Morrison’s Supermarket – A Case Study In Usability


At first glance this may have little to do with programming, and just an excuse to have a bit of a rant about something that annoys me.

The new logo introduced at Morrisons under his...

Image via Wikipedia

But after thinking about it I realised that the Morrison’s shopping experience is actually quite a good case study in usability. Usability is a term often coined for web pages, electronic gadget interfaces, and other technological related artefacts, but can apply equally to every-day non-technological experiences – like shopping at a supermarket.

The observations I make in this article are based on my shopping experiences in a Morrison’s store on the east side of Edinburgh (Street View, Satelite View). I have no experience of other Morrison’s stores, but given that most companies strive for a particular brand perception, it is not aufair assume a similar experience elsewhere.

So how do we relate this back to the usability world? Well, any application/web page must have first-time users at some point. It relies on the good-will and continual visits of these users.

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Good applications and interfaces are memorable and embed themselves fondly within society’s consciousness. Apple’s ‘i’ generation (iPod, iPhone and iPad) are spectacularly popular and are based on a very simple interface. The term “Sky+ it” has become synonymous with the on-demand simple play-back mechanism that their Sky+ box provides. Again, the interface is simple and intuitive.

Bad applications have a lasting legacy. Back in an earlier stage of my career I used a version control system called PVCS. Suffice to say, my experiences of it were far from positive. My perception never changed and my good-will was compromised. When I came to use a new updated version, I carried these bad feelings across nearly a decade and there was nothing the new version did to ameliorate these.

A supermarket is like a giant user-interface; there are many interaction points both outside and inside. From the car-park to the trolley park, inside with the shelves and product placement, the various food counters and the payment and checkout. Even ingress and egress have usability factors to be considered.

Fundamentally, the way a supermarket regards its ‘interface’ is a reflection of its design and its regard for its clientele.

Shall we begin?

The Logo

Before we even pass into the supermarket realm, its logo is the first thing that most of us will perceive. Morrison’s logo is an interesting one that perhaps warrants a further discussion.

Two years after their successful takeover of the Safeway supermarket chain in 2005, Morrison’s launched a major rebranding initiative, replacing their distinctive yellow and black logo, with a similar, but softer yellow and green affair.

And probably quite a good thing as well.

The psychology of colour in logos insist that yellow is symbolic of positivity, optimism, akin to a bright summers day, and that black evokes authority, boldness, elegance and style, however the two combine very differently in my perception.

In nature, Yellow and black is almost invariably a warning. Consider:

And in British society, yellow and black combined are rarely positive. For example:

Monster Raving Loony Shop

Monster Raving Loony Shop

But this has all changed now. Black is the new green (except when its dark and poorly lit). So what of this? Well, the Morrison’s logo has been changed to adopt a more analogous color scheme, i.e. it combines colours that are close together on the Colour Wheel. These combinations are more prevalent in nature, and as such are believed to be more pleasing to the eye.

And, when I started to think of yellow and green ‘things’, the list was certainly less offensive:

  • John Deere Tractors
  • Brazil Football Strip
  • Meadows and wild flowers
  • Aurora Borealis
  • Tropical Birds

Of course, in cartoons, characters tend to go yellow and green when they are feeling sick, but its an improvement on black and yellow for a logo, I think.

An Enforced Shopping Experience

All supermarkets attempt to ‘encourage’ you to shop in a way that they would prefer. Quite often, the genius of this is that it goes undetected by the average shopper. The organisation of departments, the placement of products, the lighting, even the presence of music all combine to insinuate more money from your pocket. More can be found at this excellent article on Supermarket Pyschology at TribalInsight.

But it does work both ways. Everything a supermarket does to dictate our shopping experiences also makes a statement about their perception of the clientele that frequent their store. The more subtle and open the experience, the greater the compliment the supermarket is paying those that frequent it.

The shopping experience at my local Morrison’s is one of blatant and almost unashamed restriction and control. As a customer, I am personally offended by the endorsements and checks that I must have to go through simply to provide them with custom.

The following sections describe in detail the articles of my disquiet.

The Entrance

There are two doors at the entrance to Morrison’s. One would have thought that to welcome you into their store, Morrison’s would have been happy to let you in by either. Not so. You are forced to enter via the doors on the opposite side to 70% of the car park.

