A good retail store layout starts on paper, where you work out building specs, customer traffic flow, product placement, and more, before ever installing a single display. Thoughtful planning lets you explore options and create a store layout that encourages customers to browse and buy.
We’ll show you how to address each of these 8 factors throughout this guide. From floor plan options that encourage traffic flow to ideal product placement, we’ll cover every aspect of your retail store layout. Plus we’ll discuss important issues that affect your store planning, such as Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and consumer behavior studies.
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Here are the 8 steps to creating the best layout for your retail store:
Step 1: Decide on a Retail Store Floor Plan
Large or small, most retail stores use one of three basic types of retail store layouts. Here’s a quick look at each, and we’ll explore all three in detail below.
|Retail Floor Plan||Best For||Example Store Layout|
|Grid Floor Plans are commonly used in grocery, big box, and convenience stores. Also known as straight layout.||Small retailers who carry large inventories of shelf-stocked goods such as books and magazines, toys, specialty foods, hardware, cards and small gifts, kitchenwares, and homewares|
|Loop Floor Plans maximize wall display space and expose customers to all products along a set pathway. Also known as a racetrack layout.||Apparel, accessories, toy, homewares, kitchenwares, personal care, and specialty retail stores|
|Free Flow Floor Plans allow the most creativity and are used in many small upscale, specialty, and boutique settings.||Upscale apparel, accessory, personal care, specialty brand, and mixed use businesses like bakeries and delis that also sell packaged goods|
Remember, your retail store layout guides product placement, directs customer flow, and defines the overall look and feel of your store, so it deserves plenty of thought. Many factors will affect your floor plan choice, including the the size and shape of your sales floor, the types of products you sell, and even the customers you hope to attract. Keep these factors in mind as we explore each floor plan option in detail.
Grid / Straight Floor Plan
A grid floor plan is a very efficient use of both floor and wall space. With fixtures and displays running parallel to walls, a grid floor plan maximizes every inch of available floor space, including the corners. Grid layouts are easy for customers to navigate and for store owners to categorize. Plus they offer plenty of endcap and feature wall exposure for promotional items and seasonal products.
Since grid layouts are used in most grocery, big box, and convenience stores, they create a familiar feel to customers. However, due to this familiarity, they tend to impart a grab-and-go experience. A grid layout can be a good choice for small retailers who shelf-stock inventory in quantity, like toys, books and magazines, specialty foods, kitchenware, and home goods. However, it’s not ideal for retailers who want to create an upscale, branded environment that invites relaxed browsing.
Loop Floor Plan
A loop floor plan, sometimes called a racetrack layout, creates the most guided shopping experience of the three. A loop store layout features a defined pathway throughout the store, which exposes customers to every item on display. Bed, Bath & Beyond stores are good examples of a loop floor plan. Loop floor plans work very well with zone merchandising tactics, too, which we discuss in detail below.
In a loop floor plan, the perimeter walls are highly visible and can feature all types of wall and shelving displays. A loop floor plan provides a great base for combining layouts, too. With a loop plan, the central part of the store can be set up in a grid or free-flow layout (which we cover below) or even a mix of the two.
However you design it, a loop floor plan surrounds customers with product displays on outer walls, and allows for all types of creative display variations in the center of the store. A loop floor plan works well for most types of small retail stores such as apparel and accessories, toy, homewares, kitchenwares, personal care, and specialty products.
Free Flow Floor Plan
A free flow retail store layout is the favorite of many specialty retailers because it allows maximum creativity and is easily changed and updated. Browsing is king in a free flow layout. Fixtures and displays are placed at angles to encourage shoppers to slow down and explore highlighted product groupings at every turn.
A free flow store layout creates open sight lines throughout the store, so specialty displays and power walls, which we discuss in detail below, are highly visible. This makes it easy to funnel customers toward specific merchandise zones using eye-catching accent colors and product groupings.
The open look of a free flow layout is ideal for all types of boutiques and upscale stores. It also works well for stores with smaller inventories since it’s designed to highlight product groupings rather than store goods in quantity.
