The backbar of any outlet can be used to make up the minds of uncertain customers. John Porter reports on how licensees can best take advantage.
However far the industry has come, it seems the way most pubs approach their key selling space hasn't really changed since Sherlock Holmes used to pop into his Baker Street local for a swift half with the Artful Dodger.
John Cooke, director of consultancy at McNally Design Group, believes: "The theory of backbar design really hasn't evolved over the last 130 years. Since the Victorian era, we have become habitually inclined to create a series of shelving units on which we place an eclectic mix of spirits bottles, dodgy branded point-of-sale (PoS) material and bric-a-brac."
John believes this old fashioned approach is made all the more apparent by the fact that consumer expectations have been raised by the progress of merchandising techniques in the retail sector.
"If we look at the sophistication demonstrated by the main supermarket chains we see that the pub industry is light years behind in strategic merchandising," he said. "Since the late 1950s, the supermarkets have invested huge resources into understanding the cues and codes that trigger consumer purchase. They now have an intimate understanding of how the customer travels through their outlets, what their visual patterns are and what signals stimulate impulse purchasing.
"The backbar is, in effect, the shop window of the outlet. Operators can miss significant opportunities by not understanding the potential that strategic merchandising can offer."
McNally, which has worked on outlet designs for pub and bar operators such as Yates Group and Chorion, as well as for brand owners such as UDV, is not advocating the complete abolition of toby jugs, horse brasses and other classic pub clutter. It is simply that the backbar is really not the right place for them, argues John. "The style bar sector has led the way in showing how effective a clean, uncluttered design can be in communicating their spirit-driven offer," he said.
While the approach may have to be adapted for a more traditional pub, the theory holds true. "Less is more," John added. "It's about cleaning up the visual blur. The difficulty with a lot of operators is that there is too much inappropriate stuff to look at. There is a huge amount of graphics and visual noise, which just confuses the customer."
If the customer is hell-bent on ordering a half of lager and lime, none of this really matters. However, research indicates that many customers are not entirely certain what they plan to order until they reach the bar.
This creates a limited window of opportunity to use visual cues to persuade the customer to trade up or vary his other drinking repertoire. A simple brand message could convert that half into a higher margin product, such as a pint of premium lager or a FAB.
On the other hand, confusion about what is on offer will make the consumer opt for a familiar, "default" purchase.
McNally Design's experience also suggests that the quality of PoS material is also very important. "Cheap, temporary PoS will be just that - temporary," said John. "It probably won't last any longer than the next brand rep who comes in and replaces it. Most PoS is also designed to be generic, so it may not fit in with the overall image of the venue. I think brand owners are becoming more tuned in to the benefits of PoS which is tailored to the venue, and at the same time operators are becoming more discerning about the quality of the visual merchandising they use."
John expects drinks brand owners, who until now have been given a more-or-less clear run by pub operators, to have to work much harder in future to come up with tailored PoS offers which do not clash with the outlet's image. One reason why such clashes occur may simply be down to human nature - no matter how good the intention, in practice standards tend to slip.
Once the original design concept is handed over, it becomes a real-world working environment. "The manager might give prominence to a promotion from a supplier he knows well," John said. "The keys get left on the shelf behind the bar, or a card of peanuts is hung up. The purity of the original design is diluted very quickly.
"One issue for the industry to address is that bar managers tend to be good hosts, good at dealing with people, but not necessarily good at understanding the principles of visual merchandising and PoS. It's a training issue."
John suggests the following points to help pub operators stay in control of their shop window - the backbar:
- we know that the customer becomes blinded and confused by an array of products haphazardly presented before them. Simplify the product range by creating strong blocks of product by category, and arrange these blocks from the centre outwards, as a series of hotspots along the backbar. Remember to rationalise the blocks by profitability and popularity
- pay proper attention to illumination of the product range. Less is more in this situation - don't overstock, and eliminate clutter
- the height of a display also plays an important role. Make sure the customer can clearly see the merchandising
- consider flexible merchandising strategies to suit the time of day. Align your offer to suit the customer's needs across the day and across the week
- if you need to display PoS materials, try allocating a dedicated space to this - and stick to it.
For more details on McNally Design, take a look at A design for life