Retail tricks of the trade
February 21, 2006 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I would like to learn more retail secrets like this.

What else are retailers hiding in plain sight? What are their merchandising / store layout secrets? I ask because just walking into Target makes me feel like...a Target.
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've read that a lot of stores have a secret code for the P.A. system... so when you hear "Susan to Aisle 3" for example, that means there's a potential shoplifter in aisle 3.
posted by Robot Johnny at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2006

I used to work at Powell's books in Portland, OR and they had a general mayhem and trouble code: "if you heard Alice Austin to the Green Room" then all available employees and the security guard were supposed to flock there to the aid of their comrade in trouble.
posted by dorcas at 12:10 PM on February 21, 2006

Not so much for the "information hiding in plain sight," aspect, but if you're interested in the merchandising/layout/etc. aspects, I highly recommend Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Very informative. Just one example from the book: customers are very unlikely to notice anything to their sides for the first five feet or so upon entering the store. So don't put anything you're trying to market there, or--if the same door serves as both an entrance and exit--put any displays there facing towards the inside of the store, where the people exiting will see them.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:12 PM on February 21, 2006

My hubby worked in Fred Meyer stores in his youth; he says that their code for paging store security is "Mr Cash."
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:12 PM on February 21, 2006

Thanks for the tip DevilsAdvocate!
posted by punkfloyd at 12:15 PM on February 21, 2006

Store security at Shopko is "Mr. Roberts."
posted by Amanda B at 12:15 PM on February 21, 2006

Ditto the Paco Underhill recommendation. It's a good read.
posted by cribcage at 12:17 PM on February 21, 2006

At the retail store where I worked all though college, we used to change up our references from time to time, as after holiday workers left the store, we assumed our "secret codes" were public knowledge among the shoplifter-friendly set. We only assumed this because we had repeated issues with cash stolen from the drawer by temporary employees over the holiday season.

If I recall correctly, most of our references were to science fiction movies from the 70s and 80s. We were just that geeky.

I'm interested to know if Sam's Club and Costco have some sort of inside line on how to place things in their warehouse stores. When I lived in Stamford, Connecticut, we used to go to Costco all the time. Now that I live halfway across the country, we similarly visit Sam's Club. The interesting thing is that they stores are layed out exactly the same way.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:18 PM on February 21, 2006

Don't know how much of a secret it is, but if you hear a "code Adam" it means a kid has been reported missing. One time in Walmart (I swear I was only there to do a report on how eeeevil they are...) I heard a Code Adam called and the employees, with surprising efficiency, covered all the intersections and the store exits.

You'll almost never hear "Security" called for anything, since that's an obvious tip for the shoplifters. The one store I worked at for a week (Zayre) used "operations", so if you heard "ops to the front", that was a call to security.

Beware of asking questions. One time at Friendlies I noticed the letters "YCJCYADFMOD" on the counter. I puzzled over it for a bit and finally asked the cashier what it meant. "Your curiosity just cost you a dollar for March of Dimes." Very clever.
posted by bondcliff at 12:25 PM on February 21, 2006

The Mystery of Duane Reade
posted by sad_otter at 12:32 PM on February 21, 2006

Walmart's "code adam" is a lost child report. The doors are locked until a resolution is achieved.

Many premade sandwiches have an expiration expressed in julian date format.
posted by kc0dxh at 12:35 PM on February 21, 2006

In a similar vein to Code Adam, but not strictly retail, is Inspector Sands.
posted by grouse at 12:45 PM on February 21, 2006

A while back had a short article about drugstore pricing codes.
posted by sanitycheck at 12:46 PM on February 21, 2006

Grocery Stores: Cereals full of sugar (and therefore attractive to children) are placed at their eye level, that is closest to the floor. Adults' Grapenuts and the like on on the top shelf.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 12:49 PM on February 21, 2006

A couple of things from my time at Zellers (a Canadian chain roughly equivalent to Kmart, or maybe a small step up):

  • there would occasionally be pages of "security to department X". These were bogus calls to make it seem like there were more security staff than were actually on-duty.

