Why Is It So Hard to Find What You Want in Clothing Stores?

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 

When I was a teenager I used to love going clothes shopping, but now it feels like a lot of effort to me. I go into a store looking for a coat, and instead of there being a “coats section”—as you’d think would be sensible—the coats are dotted all around the store. So I have to trawl around the whole store, keeping my eyes peeled for coats in and among everything else. This just seems like an unnecessary amount of effort to me.

This got me thinking about why clothing stores are arranged the way they are. Why aren’t clothes arranged by type—all the coats together, all the tops together, all the trousers together—so it’s easy to find what you want? Imagine if you went to a grocery store and instead of having similar foods arranged together—fruit and veg, dairy products, tinned goods, etc.—they were all mixed up, and you had to go around practically the whole store to find that specific variety of carrot you were looking for. Or imagine if online clothes shopping were arranged this way—instead of being able to narrow by category, you simply had to scroll through all the items they had, all jumbled up. It would feel like a ridiculous game of hide-and-seek. So why do clothing stores do this to us?

“Shops arrange clothes by ‘story.’ They put similar colors and styles together, so that if you’re looking to buy an outfit, it’s easy to find things that go well together.”

Because I was feeling curious—and frustrated—I decided to investigate further. I asked a friend of mine who used to work on floor design at Next why clothing stores are so frustratingly arranged. Here’s what she told me:

“Basically, clothes shops arrange clothes by ‘story.’ They put similar colors and styles together, so that if you’re looking to buy an outfit, it’s easy to find things that go well together. This also promotes ‘link selling’: if you see a top that you like, and the top has a necklace on it that goes really well, you’re likely to buy the necklace too. You wouldn’t want to put a bright pink coat in a section with browns and reds, for example, because they’re not complementary.”

This makes sense. Of course, clothing stores will arrange their clothes however they think will make them the most money—which probably isn’t the same arrangement that allows me to get in, get what I want, and get out as quickly as possible. This also explains why clothing stores are arranged so differently from grocery stores (although grocery stores definitely have their own strategies for making sure you buy as much as possible—have you ever gone food shopping with one item on your list and come out with only that item? I never have.) This “storytelling” approach makes less sense when it comes to buying food—people are much more likely to go into grocery stores with a specific list. As for online shopping, while they do obviously have categories, I’d forgotten about the little “Look what else would go great with that thing you’re looking at!” section that inevitably comes up any time you look at an item. Sneaky.

Maybe this also helps to explain why I enjoyed clothes shopping when I was a teenager but find it a chore now. When I was fourteen, I had all the time in the world, and clothes shopping was a thing I’d do all day Saturday with my friends for fun. It was an experience. Often we weren’t going looking for a specific thing, we were just browsing, trying things on for laughs—although we’d inevitably end up buying things. If this is what you do when you go shopping, having clothes arranged by style/story/outfit is just fine, maybe even more enjoyable to browse.

But now I only go shopping if I’m looking for a specific item of clothing (generally something that I desperately need because I’ve left it so long whatever I have now has holes in it). I want to find what I’m looking for, buy it, and get out of the store as quickly as possible. If this is your goal, outfit-based store layout is just a pain. I don’t think this works in favor of the store owners, either, because I get frustrated so quickly that I end up leaving without buying anything. I’m still wearing the same coat because the process of finding a new one just seems so arduous to me. But maybe the shops are making enough off of the 14-year-olds that they don’t care.

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