So you enter the store, but realise that maybe you need a trolley, so need to exit. But there are gates inside that so warmly opened for you are now shut, barring your exit. So you go round to the tills. The unopened tills also have gates barring your exit. Morrison’s seems to be implying that if you are trying to leave without paying then you are most probably a shoplifter. To exit via the open tills you have to squeeze past other customers. Were it not for the new self-service checkouts (coming later) then you would be left with the impression that Morrison’s were trying to trap you in their store.

Having decided that you want a trolley, you leave via the exit that Morrison’s dictates, cross through the people who are coming in via the enforced entrance, and make your way to the trolleys. You then find out that you have to pay a £1 deposit. If you are struggling with a small child at this point (which I was) with no money (which I had) then, while struggling with said child you have to:

  1. Queue for the cash machine and withdraw money
  2. Go back into the store
  3. Queue for the kiosk and ask for the change.
  4. Exit the store
  5. While struggling with said child put the money into trolley release mechanism
  6. Pull trolley out.
  7. Go back into the store again

By implication Morrison’s are stating that either:

  1. Our customers are likely to be criminal bent on stealing trolleys, or
  2. Our customers are too lazy to put the trolleys back in the allotted slots, or
  3. Our customers are too fat and need the exercise

Remember, we’ve not actually bought anything yet. Already I’m annoyed, before I’ve even started to spend money.

Human Beings Rarely Look Up

Lord Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron and founder of the Scouting movement, once observed that human beings rarely look up, and therefore much that happens overhead escapes them.

his Is What Happens When You Let Developers Create UI

Image via CodingHorror

I looked up in Morrison’s for the first time the other day and observed the plethoric myriad of banners hanging from the ceiling like warped, distorted, ceremonial corporate stalactites.

I had honestly never noticed these before.

A user-interface designer will be aware to avoid busy and overcrowded screens. Moreover, they will be aware that a repetition of pop-up messages will eventually subject the user to selective blindness. People will dismiss the message without a glance or a second thought.

Less is more (and vice versa!) from a UI perspective. The adjacent (and wonderfully hideous) UI described in Jeff Attwood’s CodingHorror blog is testament to what happens when a non-skilled UI person creates a UI.

Consider the modern interfaces like those from Apple. The iPod, iPad and iPhone are all testament to a beautiful simplicity. This simplicity is hard to come by. It takes a lot of hard work, many iterations of thinking and a lot of discipline. The Morrison’s overhead banner overload fails spectacularly in demonstrating any of these traits and succeeds only in numbing the senses of the shopper.

Danish with icing.

Image via Wikipedia

Enforced Product Grouping

I like cakes. Is a weakness I must confess. I’m especially partial to pastry dishes, and the cinnamon swirls and pecan Dansihes rank among my favourites. But I’m not too greedy and quite often I want to buy just one, not two or three. But, Morrison’s only sells them in packs of three!

However, the packaging proudly proclaims “3 for 2”. So, if I buy two, I get a third free. Eh? But I can’t even buy one! I’ve never seen a packet of Hobnobs proclaiming “Buy 50 and get an extra 2”. Moreover, this ‘offer’ is as old as the store itself (six years). I’m sure its all perfectly legitimate, but I can’t help feeling that it’s wholly dishonest.

My son likes his bananas. But like me and my cakes, he just likes one. Morrison’s chooses bizarrely to hang them on a peg in ready-priced bunches as if to say – “this is how we would prefer you buy our bananas” – yet another assertion of control. It’s possible to split them up as you choose, but this:

  1. Makes a mockery of the time originally spent by the staff member who priced it up, and
  2. Leaves open the possibility that the next customer will overpay for a bunch that has the banana removed.

Now, you might say that someone who removes a banana from a bunch should have the scruples to remove the price as well. Possibly, but the fact that you are rebelling against the Morrison’s boot-camp shopping experience might make you inherently reticent to do so. Like if someone spots you, you might get into trouble or subject to the assumption you are committing some sort of crime.

When users are forced to use an interface they are not used to, or is contrary to the way they expect it to work, they will rapidly acquire frustration. Users of the Windows operating system quickly get annoyed when trying to operate a Mac, and vice-versa. Also, how do you feel for the first few weeks after getting a new phone? The text messaging interface is different, so you end up making mistakes, the contacts are in a different place, and it’s all a little upsetting

Morrison’s is like this for me. I’m too restricted. I get the feeling that ultimately, I’m not the sort of person that they want to shop at their store.