  • actual security codes were like the ones already mentioned - Mr Red was fire (I think), and Mr Black was security.

  • in terms of merchandise layout: in individual departments, all merchandise was laid out according to the holy "plan-o-gram", which was a map of shelves and hooks displaying exactly how much frontage each product should get. God help you if your inventory did not match what would actually fit in the plan-o-gram. I imagine there was a store-wide equivalent that described how the departments were laid out.

  • posted by flipper at 12:56 PM on February 21, 2006

    At Sam's Club if you hear "Security Check at Area 8A" that means sales are up $8000 for the day. If you hear "Security Check at 8D" that means sales are down $8000. Obviously, the number varies based on what the actual figures are, but it's a handy way for managers to get a quick update on the numbers without having to go check it themselves. Someone from the cash office is supposed to make the announcement once an hour. It has the side effect of making shoplifters a little paranoid too.
    posted by chiababe at 1:00 PM on February 21, 2006

    thanotopsis writes "I'm interested to know if Sam's Club and Costco have some sort of inside line on how to place things in their warehouse stores. When I lived in Stamford, Connecticut, we used to go to Costco all the time. Now that I live halfway across the country, we similarly visit Sam's Club. The interesting thing is that they stores are layed out exactly the same way."

    I think they've just found a general layout that works for the warehouse stores so they stick with it. I remember the first time I went into a Costco and I felt like I was in Evil Twin Sam's because, like you said, everything was the same, but the storage steel was a different color and the layouts were mirror images.

    Full disclosure: I worked for Sam's Club for over 5 years.
    posted by chiababe at 1:06 PM on February 21, 2006

    All this stuff is a motif in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke.
    posted by blueshammer at 1:07 PM on February 21, 2006

    When I worked at Staples, a page of "Mary to Aisle 3" meant "there's someone shifty in Aisle 3; if you're free, deal with it."

    I asked if that meant they could never hire anyone named Mary. They said "pretty much."
    posted by S.C. at 1:26 PM on February 21, 2006

    I worked at a smallish grocery store chain in the midwest. We had a basic intercom system with two lines, and each handset had a red and a green indicator, one for each line. To speak to someone, you pressed a button on the handset (which fed you through to the speakers all over the store) and said, "JoeBob, green/red line please." If you had trouble and needed management quickly, you called for your own location (deli, register 3, etc) to answer the blue line (which of course did not exist).

    From the Wiki entry for Code Adam - an interesting backstory:

    Code Adam is a nationally-recognized "missing child" safety program in the United States, originally created and promoted by Wal-Mart retail stores in 1994. It is named in memory of Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old son of John Walsh, who was abducted from a Florida department store and later found murdered in 1981. Today, many department stores, retail shops, shopping malls, supermarkets, amusement parks, and museums volunteer in the Code Adam program. Also, legislation enacted by Congress in 2003 mandated that all federal office buildings employ the program.
    posted by attercoppe at 1:31 PM on February 21, 2006

    ...John Walsh, of course, being the host of America's Most Wanted.
    posted by attercoppe at 1:32 PM on February 21, 2006

    Some stores, like costco, will use the least sigificant digit to indicate information about the item status. For example, a seasonal item might be priced at $85.99 when its first in stock. Later, when stock is running low and the item isn't going to be reordered, they may change the price to $85.90 to indicate that they are about to sell out.

    That said, I don't know the exact codes for any specific merchant. I used to know what costco used.
    posted by Good Brain at 1:38 PM on February 21, 2006

    I might be wrong, but I'm recalling something like Walmart also using the last digit to indicate the status of an item. If it ends in "7" it's a normal price, otherwise it's a special of some kind...
    posted by shepd at 1:46 PM on February 21, 2006

    They use a similar thing at Sam's Club. When an item's price is normally 10.88 they'll mark it down to 10.81, where the 1 cent indicates cancelled status.

