The Gruen Effect (also called the Gruen Transfer) is a psychological phenomenon applied to shopping mall design. It’s named after the Austrian architect, Victor Gruen, who believed good store design started with the customer’s experience. Initially, Gruen deliberately constructed malls for efficiency, creating a sense of safety, and using a familiar flow.
He discouraged confusing store layouts.
Over time, his designs were intentionally reversed to disorient customers — creating the opposite effect and leading to impulse purchases.
The Shopping Spectacle
From the moment a customer enters a shopping mall or even a store, they must instinctively navigate the floor layout. Store owners can design this to confuse — leading people to make an impulse buy.
The Gruen Effect, or The Gruen Transfer, represents the shorthand for how the industry describes this experience. Instead of shopping for something specific, customers begin shopping generally — hoping something will catch their eye. That represents the transfer (from a product search to a general wander).
Essentially, shoppers navigate a spectacle of paths and displays that push customers around a store.
Elements of The Gruen Effect
All of these features try to keep customers in a store for the maximum amount of time while also encouraging them to depart from their shopping list.
- Banners and Signs, especially in bright colors, make customer’s eyes look around at items in an irregular order.
- Eye-Catching Displays draw attention to various objects over a more logical category system.
- Flooring and Walls create a subconscious (or sometimes overt) path for customers to follow. Often, it’s counter-clockwise to the back of the store — then around to the front.
- Point of Sale messages and price points create a sense of urgency. It presents a customer’s last chance to consider a product or promotion.
- If someone likes to mindlessly wander stores, this setup can create small points of interest.
- Store owners can guide customers toward specific inventory.
- Some customers may enjoy the convenience of grab-and-go items.
- Competitors are often forced to cluster together due to customer behavior. Stores with similar products will set their locations near each other to compete on pricing, quality, and customer service.
- Logical or list-guided shoppers can become frustrated with finding products.
- This setup heavily relies on ambiance, which requires expertise.
Overall, these experiences capitalize on consumerism for consumerism’s sake. People plan to go “shopping” as an activity and end up buying the items that catch their interest.
Notable Examples of The Gruen Effect
Consumers constantly experience The Gruen Transfer when they shop in storefronts.
- Most grocery stores arrange their aisles to make visitors follow a counter-clockwise path through the store.
- Target places their discount section right in front of the right-hand entrance. Shoppers must walk past it to get a cart and begin shopping. It’s always filled with low-price, seasonal items that appeal to their target customer.
- IKEA literally creates a maze on its top floor with arrows pointing Shoppers around the display rooms they’ve set up. Their “marketplace” on the bottom level features small products in the front and large items (like furniture) in the back. So, it’s easy to fill their cart with small decorative pieces before their intended purchase.
Now, in the age of the internet, we’re seeing this process applied to digital shopping. For example, Amazon’s gears their category system, sponsored ads, and search results toward keeping shoppers on-site longer versus helping them find a single item. Most online retailers have started using these techniques to overwhelm the senses inside the digital space.
Back to Gruen
Gruen’s original analysis actually rebelled against confusing store layouts. He wanted to promote efficiency in shopping — grouping similar items together in a logical format. He invented the concept of a mall to apply this on a large scale.
For example, he would probably suggest that Aerie, Victoria’s Secret, and Soma put their stores side-by-side to make it easier for bra shoppers to find the lingerie that best suits their figures. Instead, The stores usually on different floor levels, with each store the various sizes, colors, price points, and shapes assembled in different areas of the store.
A lot of his ideas were based around the urban “marketplace” concept — where vendors stick together in the same section to capitalize on foot traffic. Instead, we ended up with one distinct location, where shoppers have to park their car and walk — sometimes long distances. And his nicer ideas, like gardens, fountains, and sitting areas for socialization fell away over time.
Even with the death of the shopping mall, and the shift toward online retailers, the Gruen Effect still impacts customer behavior. You often see online store UX that deliberately guides consumers down a funnel that encourages them to stay on-site for longer and add extra items to their virtual cart.