Confusing Pricing

I wanted to buy some coke last week. These come in packs of eight and twelve, but there were offers on each. These were as follows:

  • £3.75 for eight or two packs for £6.50
  • £4.75 for twelve or two packs for £7.50.

The price for a single pack of eight was also displayed in cost-per-litre, but the equivalent price for a single pack of twelve was displayed per 100ml. On neither of them was the offer cost displayed, so I was left wondering which actually was best.

I managed to work it out (2×12 is the best offer), but the endemic confusion is bound to deny many customers the opportunity to make an informed decision on the best deal for them. This may lead to them actually spending more money than they needed.

“Please Put The Item In The Bag”

But nothing yields quite as fierce splenetic juices of fury than the utterly intolerable and obtuse self-service checkouts.

I should state that I do not have a vendetta or agenda against self-service checkouts in general. When they first started popping up in Britain a few years ago they clearly needed some refinements from the user experience perspective, but most got them right after a fashion. But, the ones at Morrison’s are comfortably the worst user interface experience I have ever had.

Angry Penguin

Image via Wikipedia

I scan the first item and instinctively put it in the bag but am told to take it out, and select whether I have my own bag. Err? Surely it knows that I have just put it in the bag – it’s just told me I have. Why not infer that maybe, just maybe, I don’t have my own bag?

Frustrated, I press ‘no’. It then tells me ‘Please put the item in the bag’. Which of course I did previously before having to take it out. Surely if I knew initially I had to put it in, it’s a fair assumption that I know how to do it now?

I scan another item. Mere milliseconds after the beep it says “Please put the item in the bag.” I scan another, and again, “Please put the item in the bag.” I scan a third and put it in the bag VERY quickly. Once as it touches the bottom of the bag I am asked “Please put the item in the bag.” How quick do I have to be? I have two identical tins of tomatoes. I hold one in the bag centimetres from the bottom and the other in my hand, ready for scanning. I scan that one, while, simultaneously dropping the other, AND AM STILL TOLD “Please put the item in th…”, although I do manage to cut it short

Customers know how to put items in bags. I find the voice irritating and patronising. Ultimately, I feel that I am being treated like an idiot.

So, I reach the end of my bag, and there is space for just one more. So, I lift by bag off the scales. As I do this, I am greeted with two messages. “Please scan the item or select payment method” (I’m not scanning items fast enough). And the “Please put the item back in the bag”. I’m not taking anything out of the bag! I’m moving it. So I put it down, and third message is parrotted: “Unexpected item in bagging area”. AHHHHHHH! I then have to wait. The assistant is dealing with another customer. Eventually, they clear the error and I continue with my bag in the correct place.

I continue scanning, but the empty bag at the front isn’t open. “Please put the item in the bag.” I’M TRYING. “Please scan the item or select payment method.” SHUT UP!

Finally, nearly a broken man, I finish. I insert my card. “Please scan the item or select payment method.” I’ve put my card in, surely the machine can assume I’m wanting to pay? No?

I’m actually getting angry writing this. Don’t forget, the checkout is often the last experience people will have before leaving the store. My experiences with this only strengthen my resolve to never return to Morrison’s

So, you say, why not just use a checkout manned by an operator? Well, quite often there’s a hug queue, and quite often I only have a few items. Also, I’m not allowed to pay for groceries at the kiosk. Morrison’s informs me on at least three signs around the kiosk that this is the case. The kiosk operator is twiddling their thumbs, the checkouts are furiously busy, and no one is allowed to make a quick payment at the kiosk. Nonsense!

The Mystery of Morrison’s Miles

Maybe someone can explain this to me. I spend £50 filling up the tank on my car, and I get what seems like several million points which translates to about ten pence towards the cost of a future tank, but not until I’ve reached £1.

Or something.

No, I don’t get it. Sorry. Why not 1 point = 1 pence? And why not make it so I can spend this in store. Morrison’s Miles is like a third rate petrol loyalty scheme with more smoke and mirrors than an illusionist’s boudoir.

Ultimately, loyalty schemes take time and money to set up and run. One major supermarket chain deliberately shuns them claiming they’d rather just pass on the hundreds of millions dedicated to the scheme to everyday customers. Furthermore, petrol rarely engenders any sort of brand loyalty i.e. no-one shops at Esso or Shell, because they prefer Esso or Shell petrol. Quite simply, people shop for where the petrol is cheapest, not where they can have an occasional few pence off a litre of petrol. Even if I were to reap the rewards of this scheme on a monthly basis, I would save a paltry £2 per month.

