Harper Grey: Room to Roam


The Savvy Shopper - Harper Grey

Emory University reports that only about 4 percent of Americans suffer from full-blown claustrophobia. These people can experience panic attacks in close spaces such as elevators. I don’t consider myself to be one of the 4 percent of claustrophobic Americans, but an experience earlier this week made me think about personal space and crowding.

Retail Claustrophobia

You might not think that a large department store would induce feelings of claustrophobia. I certainly didn’t. I accompanied my friend Amanda (a new mom with an adorable baby girl) to a large, upscale department store to find cute new baby clothes. Amanda was laden with a largish diaper bag slung over her shoulder, and the babe was tucked into a state-of-the-art stroller. We took the elevator down to the lower floor and stepped into baby-clothes heaven. From the main aisle, we could see a large assortment of beautiful baby dresses and matching accessories, pleasingly arranged on a display wall. Strains of Brahms lullabies played softly in the background, and soft stuffed animals adorned every shelf.

We began wading through the racks that were arranged between the main aisle and the display. There were lots of racks. Lots and lots. And they seemed to be placed really close together. We finally made it through the maze of racks to the display and began to look through dresses when Amanda’s cell phone rang. I took over the job of navigating the stroller while she assured her mother-in-law that she was thoroughly sterilizing every last baby item and taking excellent care of the new little princess.

As I tried to navigate the stroller between racks, I found that there were some paths I simply could not access without turning my body sideways to get through. Needless to say, this was impossible with a stroller (even a state-of-the-art, super-slim stroller with special navigation wheels). In addition to the super-crowded placement of the racks, the carpeting was thick and plush—nice on the feet, but difficult for the stroller to roll over. I was knocking little baby frocks onto the floor with every movement. I noticed a few other moms with strollers having the same issue. What to do? Do you leave your baby in her stroller on the main aisle so you can wade three racks in to look at stuff, or do you just skip the racks you can’t get to?

The store we were shopping in is not a discount barn with cut-rate prices. It’s a high-end department store that offers little sun dresses for three-month-old babies at the price of $85 and up. Apparently, they had so many little sun dresses that they needed thirty-five clothing racks in a small space. I should note that, in other departments such as women’s shoes and clothing, the racks are spaced much more generously.

After about fifteen minutes of this navigating madness (should shopping really be this physically demanding?), I began to feel unwell. While I wouldn’t call it panic, I was certainly feeling anxious. When Amanda got off the phone, I suggested that we leave the store and find a different shop in which to drop $300 on baby dresses. Amanda agreed, and promptly found a baby boutique where we were able to shop comfortably. Ironically, the square footage of the baby boutique was about one-tenth the size of the department store’s baby department.

I’ve shopped at stores with my teenaged daughter where the racks are crammed together. In fact, most stores catering to teenagers seem to pack the racks together. The teenagers don’t seem to mind, but they usually don’t carry much with them and have the ability to wade through the fray without worrying about where to put a stroller. I do OK in those crammed teen outlets, at least for a few minutes while my daughter finds a few things that she absolutely can’t live without. But at the department store, I was beginning to feel noticeably uncomfortable and stressed. Why?

Negative Feelings

A study at the University of Cincinnati found that shoppers experienced negative feelings when they were crowded by people or store fixtures. The researchers note,

“When density (the number of people and objects in a limited space) restricts or interferes with activities, or when the amount of environmental stimuli exceeds coping capacities, feelings of crowding will be experienced.”

The study also found that shoppers who expected a store to feel less crowded than it actually was were more likely to be dissatisfied. So, since I was shopping at a large department store where the other areas were more spacious, I expected the infant’s department to be spacious, too. When it wasn’t, I experienced dissatisfaction. Had I been shopping at Hip Teen World I would have expected to find crammed racks and the crowding probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much.


If you own a retail store, take a moment to think about your clientele. Do you have lots of moms with strollers and toddlers? If so, leave plenty of room to navigate. Other customers may require extra room for navigation: people with canes, walkers or  wheelchairs will quickly be frustrated if there’s no room to move about.

Give your customers plenty of room to roam throughout your store, and they will. And the more they roam, the more they’ll find to buy.