Goran 10 Jan 2012

        I have to say that your explanation is something new and also maybe I don’t understand everything because English is not my primary language.

        This is what I read in some books:
        The “logical”, left part of the brain is the one that mostly makes decisions. And the right one is “emotional”.
        Still, sometimes people do (buy for ex.) something because of emotions, not because they need (to do) that (logically).

        Now, I fully understand your example about crocodile and Walmart but I just cant connect that with humans searching and / or buying something.

        Also, aren’t humans (today) “forced” to look the best prices (doesn’t mean the cheapest)? If not, what are they looking if not good prices for good products?

        Well staying on the topic (Clean vs. Cluttered) I am still looking for an answer at myself and here, why should people “like” more cluttered than clean…


        Thank you

  • By Business Marketing – Too Many Product Choices Linked To Sales Loss | Star Global Tribune 20 Feb 2013

    […] since Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart began offering customers every product under the sun, the prevailing wisdom in retail has been that […]

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