Given all of this, I find it very hard to accept that Morrison’s miles are anything other than useless, confusing, an utter waste of time, money and resources. For me, the most useful employment of my Morrison’s Miles card is to scrape the ice off my car in the morning. In the summer time it’s a waste of wallet space and the marginal extra energy it takes me to chauffeur the card around on my daily routine.

So, what of usability? Well, consider an application that is rich in features and functionality. Very few people will use all of the features available to the application, and in fact most people will use less than half. The 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle) is often cited in these circumstances. In software systems the rule implies that 80% of the people use only 20% of the functionality (and, by implication, vice-versa).

There is much conjecture regarding the veracity of this (see Bloatware and the 80/20 Myth), but ‘Bloatware’ is a problem that is as relevant to today than in ever has been. The term ‘Bloatware’, generally refers to the footprint of an application (in terms of disk space) in relation to the proportion of its features that are regularly used. An application rich in features that are useless or never used can be said to be bloated.

An application that is over-rich with infrequently used features rarely excels in promoting its most commonly used ones. Most often, all functionality will be given equal precedence and will obfuscate the limited subset of useful functionality from the user. Needless to say, from a usability perspective, this is bad.

By logical extension, the ‘Morrison’s Miles’ scheme is the ‘Bloat’, inherently making Morrison’s itself the ‘Bloatware’. Morrison’s Miles is the subset of ‘functionality’ that Morrison’s provides that adds little or no value, and actually just confuses the customer.

Closing Time

As well as restricting your experience when you are on their premises, Morrison’s sets its own unique agenda with regard to when you can visit the shop.

My local Morrison’s shuts at 8pm some nights and at 9pm on others. I’m not sure which, so I just assume its 8pm every night – its safer and avoids the very marginal disappointment I suffer when I found out I’m unable to enter their broader sphere of control.

By beef is not that they shut ‘early’, it’s that they shut ‘earlier’. On most nights ever major supermarket chains within a realistic driving distance from my house open at least two hours later than Morrison’s.

This restriction of access can be bourne out in the digital world also. Given two identical web pages, where one requires registration and the other does not, which will you choose? The latter of course. Access is instant, with no hassle or the worry of how your details are being used. Furthermore, if the pages appear closely in future internet search results, you will feel more inclined to visit this site.

A Final Word

Above all,  the message that I have been trying to convey is that if you are too draconian in restricting your user experience, then you end up alienating the very people you are trying to serve. Conversely, though, if you bombard users with too many options then your are in danger of breeding confusion.

Good user interfaces are a trade-off between different factors, and are often an art and very difficult to teach. Good design principles, psychology, ergonomics and artistic flair all play a part.

Of these factors, the Morrison’s shopping experience is engineered closest to the psychological aspects. Its functional, dictatorial and wholly orchestrated.

User interfaces are everywhere and not just on gadgets. A door has a user interface. If it has to instruct you on which way it opens then it has already failed. The best doors don’t even require any conscious interaction – they just open for you!

I hope you have found this interesting. Please feel free to disagree 🙂

2 thoughts on “Morrison’s Supermarket – A Case Study In Usability

  1. great stuff – just found your blog and enjoying it!

    My great beef is Boots. Working in Marketing, I was once told by someone from Boots that they know men can’t find their way around the store. The layout is influenced by their target market – women and reflects what works for them.

    Which it was great to discover, because I can never find anything in Boots!

    I also spent ages explaining to their store manager once that they had a problem with their cold drinks – people weren’t grabbing the drink at the front of the display in the fridge, instead there is a sort of pyramid effect reaching through towards the back of the fridge, which is where the drinks are cold(er) – not the front of the display. The manager was amazed at this insight, but they haven’t made the fridges colder…..

  2. Totally agree re self service checkouts, whatever the store – Sainsbury’s, Tescos etc. I am having a long running battle with my local store to provide at least 2 “basket only” checkouts instead of their measly 1,the queue for which is always long – an indication that self service check outs are obviously not popular. I become equally annoyed at being told to “remove unauthorised item from bagging area” when I have innocently placed my recycled bag there in order to pack my shopping. Invariably I have to call the assistant to “assist”.

    Is it a vain wish that supermarkets would listen to their customers to make shopping a less stressful experience? I suspect that is a wish unlikely to be granted!

Leave a Reply