    Also, on the price signs, next to the item number there will be a single letter. A - active item, O - one time buy(when it's gone, it's gone), C - cancelled item, R - return to vendor (this item should be pulled from the floor and sent back to the vendor), D - deleted item (all the inventory that is recorded in the system has been sold and the item number will no longer exist; sometimes this will show up if there are 7 items in the store, but only 5 recorded in the inventory system).

    I was the supervisor for the inventory team. I am a retail nerd.
    posted by chiababe at 1:52 PM on February 21, 2006

    I was about to link to the drugstore pricing codes myself. I just found out a couple weeks ago that my employer does this, even though I've worked there for a couple years now.
    posted by neckro23 at 1:59 PM on February 21, 2006

    Sears also (used to? still does?) use the last digit of the price to indicate item status. 9 meant it was a regular item, 8 was special purchase usually, 7 was clearance.
    posted by kindall at 2:02 PM on February 21, 2006

    I used to work for an inventory company that counted various retail stores in the DC/MD/VA area. I seem to recall that one big box store, I think either K-Mart or Wal-Mart, had a paging system that was only numbers. The first number was the employee number, the second number was the phone line they were supposed to dial to take the call or whatever. So you'd often hear "14, 5... 14, 5" which meant something like "Jane [employee 14], please pick up line 5."

    Also, at certain stores, we were allowed to estimate the number of items if the cost was less than 25 cents per item. So, say I was counting a Home Depot (a terrible, tiring chore I might not wish on my worst enemy), and I came upon a bin of cabinet knobs. If the cost of one knob was 25 cents, I could just estimate the total number of cabinet knobs in the bin. 26 cents per knob? Count 'em all. Repeat for all bins of cabinet knobs. And nails, and screws, and hinges, etc. (Of note, physically counting every item in an entire Home Depot? Takes about 100 people and 7+ hours. And a lot of soap and water, because damn is that place dirty.)

    If you're ever in a store and you see a bookmark-like tag like this, then the store has been inventoried by that company. If you see a sign that says "DNI," usually on a display item, that generally means "Do Not Inventory."
    posted by sarahnade at 2:03 PM on February 21, 2006

    you didn't hear this from me but walmart security is "dept 50". so if you hear anything related to "dept 50" security will be around.
    posted by edmcbride at 2:14 PM on February 21, 2006

    7-Eleven started out as a dairy store in Texas - that's why when you walked into a 7-Eleven the milk was on the wall in front of you. It made you think clean and sanitary, all that white.

    Not so much anymore, though.
    posted by DandyRandy at 2:49 PM on February 21, 2006

    Walmart's "code adam" is a lost child report. The doors are locked until a resolution is achieved.

    I am very surprised teenaged kids aren't pranking this all the time.
    posted by five fresh fish at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2006

    I worked in a Tower Records store one summer while living in Annapolis, MD. The security call there was always for Russ. "Russ, pick up," i.e. pick up the nearest phone. "Russ to classical," etc. Plainclothes officers were in the store all the time because of a persistent shoplifting problem. One of the times I paged Russ myself was after watching a large man in a winter coat (which looked kind of out of place in August) palm a stack of about 10 CDs and stick them under his arm, where they vanished due to the padding in the coat and the size of his arm.
    posted by emelenjr at 3:01 PM on February 21, 2006

    I am not sure if this is urban myth or not, but supposedly staple items like milk and such are usually placed in the back of large grocery stores forcing people to walk through all the high-margin / impulse items like soda, cereal, etc.
    posted by jasondigitized at 3:16 PM on February 21, 2006

    The classic essay.
    posted by vers at 3:20 PM on February 21, 2006

    The book referenced earlier - Why We Buy by Underhill covers the placement of milk issue. As I recall, the research shows that the more time you spend in a store, the more stuff you buy. Milk is the item most people need when they go to a supermarket. Therefore, putting it in the back meant that people will automatically spend more time, and will be most likely to see other items they need.

