Applying store decompression zones for online retail

Paco Underhill, the author of “Why we buy” is a master in the “Science of Shopping.” I have recently been reading his book and considering how many of his ‘bricks and mortar’ theories can be applied to the online store.

Last night I was revisiting the section on ‘decompression zones’ within a store and how to use them effectively. If you’re wondering, the decompression zone in a store is the area just inside the entrance. It is the area that is used to welcome and acclimatise customers and drive them to the right part of the store. It is key to maximising sales from each customer.

Paco says that as customers enter this part of the store they are:

“busily making adjustments-simultaneously they’re slowing their pace, adjusting their eyes to the change in light and scale, and craning their necks to begin taking in all there is to see. Meanwhile, their ears and noses and nerve endings are sorting out the rest of the stimuli-analysing the sounds and smells, judging whether the store is warm or cold. There’s a lot going on, in other words, and I can pretty much promise you this: These people are not truly in the store yet.”

What Paco is saying is that it takes a while for customers to adjust to being in the store. Therefore to bombard them with merchandise, messaging or staff too quickly will be a waste of effort, or in some cases a big turn off.

In the online world, it is only the sense of sight that has to adjust to entering a website, but often there is still a sensory overload that needs to be processed by the brain in exactly the same way. Therefore, should there be an online decompression zone to allow site visitors to acclimatise before being bombarded with merchandise or messaging?

Is the home page your key selling area, or should you save your core messaging for inner pages and let the home page act as a decompression zone to then drive people to the right areas of the online store to make their purchase?

Studies have shown that in the bricks and mortar world those companies that have got the decompression zone wrong have found sales massively effected. Companies have placed sales literature in that zone only to have it ignored. Companies who have had staff greet customers straight away actually ended up alienating them. This is similar to having a pop up on your home page. How do you think interrupting visitors before they have had a chance to acclimatise to your online store will affect conversion rates?

Applying decompression zones online

Paco makes suggestions of what you can do with the decompression zone within a store that I believe could be applied online.

“You can greet customers – not necessarily to steer them anywhere but to say hello, remind them where they are, start the seduction”

This recommendation can absolutely be applied online. It is fundamental that when people enter your site that you greet them or welcome them, make them feel wanted and also let them know what they can do in the store.

“You can offer a basket or a map or coupon.”

OK, so the basket may not be so useful online but having a coupon/offer on the home page could increase the basket size by encouraging the visitor to buy something else in addition to the product they came in for. Offering a map to the store is of course crucial online, whether that is just a prominent link to a site map or more importantly having well laid out navigational links to make it really easy to find products. A well constructed site will have both.

Visual merchandising is understandably a fundamental part of the decompression zone:

“Right inside the door of an H&M, Gap or Wal-Mart, there’s what’s known as a “power display” a huge horizontal bank of sweaters, or jeans or cans of Coke, that acts as a barrier to slow shoppers down, kind of like a speed bump. It also functions as a huge billboard. It doesn’t say “Shop me.” It says “Just consider the idea.” Is serves as a suggestion, plan and simple, and it also gets you in the mood for the rest of the store. You can catch up with the product later, at another time, typically in another section of the floor. Remember that more than 60 percent of what we buy wasn’t on our list. And no, this isn’t the same as an impulse purchase. It’s triggered by something proposing the question “Don’t you need this? If not now then maybe in the near future?”

This is how visual merchandising should work on your site as well. If you view your home page as a decompression zone then consider the way you want to merchandise within that section. You want to allow visitors to acclimatise to the site but also make subtle suggestions of what they may like to buy, in addition to what they actually came for. Don’t bombard them with products, just give subtle suggestions, whilst clearly directing visitors to the relevant part of the store they require.

An extension of this in an online store is ‘dynamic merchandising’. Average order value is proven to increase with the visual suggestions of products that “complement” or products that “other people bought”. This would be too much to do on the home page/decompression zone but a great sales tool as visitors move through the site into categories and product specific pages.

How do some of the major retailers stand up?

So let’s look at some of the major retailers and whether they have applied my ideas around the decompression zone online:

John Lewis

There is definitely an air of the decompression zone on the John Lewis site. When you enter you are not overpowered with sales messaging or a multitude of products. There is a suggestion of specific products that you may have not been intending to buy but they do not form a barrier in moving to the part of the site you are looking for. Once you are used to the site there is sales messaging towards the bottom (in the red box) but its positioning allows you to acclimatise to the site first.

One thing missing is a welcome message to help you feel comfortable and at ease.

Marks and Spencer

The M & S site certainly does not allow you to decompress before hitting you with sales messaging, although it does not bombard you with a myriad of products straight away.

The sales messaging hits you straight away but the links within the image to product sections prevents the image from being a barrier to moving to the relevant parts of the store.

The offers appear very high on the page, akin to being placed right inside the door of a physical store. Perhaps as a result of this they may be missed by a number of visitors. Perhaps M & S are missing a trick here with no subtle product placement. It would be interesting to revisit once the the sale is over.


Gap have been sighted as using the “Power Display” in the decompression zone in store as a billboard for suggested products and to slow down movement through the store.

This type of activity is also present online with the “Back to School” power display on the home page. You may not have entered intending to buy school uniform items but the thought is now present in your mind that you need to get that sorted over the summer break, perhaps even right now!

The sales messaging is on the right hand side giving you a little acclimatisation time before your eye hits it.

The pop up hits immediately which does act as a barrier to moving through the site. It is important to gather email addresses for marketing purposes but hitting people with it immediately may be off putting and disruptive to the passage through the site.

I Want One Of Those

I Want One Of Those is a pure online retailer and has a very different home page layout. The page is packed with products and hotspots bombarding the visitor as soon as they hit the online store. There is little chance to acclimatise to the site. I wonder how this affects the online experience. How many of these messages are being missed as people head through looking for a particular product and perhaps ignoring the promotional banners present on the homepage.

There does not seem to be any strong welcome to the site before the visitor is hit with merchandise.

Not On The High Street

Not On The High Street is another pure online retailer and again the home page is very product focused hitting the visitor with a range of products as soon as they enter the store. Sales messaging is displayed at points on the page that are viewed slightly later however I wonder how much acclimatisation is made before the visitor feels overwhelmed. Does this lack of decompression zone affect the store experience and if so in what way? They may sell more of the promoted products but by putting them in the way of the customer are they preventing them from also purchasing the products they entered the store for in the first place?


I am not drawing any firm conclusions from this very brief study but I do think it is interesting that those retailers that have a large offline store presence do seem to be setting up their home pages in more of a offline-decompression-zone-style than those pure online retailers that will not be used to using this tactic in physical stores.

Is a decompression zone even required with an online experience? I would argue yes, there is a definite need to allow visitors to acclimatise in some form before hitting them with sales messaging and merchandise. The home page should never be a barrier to finding products but more an entrance zone that will welcome you to the store, help you move through the site, suggest additional purchases and provide incentives, such as vouchers, all aimed at improving the shopping experience.

Should the idea of the decompression zone be applied to every page? Or is it unnecessary when people are entering specific product pages having already searched for the product?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Is the decompression zone a concept that should be applied with the online retail experience or is the online experience so different that to hit people with merchandise and messaging straight away provides the highest conversion rate or average order values?

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