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Any schoolchild can tell you: We have four seasons. But retailers would be quick to disagree. Instead, they usually define around 13 seasons per year, and they use these seasons to justify changes to their store atmosphere that will encourage customers to make impulsive purchases.

With seasonal displays, retailers give customers a chance to see something new and exciting; Kleenex’s summertime box with ice cream cones appears just as the warm weather starts, often in the ice cream aisle, to encourage shoppers to grab an extra, cutely decorated box. When students head off to college, they have little interest in their parents’ vacuum, so the appliances on display are hot pink and teal, not boring old black or gray.

The shifts and changes are far from arbitrary. Retail chains maintain “lab stores” where they recreate store environments to experiment with endcaps and exciting displays of seasonal and new merchandise. They also know that customers visit grocery stores every 7 to 10 days on average, and they get to a big box store every two to three weeks. These intervals are the time the retailer has to give the customer something new and exciting; even if they visit for specific purposes, customers are likely to consider alternatives if the display is interesting enough.

In this effort, endcaps are key real estate. Sales of items displayed in these areas are three times higher than sales from other space. Yet impulse purchases are becoming somewhat more rare, falling to 15 percent of purchases in 2010, from 29 percent in 2008.

Retailers thus need to keep working to find ways to encourage customers to buy. Sam’s Club undertakes 20 seasons, with nearly constant changes to the store. Target carefully localizes its seasonal displays to ensure they are relevant to its target customers. For example, local store managers collect nearby schools’ back-to-school supply lists and create Back to School displays that make it easy for parents to grab all the products on these lists—and maybe a couple of things for mom and dad too.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why do retailers create so many seasons in their store throughout the year?

2. Are there any potential downsides to so many seasons?

Sarah Nassauer, “A Season (or 13) for Shopping,” The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2011.