“Your sales floor is a living, breathing entity that needs to change – frequently – in order to flourish. It’s the retailer’s job to make that happen. If your store is filled with the latest and greatest product, but your sales are in a rut, it could be because your customers are bored. They come to your store not just to buy; they come for ideas and inspiration. And they come to be entertained – even when they don’t buy anything, that experience is what brings them back.”
Pro Tip from Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender,Retail Store Design Consultants at Kizer & Bender
Step 2: Put Your Floor Plan Down on Paper
If you haven’t settled on your store layout, or even if you have, the first thing you need to do is work your plan out on paper. But before you start, remember! Many small retailers find that a mix of floor plan and layout styles works best.
For example, you might start with a loop, then combine grid-style shelving aisles and free-flow displays in the center section. Or if your sales floor isn’t a standard shape, as shown below, you might create a loop or grid in one section, and use a free-flow layout in another.
This store floor plan uses a mix of layout styles, a loop on the left and free-flow center and right:
If you have a copy of the blueprint for your store, start with that. If not, draw up your own schematic of your sales floor. Grid paper works great for this, or you can use online store layout tools, which we list below.
Next, take your sales floor schematic, note any special built-in features such as columns, cabinets, or shelving, and attach it to a piece of poster board or foam core. Then overlay a piece of tracing paper to sketch out how different floor plans can work within your space.
Once you have an idea of how to best use your space, it’s time to explore how to move customers throughout your store. We discuss this in detail in our next section.
Step 3: Consider Traffic Flow in Your Store Layout
Whichever store layout you choose, you need to arrange your store’s pathways, aisles, and display fixtures with traffic flow in mind. To do this, you must to understand three key customer behaviors:
- Customers need transition space as they enter a store. This is what experts call the decompression zone.
- Customers browse and shop the way they drive. In the US, that means customers usually turn to the right when they enter a store.
- Customers need personal space when shopping. They don’t like to be crowded, jostled, or so close that their bottoms brush when passing (more on this interesting tidbit below!).
Read on to learn how you can use these behavioral tendencies to pull shoppers into your store and entice them to buy.
Customer Behavior #1 — Decompress Upon Entry
It’s tempting to place new products, hot items, and sale signage front-and-center so they’re the first things customers see upon entering. But don’t do this! The first few feet inside the door, say five feet for a small store, and 15 feet for a larger store, is known as the decompression zone. Store design experts strongly advise against cluttering up this space.
A clutter-free entry is welcoming to customers:
The decompression zone is where your customer makes a mental shift from the outside world to your store environment. Upon entry, they take stock of your store, develop an opinion of your brand, and even make subconscious judgements about the prices they expect to find.
Store design experts agree that this area should be open and inviting, and free of overpowering displays and signage clutter, as shown in the image above. Many customer behavior studies, including those conducted by Envirosell’s Paco Underhill, support this opinion. They show that customers tend to ignore displays, signage, and even manned sales counters placed close to store entrances.
Want to learn more about designing a store around customer behaviors? Check out Paco Underhill’s The Science of Shopping books. Paco is the founder and CEO of the consumer behavior research firm Envirosell, and a leading authority on customer-driven retail practices.
However, the area just beyond the decompression zone is some of your most valuable promotional space, which experts often call your waterfront property. We detail ways you can maximize this valuable space below.
Customer Behavior #2 — Right Turn, Up Ahead
In America, we drive on the right-hand side of the road, and would you believe it? We tend to shop that way as well. Customer behavior studies show that nearly 90 percent of shoppers naturally drift to the right upon entering a store. Likewise, in countries like England where they drive on the left, customers steer left upon entering a store.
So what does that mean for retail store owners? According to Georganne Bender of Kizer & Bender, in the US it means three key things:
- The right-hand side of your store, especially the waterfront property just beyond the decompression zone, is best for promotional displays.
- Customers are going to naturally drift to the right upon entry, so you should design your store traffic flow based on a right-to-left pattern
- Checkouts and registers should be located to the left of the entrance so the right side can be maximized for product exposure and power walls, which we discuss in detail below.