    Underhill also said that the definition of a convenience store is one where the milk is at the front!
    posted by jasper411 at 3:23 PM on February 21, 2006

    At the store I used to work at, we paged Dick Johnson if we wanted to call assets protection. Apparently it was changed because someone named Dick Johnson tried responding to the page once.
    posted by dial-tone at 3:38 PM on February 21, 2006

    Harvey Norman in Australia used to put their wholesale and floor prices right on the sticker. They were simply, and not-so-cunningly, reversed, padded with some extra numbers (that may have actually meant something - I don't know) then presented as 'Invoice Nos'. For example:

    Retail: $349.95
    Invoices Nos: 5192203110 / 6544203110

    The wholesale price was (51922) = $229.15, and the floor price was (65442) = $244.56. They may still do this - haven't checked for a while.

    I was always amazed how how much (or how little) some things were marked up. Always handy come bargaining time. "Sir, that's less than it costs us." "Oh, really?"
    posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:47 PM on February 21, 2006

    At Value Village, a chain of about 5 HUGE thrift stores in the DC metro area, prices always follow the pattern $9.09, $6.06, $10.01, $23.32. It's because they hand write the prices on stickers, and they have a lot of people trying to change the numbers (eg make $9.09 into $5.09). It's an easy way to catch those people!
    posted by crabintheocean at 3:48 PM on February 21, 2006

    Also, interesting to read all these codenames for security. At big stores in Australia (eg Big W, K-mart, Target), they simply say "Security to sector 3" and the like. They seem to say this an awful lot. I have a feeling that most of the time it's a recording, meant to deter shoplifters. It gives the impression that security is everywhere, that people are being constantly watched, and for all you know, you're in the middle of sector 3. Maybe they use different terms, or even codenames, for real security problems.
    posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:51 PM on February 21, 2006

    Not a well kept secret and dubiously useful, but bread loaf twist ties are color-coded according to the day they were baked.
    A slightly more useful tip that may not be commonly known: Safeway employees are encouraged to get people to try anything of the Safeway brand by any means short of physical intimidation, so saying "is this Safeway peanut butter really as good as Jif?" or similar is a great way to get free "trial" product. This works a lot better with managers than with people you see sweeping, and probably translates pretty well to any place that has an in-house brand.
    posted by moift at 5:04 PM on February 21, 2006

    Many people don't seem to know that in many stores, most obviously grocery, department stores, and bookstores, companies pay for shelfspace. Called Cooperative Merchandising, it can enhance the prominence of a brand or product and/or reduce/eliminate space for competing brands. Some companies are known to push these contracts to the brink of anti-trust laws.
    posted by roboto at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2006

    When I worked at Peaches Music many years ago if they called for a "bubble check" that meant for all the slackers to get out from the back of the store because a hot chick just walked in.

    Their actual codes were pretty lame and transparent, I remember the assistant manager calling for a security check on a couple of skinheads in the store and a group of black kids thought they were the target. I was the lucky one behind the counter and got to deal with the fallout..that really sucked.
    posted by tetsuo at 7:23 PM on February 21, 2006

    I worked at an Ace Hardware store once and their cost for stuff was hidden on the price tag using the made-up word VICKSBURGH. Above the normal what-the-customer-pays price was the actual cost to the store. It looked like a garble of letters but worked out like this:

    V=1, I=2, C=3, K=4, S=5, B=6, U=7, R=8, G=9, H=0

    So if a hammer was priced as $10.99 and the garble above the price said XXXXXXXBIS, you knew that the store only paid $6.25 for said hammer.

    Not that this information would really be useful to customers unless they were good at haggling or wanted to bring down a price on a dented can of paint or something.

    "Look Lou, you and I both know you get this stuff for $4.26 a gallon... tell you what, you drop 2 bucks off this $8.99 price and I'll get rid of these 4 ugly dented cans for you. Make your endcap look a hell of a lot sharper."

    Also, Ace had products that were designated as "Policy A" which meant that if they were taken back to the store for a replacement or a refund, that the store didn't have to send them back; they could just note them in a book, throw the item away, and they'd get credited for it. Usually low-value items; things like plastic lawn sprinklers. We had a cupboard full of this stuff and the staff liked to salvage/MacGyver said items.
    posted by blueberry at 4:48 AM on February 22, 2006

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