At the turn of the century stores displayed the majority of their goods behind a counter, requiring customers to request what they wanted from the clerk. These days that kind of merchandising would put a store out of business in no time. Modern retail outlets across mass, department, and specialty channels are evolving to more closely resemble casino floor plans than traditional aisle formats.
The challenge retailers are trying to surmount is an over-abundance of goods and a shortage of attention span. Faced with an expansive wall of similarly packaged items with little or no interruption, most consumers turn away, seeking smaller more digestible pockets of visual stimulation. Break that wall down into islands, shelves, and staggered nooks and you've created an entertaining and engaging environment. Consumers will extend the retail experience and hunt and gather items in a comfortably natural pattern.
IKEA is the master of this casino-retail-philosophy, but BB&B and Walmart also offer great examples of the techniques. BB&B offers consumers lifestyle-oriented islands in the middle of vast aisles, essentially eliminating the aisle itself. The islands promote thematic groupings of products that tie into seasonal activities, prompting consumers to "remember that they needed that." A single item often inspires a multi-item purchase in order to support a seasonal activity.
Walmart takes the philosophy a step further. The stores utilize their warehouse format to offer palettes of goods throughout the wide aisles. These palettes can be switched out overnight, and require little to no set-up by employees. Walmart promotions are item-specific, and they rarely bother to cater to themes of lifestyle. Price drives the promotion, and switching promotions and endcaps in and out quickly maximizes efficiency and profits.
Visit any retailer and you'll notice that people pause and hover around smaller clusters of goods. They've been trained to expect bargains in these areas, but they will still buy more in these areas regardless of discounting. It's basic human nature. Shopping has become so overwhelming that consumers are trusting you to tell them what to look at and where to focus. Smart retail buyers promote the right items at the right time, and fortunes are made. Get it wrong and your aisles may be full but the carts will be empty.
So next time you're out shopping, remember that there's a reason you can't get down the aisle with a cart anymore! They don't want you to.