The small apparel boutique pictured above really nails these traffic flow details! A roomy entrance offers clear sight and travel lines to eye-catching power walls on the right, and an inviting seating area towards the back. These lure customers into the store with the promise of treasures and comfort within. The shop even has a left-side checkout midway back. Someone really did their customer behavior homework on this retail store layout.
Customer Behavior #3 — Personal Space
The size and placement of aisles and pathways dictates the flow of customer traffic throughout your store. Aisles must be wide enough to invite customers to browse, not bump into other shoppers, and — most importantly — pick up and carry items for purchase.
Spacious pathways are a key aspect of good store planning. In fact, it tops the list of retail experts’ store design tips. Heshy Lovi, Sales and Marketing Director for M Fried Fixtures, recommends aisle widths of four feet or more. This, he says, ensures your aisles and pathways will be comfortable for all customers, including those using strollers or wheelchairs.
There’s plenty of room to browse in the store below, plus generous pathways that welcome all:
Wide aisles also prevent the dreaded butt brush, a term coined by top retail consultant Paco Underhill. His studies show that both women and men avoid tight or crowded aisles where they might brush bottoms with other shoppers. Really, this is a thing! Learn more about Paco’s retail research and insights in his book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.
In addition, if your aisles aren’t wide enough, you could be subject to complaints or lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires you to have aisles that are at minimum three feet wide. If you’re reported to be non-compliant, you could be fined if you don’t widen your aisles and remove obstructions. Learn more about the ADA’s retail store requirements here.
Our Advice: Plan for aisle and display pathways of at least three feet, six inches feet wide, without obstructions. Then, once your fixtures and displays are in place, further test your store’s pathways by rolling a large baby stroller throughout your store. If you can easily navigate all traffic pathways, your customers should enjoy a comfortable browsing experience.
Step 4: Position Products for Maximum Exposure
According to store design experts, this is the part of the process where store owners tend to put the cart before the horse. Once the floor plan is sketched out, store owners are quick to purchase and install fixtures, then fill them with product. Far too often, experts say, the fixtures chosen aren’t ideal for displaying a range of products in a particular space. Or worse, they don’t offer flexibility needed in valuable display areas that are constantly changing to house featured and seasonal products.
So before you start to consider fixtures and displays, think about the product positioning throughout your store. Where are your evergreen, seasonal, limited availability, and sale products going to be featured on an ongoing basis? This process is called product mapping. Following is an example of a product mapping plan that features a mix of product categories in defined areas:
Product mapping is its own science, and in many stores it’s a constantly changing process. But most experts agree that small stores can stay on track by keeping three product mapping points in mind:
1. Set Stores Up Using Zone Merchandising Strategies
Use Zone Design to Organize Your Store
“Zone Design successfully helps shoppers locate what they want while exposing them to products that enhance the ones they are buying. Increased transaction totals are a natural by-product. Products are categorized by use into Zones, such as ‘kitchen/cooking’, ‘entertaining/dining’, and ‘home decor’, with inventory range and stock levels determining the size of each Zone.
Best-selling products should be placed in Primary Zones located toward the rear of the store, ensuring that shoppers will pass by Secondary Zones featuring other merchandise, increasing their exposure and sales potential (it’s why milk is always in the back of the grocery store!). You can also feature several ‘best sellers’ in window displays for exposure.”
Pro Tip from Debi Ward Kennedy, Retail Visual Design Expert
Use Zone Merchandising: Put Best Sellers at the Back of Your Store
Whether it’s underwear in an apparel store or milk in a grocery store, the items customers need most usually are found near the back. Think about this next time you’re in a grocery store. As you walk to the back of the store to get milk, you funnel past coffee, cereal, and toilet paper. And the milk is right by the eggs and cheese. This is primary and secondary zone merchandising in action, and the reason people shopping for one item often leave with three or more.
Dan Jablons, a consultant with Retail Smart Guys, highlights the importance of putting necessary items near the back of your store. Doing so increases your customer’s exposure to other products, he says, and motivates customers to impulse buys.
