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Grocery Store-Inspired Process Improvements

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Business researchers at the Wharton School are focusing on the way we shop. Some paths through the supermarket are more efficient than others, changing grocery store layout from intuition to science.

Recent studies—according to an article from Forbes magazine—note that patrons spend, at most, 30 percent of their time actually acquiring merchandise, leaving the remainder for browsing, navigating the store, and completing the checkout process. Retailers believe better store design would increase shopper productivity, boosting that percentage and therefore, overall sales.

Grocery Shopping

© Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture

Scientists compare the experience of being a retail customer to the to “traveling salesman problem.” In short, if a salesperson has to visit a number of different cities, what is the shortest path they can take and then return home? From the article:

Grocery shoppers face the same challenge as they go about collecting milk, bread, cookies or other things on their list, according to Wharton marketing professor Peter S. Fader. “The TSP closely resembles the problem faced by a typical grocery shopper who plans to purchase a certain list of items in the grocery store,” Fader and his research colleagues–Wharton marketing professor Eric Bradlow and doctoral student Sam Hui–write in a new paper, “The Traveling Salesman Goes Grocery Shopping: The Systematic Inefficiencies of Grocery Paths.” For the shopper, the researchers write, “the TSP offers an ‘optimal’ path, which connects the entrance, all the products that she purchases and the checkout counter.”

To achieve the same efficiency as the salesman who meticulously plots his route, a shopper would need to know where products are located and have a game plan on how to go about gathering the items on his list while covering as little distance as possible. But do people really behave that way when they head into their neighborhood supermarket?

Work environments are often plagued by similar challenges. We sometimes find ourselves exhausted by overhead, constantly running around the office, or waiting patiently on someone else. Spending 30 percent of our time at the office actually completing work that advances the organization may sound optimistic, as we’re too often wasting even more time on distractions.

If it seems challenging to apply the complex mathematics of the traveling sales problem to your organization, you are not wrong. But the first step in any situation is to acknowledge that the issue exists. If you find that the way you organize papers at your desk or emails in your inbox seems random, perhaps a higher level of thinking should be considered. And if they way data moves through your organization’s bureaucracy seems equally convoluted, maybe it’s time to sit down and draw a map.

And you’re not alone if you’re just thinking about this systematically for the first time:

“By no means does this study solve all the burning questions that keep retailers awake at night, but it’s a step in the right direction. The main point is that we’re bringing hard science to an area that’s been left to judgment and intuition alone. There are still many steps awaiting us on our ‘path’ to better understand in-store behavior, and we hope we can be fairly efficient—unlike most grocery shoppers—as we move ahead with it.”

Companies leaders who want to better understand their current workflow and make improvements in business processes should pursue business improvement consulting services. If your company is operating on intuition instead of science, contact AccelaWork to arrange a consultation. We would love to help you make the leap, draw the map, and help bring your business to the next level.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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