The (annoying) genius of IKEA

Image of an Ikea store
Shopping here makes me frIKEAn crazy!

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA store, then you know that once you’re in the showroom, it’s not immediately apparent how to cut quickly to the checkouts.  Instead, you are directed through aspirational kitchens and bathrooms and past a vast number of furniture displays.  The average shopping experience at IKEA takes over 1/2 hour and most people invariably come out with lots of things they didn’t plan to buy.

There are plenty of short cuts to allow people out, but they are always cleverly located behind you – in the direction opposite from the arrows that lead you through the showroom floor.  As a result, people just don’t notice them.  IKEA didn’t do it to annoy people (contrary to popular belief), it’s that, as humans, our forward-facing vision is the key to why we all follow the windy route through the showroom.

Credit IKEA for making displays that attract your attention and convince you to purchase items that you didn’t intend to buy (which may be because shoppers enjoy the feeling of delayed gratification – the sense they’ve invested enough time to earn the purchase of additional items), but credit science for the process that got you there in the first place.

Stores, amusement parks, museums, casinos, you name it, all attempt to steer people down a selected path towards a specific goal.  Visual cues, sound, smells, etc. all play an important part in the psychology of why people move certain directions.  Ancient peoples drove people in certain directions for ceremonial purposes – so modern marketing concepts of getting people from point a to point b are nothing new.  What is interesting is that the underlying model for the way people move may be changing.

Forget external influences for now – if you had people standing in a field and left them alone to wander, scientists believe that people would move from place to place in a random way.  They base their models on a description of random movement borrowed from physics, called Brownian motion, which can accurately describe many diffusion situations, such as the movement of ink blotting through paper, smoke in the air or pollen grains floating on the surface of a pond.  In Brownian motion the probability of taking a step of a particular length follows what statisticians call a normal distribution, meaning that the particle will take short to medium length steps and a much lower probability that it will take very long steps.

However, recent studies have shown that the random movement of people better match a Levy flight model.  Named after French mathematician Paul Levy, this describes a special kind of random motion comprised of short jumps that cluster in a small area interspersed with long leaps to a new area.  In a Levy flight, the probability of taking a step of a particular length follows a power law distribution, meaning that very short steps and very long steps are more likely than in Brownian motion, and medium length steps are less likely.

Understanding the basic nature of the way we move as humans can help agencies design more effective environments.  Alan Penn, an architect from University College London, analyzed the layout of city shops and showed that they tend to form a blotchy pattern resembling a Levy flight distribution.  “Shops that are similar tend to group together.  This means they compete, but they also attract the crowds.”  It turns out that shops are easier to find if they are distributed in a pattern that mirrors the natural way we look for things, says Penn.  That’s why there is often a Target next to a Wal-Mart and a Bank of America near a Chase.  On a smaller scale, you can observe the same pattern in a market with fruit and vegetable stalls in one corner, fish in one spot and meat in another.  Quite simply, it turns out that humans like the efficiency of clusters to help us shop.

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