What are your go-to products? Do you carry items that bring your customers back time and time again? Consider placing these primary and similar secondary product lines toward the back of your store. Or, if your stock is constantly changing and you don’t carry replenishing goods, place your sale items toward the back. That way, customers must pass your new items and promotional displays on their way to check out the deals in back.
Use Zone Merchandising for Low-Cost Impulse Buys
Impulse items like small toys, candy bars, lip gloss, and breath mints are great products to feature near your register. When customers approach the register to pay and leave, you don’t want them to stop shopping. Placing low-cost impulse buy items near registers, as shown in the image below, encourages shoppers to add an item or two as they check out.
2. Highlight Power Walls with Flexible Display Options
Power walls are areas of your store where most customers naturally focus on and move toward upon entering. Following customer behavior patterns, power walls are usually on the right side of the store, just beyond your store’s entrance, in what experts call your waterfront property.
Power walls are your go-to spot for hot finds, new items, and seasonal features that attract instant attention and pull customers through the entry area, into your store. These areas are likely going to change frequently and you need to plan for it. Outfit these spaces with versatile displays that can be easily changed to showcase various product groupings.
Power wall space isn’t limited to the front of your store. Any place in your store layout that naturally draws traffic can be a power wall. And a power wall isn’t limited to wall displays, either. Tables (shown above), specialty display units, aisle endcaps, or even prominent spots near your register can be promotional power walls.
3. Slow Customers Down with Speed Bumps and Merchandise Outposts
Along with power walls, you’ll want to include a few speed bumps and merchandise outposts to slow customers down as they move through your store.
Smaller speed bump displays (above) and larger merchandise outposts (below) placed along your store’s main traffic flow let you draw customer interest to certain products. Speed bumps let you feature new finds and hot sellers in eye-catching ways. Larger outposts are great for special price stock or product groupings such as seasonal features and branded collections.
Tip: Save money on specialty displays! Many manufacturers offer retailers low-cost or free specialty display fixtures designed to highlight their branded lines, like the one pictured below. These make great speed bump or outpost display units on a tight budget. Your product line reps can tell you if they’re available, plus provide merchandising and display advice.
Step 5: Plan Your Store Fixtures & Displays
Once you have an idea of your store layout and a product mapping plan, it’s time to consider your store fixtures and displays. Fixtures are permanent — fixed — parts of your store such as lighting, counters, fixed shelving units, and dressing rooms. Displays hold product and tend to be movable, versatile, and customizable, like modular units, gondolas, tables, slatwall, and clothing racks.
Fixtures and displays come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, which we cover in full detail in our store fixture and display guide here. For now, let’s explore the three top things to consider when choosing store fixtures and display units:
1. Store Fixtures and Displays Should Define Your Brand
Retail store design experts agree that your store’s walls, floors, fixtures, and display units should create a coordinated backdrop that defines your brand, but lets your products pop.
So keep this in mind when choosing fixtures and display units: The ultimate purpose of fixtures and display units is to put your products front-and-center. But at the same time, the overall look, styling, and finish is your biggest branding opportunity. Choose cohesive fixtures and display pieces that coordinate with your product collections but don’t overpower them, like the successful looks below:
2. Product Displays Should be Able to Handle Your Products
Display units must also be able to handle products’ weight and size. For example, glass shelving is not ideal for power tools, and expanded metal racks aren’t complementary to jewelry displays.
Versatile slatwall display accommodates a wide range of products and display needs:
Store design experts advise small retailers to keep versatility in mind when choosing product displays. Your stock will likely change over the years. If you install permanent, unmovable displays, you likely will regret it later. Adjustable display options such as slatwall, gridwall, apparel racks, and shelving tend to be good choices for small retailers.
Tip! Ask your product manufacturers about display units tailored to display their products. Vendors often provide attractive free or low-cost units to display their branded lines, like the one below. This can be a great cost savings for you.
