While wandering around the grocery store …

I noticed something different while wandering around the grocery store the other day. It’s a detail thing (I’m a computer guy – spending time on details comes with the territory); a specific part of a specific product: milk. In particular, how milk is presented at the store.

The store nearest us just finished a significant remodel. And as part of that, the milk cartons and bottles and such moved. The milk used to be available from one of the open cases – you know, the ones that are just shelves, back in the cold part of the store, with nothing between you and the cartons.

But in the updated store, the milk is behind a door. These doors should be familiar too – they’re glass, usually several in a row, with shelves behind them. Frozen food, like ice cream and pizza, has been presented in cases like these for some time now (decades, even).

Now, some items that are just refrigerated, not frozen, are behind the doors. I was curious about the change. Fortunately for my curiosity, I have a friend who once worked for the grocery store chain, so I asked the question: Why?

Her answer started with a simple fact:


  • The coolers with doors are cheaper to operate.

This really wasn’t very surprising. After all, the refrigerator in your house has a door for a reason. And it’s always been obvious when you felt the cold air near the dairy section that some energy was being wasted.

So that’s cool (pun intended). But – right next to the shelves with doors that hold the milk is the section with the cottage cheese. And guess what: no doors. Even in the newly remodeled store, the cottage cheese is in an open case, very similar to what had been there before. That’s where my friend’s analysis added a much more interesting fact:

  • People don’t buy as much when the items are behind doors.

Turns out that all of the mothers telling their kids over the years to ‘shut the refrigerator door’ have had an effect. It takes some effort for folks to decide cross that simple barrier, and open the door. And apparently, that leads to a decrease in sales.

Yet the milk moved; now it was behind a door. Why? That’s where we get another useful bit from my friend:

  • People want to get milk; they’ll open the door.

There’s the biggest piece of the puzzle. Often the primary purpose of a trip to the store is to get staples like milk and bread; other items are purchased more as add-ons to the visit. Basically, milk is a must-have, door or no door, and shoppers are not going to leave the store without it.

Cottage cheese, on the other hand, is more of an impulse buy (yeah, that sounds weird to me too). With a door in the way, they’re less likely to see it, and less likely to make the effort to open the door and buy it.

So that’s the calculus that went into the store’s recent remodel. There are some other factors in the equation, but the main thought process: they’re trying to save on the electric bills where they can, while balancing that against customer expectations. And right now, they think milk can go on one side of the line door, while other items can’t.

In some future blog entries, we’ll look at even more details that are part of the analysis, and try to think of other options the stores might have available.