Money magazine (August 2008) shows how Swedish furniture merchandiser IKEA leads people around to expose them to things they never intended to shop for. “The challenge is getting out with only what you went in for,” Money says. Toys R Us and Aldi do more or less the same thing, on a much less scientific plan, but still, you enter a chute and you go from point to point as the store layout directs you, sort of like cattle entering the processing plant. These merchandising approaches are not so sinister as all that — you won't be butchered. But you will be processed. Nothing personal, mind you — just business.

Inspiration from elsewhere, however, can go either way: either you see something to emulate, or something to avoid. The IKEA scheme suggests both.

On the one hand, imagine all the little stuff you could rent or sell on impulse, not to mention the actual service to the customer who forgot this or that and you can save him or her the nuisance of making a special trip. So that's a good thing.

On the other hand, imagine a contractor, double-parked and dirty, who dashes in for a breaker or a bit and has to weave his way past the rest of your inventory just to get the thing done and get back to work. Need I say it? — whatever impedes the customer instead of helping is a bad thing.

People have made whole careers out of store design and display strategies, and these approaches can be enormously valuable, but they must be industry-specific, and even more tightly focused than that: they must be market-specific. If you're all contractor rental, it's a very different game from DIY tools. Everybody knows the difference between monthly accounts and cash customers — the inventory issues, the accounting, the time you have to spend with a customer, the returns, and more. But how many actually look at their store design, their walk-in traffic patterns, with that same distinction in mind?

Making it easy for the contractor and making it easy for the DIYer both have the same purpose, but the methods may be just about the opposite. The contractor who comes in for the breaker and bits needs to find anything that applies directly to breaking concrete with that particular breaker close at hand and available to grab in a jiffy — in, get, go.

The DIYer who's building a fence needs broader help: the post-hole digger, the concrete mixer, the circular saw, the cordless drill, the level, the clamps, the painting and landscaping equipment, and all the bolts, nuts, washers, screws, nails and brushes and whatnot — he'll sure as heck forget something. He's a “hmm, let-me-think” customer.

For either customer, you have no end of options for strutting your stuff: end caps, bins, racks, displays, tubs, buckets, POP specials on the counter, banners, mobiles, kiosks, stuff parked or placed outside the door or near the road, or under the store sign. The question is how you arrange the store to handle both the “in, get, go” customer and the “Hmmm, let-me-think” customer.

The unspoken message will be clear to both — this store understands me and wants my business, or not. Make it complicated for the customer — force too much on one and suggest too little to the other — and you will erode your business. They'll go where somebody has actually thought about them beforehand.

I've seen it done both ways. I'll bet you have, too. I even bet you can go out into your store right now and find some way to improve your layout or something you could display more market-effectively. Try it — I dare you.

The best store layouts I've seen are those with angled aisles, like a chevron, that provide a straight shot down the middle for the in-and-out customer, and a clear division between contractor items and supplies (usually near the counter, not by the windows) and DIY general tools (organized more by project orientation than by product type). The two prime examples that come first to mind are United Rentals and The Cat Rental Store, but I have seen many independents do great things with this angled scheme, too. Aisle labels or endcaps tell you exactly what to expect in that aisle, and since the aisles are on an angle, you can sight down them in a hurry, walking fast, instead of craning your neck 90 degrees each way at every aisle.

And don't park a compressor on the far end of an aisle, out of sight and at shin level.

Think: customer. Who? What? Where? Why? When? Put the answers together and voila, you have a plan.

Brian Alm worked in the rental and construction industries for 30 years, including 17 years with Deere & Co., primarily as a manager of corporate communications, and 10 years as editor of Rental Management magazine.