3. Aisle & Personal Space Matters!
Remember that you must allow three feet of pathway space between all display units to meet ADA requirements. But customer comfort is more than a requirement. Studies have proven, time and time again, that customers do not like to be jostled when shopping. Allow generous pathways between fixtures. Experts recommend three feet, six inches, so customers can move freely, examine products, and carry items to your registers. This will keep customers happily browsing in your store and you in good standing with the ADA.
Step 6: Position Your Store Checkout Area
According to retail feng shui expert DeAnna Radaj, store checkout and register placement is one of the biggest mistakes she sees in retail store floor plans.
DeAnna says that in general, the front left of a retail store is a good location for the checkout counter, like the one above. Shoppers naturally drift to the right when they enter a store and tend to loop around the store, leaving on the left side. So, a checkout at the front left of your store puts it your customers’ natural exit path. Plus, it doesn’t distract them from shopping as they make their way around the store.
She states that many retailers mistakenly place their counter toward the front, on the right side of the store. But this takes up prime product promotion real estate. It’s better to use this waterfront property for a product display power wall, and let the checkout area take up the space on the left.
Some experts recommend a checkout location at the rear of the store. But that’s not practical for small retailers with limited staff, since it can leave the front of the store unattended. For small retailers, experts tend to agree that a checkout should be toward front of the store, to the left of the entry.
Once you’ve decided where to place your store’s checkout, you’ll need to decide what type of checkout you need. Island? Long counter? Cash wrap? There are many options to consider. Explore them all in detail in our article on cash wraps and checkout counters.
Step 7: Create Comfort Zones & Other Amenities
Your retail floor plan is more than displays and checkout counters, speed bumps and waterfront property. It’s about welcoming your customers in, making them feel at home, and providing an experience that makes them want to return.
According to Leslie Stern, retail store design expert for Leslie M Stern Designs, thoughtful amenities make the shopping experience memorable for customers. She advises small store owners to consider customer comforts when divvying up floor space, including the following:
Leslie recommends that retailers provide some type of seating for both customers and anyone who is accompanying them. Shoppers do get tired and so do their friends and relatives who are along for the ride. Why not offer them a chair? Seating can be as simple as stools near the checkout or a lounge area near the dressing rooms, like this fun setup below:
2. Dressing Rooms
Dressing rooms are a must in most apparel stores, but they do take up valuable floor space. Make the most of dressing room areas by using adjoining walls for promotional items and accessories like belts and scarves. If you provide dressing areas, be sure at least one door and changing space meets the ADA accessibility guidelines, too.
3. Checkout & Customer Service Areas
In a small store, these are usually one in the same. In stores where customers don’t shop with baskets, Lesley recommends having a checkout counter large enough to hold products as customers continue shopping. Remember, empty hands pick up more products, and that leads to more sales. Also, make sure checkout counters are large enough to handle the checkout process efficiently and allow space for customers to set down a handbag.
When it comes to limited checkout space, a compact POS system like Lightspeed helps make the checkout process efficient and tidy. Learn more about the many benefits of the Lightspeed POS system here.
Step 8: Set Up a Workable Stockroom
Your store’s selling floor is of utmost importance, but your backroom stock and office areas deserve attention, too. Their arrangement can help or hinder your day-to-day efficiency. Here are a few things to consider when planning a back room that’s useful, productive, and safe for both you and your staff.
Overstock and Other Storage Options
Most small retail stores keep little overstock in the back room, but you should allow for at least some backroom stock and supplies storage space in your store layout. After all, you never know when you’ll get a great bulk-buy deal from a product vendor or receive an overrun of shopping bags.
Typically, a few sections of light industrial shelving can accommodate most overstock and supply storage needs. For apparel overstock, a double-tier clothing rod works well to double up space and keep clothing wrinkle-free. In both cases, a sturdy ladder with a standing platform is good to have on hand for safe access to upper storage areas.
Shipping and Receiving Areas
One thing you must try to accommodate in your store’s backroom is inbound stock shipments. The last place want to stack a bunch of shipping boxes is your sales floor. Backroom space dedicated to stacking, unpacking, and sorting inbound stock shipments is handy, plus it keeps the mess off of your sales floor and away from customers.
This space can do double-duty as a packing and shipping area, too. If you’re planning to sell online through your own ecommerce website or on Amazon, Etsy, or Ebay, you’ll appreciate this area. Outfit it with a small utility table and store shipping boxes, tape, and other packing materials underneath to make shipping online orders quick and easy.
Office Workspace Options
Nowadays, laptops and compact POS systems make large desks laden with computer equipment obsolete. In most cases, a compact desk area fills the need while leaving limited backroom space open for storage, shipping, and receiving. Two small file cabinets topped with an inexpensive desktop works well for this. Or in tight quarters, a compact bar-height table and stool beside a tall file cabinet topped with a printer can provide all the workspace needed.
Store Planning Resources to Check Out
Whether you plan to go it alone or hire a professional, there are many resources available to help you plan and execute your retail store layout. If you don’t feel comfortable tackling the project yourself, a professional retail store planner, interior designer, or display designer can turn your dreams into reality. Or if you want to handle it all yourself, store planning software and other online idea resources can make the job easier.
Here are some store layout and planning resources to help you get started:
Independent Retail Store Designers
If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of planning your store layout yourself, professional designers can help. Yes, the upfront cost is greater than going it alone; expect to spend $150 per hour or more on a qualified designer. But hiring a pro can save you time and money in the long run by designing your store right from the start.
Here are some places to start your store designer search:
The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) is the leading professional association for interior designers. Note, you’ll want a designer that has commercial and, preferably, retail store design experience since residential and retail design needs differ greatly. You can review and contact interior design professionals by region here.
Display Company Design Services
Many retail fixture and display companies provide store planning and design services to their customers. Though typically not free, these in-house design services can be far less expensive than hiring an independent designer. Plus, they can help streamline the process of store layout and planning, and the purchasing and installation of displays and fixtures.
Store Planning Software
Store planning software is a valuable tool if you decide to tackle retail store layout and design yourself. There are several free and paid packages to choose from, and they vary in complexity. Some can be used online, while others must be downloaded. Here are a few store planning software tools to consider:
Another great source of store design inspiration is your product vendors and their line reps. After all, your success is their success, so they’re usually happy to share store design and merchandising ideas. Many provide retailers with free or low-cost branded display units, too. Some line reps will even assist you in product mapping your store, display setup, and replenishment. It never hurts to ask!
Pinterest and Other Idea Sources
Sometimes you just know it when you see it. So always be prepared to capture pictures and take notes when you see store features that you’d like to try out yourself. And don’t forget the many online resources out there. Settle down with a cup of coffee and scroll through Pinterest for a treasure trove of store design ideas. Here’s a great board to get you started. Or get inspired by the many hip retail store designs on the Retail Design Blog.
The Bottom Line
Planning your store layout is no small task, but many small retail store owners do it all themselves with great success. So why not you? It’s not an overwhelming project if you’re mindful of these store design basics and tips from the pros:
- Choose a store floor plan and layout that works with your space, complements your brand and product mix, and accommodates traffic flow
- Take the time to explore your layout options on paper or in store layout software before purchasing displays and fixtures
- Ensure that your store aisles and pathways are at least three feet, six inches in width to ensure smooth traffic flow, meet ADA requirements, and avoid the dreaded butt brush!
- Understand common customer behaviors and design your store accordingly with power walls, speed bumps, merchandise outposts, and checkout areas in key locations
- Choose store fixtures and displays that highlight and adequately handle products without overshadowing them
- Opt for versatile, adjustable displays in high-value spots to accommodate all types of featured products
- Provide comforts and amenities such as seating, roomy dressing areas, and generous checkout counters
- Optimize your checkout space with a Lightspeed POS system
- Maximize limited backroom space efficiently for office, storage, shipping, and receiving needs
With the ideas in this guide and a little elbow grease, you’ll soon be on your way to mapping out a retail store that’s easy to navigate, welcoming to customers, and best of all: profitable.
Looking for a retail space to lease for your business? Read our article on How To Find and Lease Retail Space.