What do supermarkets and libraries have in common?

Libraries and supermarkets share many common elements when one thinks of organization of information.  The layout of the library is typically one of rows of shelving that houses items that the public can access.  The customer service areas for both are located at the front, where the users can check out their items.  In this reflection I will compare the supermarket to the  community library, exploring the similarities and examining the differences of the two.

The supermarket is a grocery store with additional items for sale, such as hardware, kitchen utensils, baby products, pharmaceuticals, personal grooming aids, and the like.  Two thirds of the store is dedicated to grocery, with an in house bakery, on site deli, large produce section, and butcher counter.  The bakery section is sizeable and has pastries and other sweets predominantly displayed, while the bread section is located along the back wall.  The deli section offers sliced meats and various salads that are sold by the pound.  The butcher counter has selected cuts of meat displayed, with a butcher on hand to customize packaging sizes, or unusual cuts.  The pharmacy section includes three aisles of over the counter drugs, in addition to the prescription counter.

The arrangement of the items for sale is categorized in two ways.  The typical back-wall items are located around the perimeter of the store.  These include bread, milk, eggs, cheese products, vegetables and refrigerated juices.  In the middle of the store are aisles of grouped items in order of convenience.  In the very center of the store, next to the large refrigerated section full of frozen foods, is a bulk items display that covers many different kinds of food from large family size packages of meat to oversized bags of rice.

The placement of the back-wall items is to encourage traffic through the aisles of less basic food.  This is a common practice of grocery stores to tempt the customer to purchase items that are not on their list.  The organization of the center of the store is to lead the customer from one part of the virtual pantry to the other.  Again, in order to fill the shopping cart with items not on the shopping list. For example, the baking goods are next to the cereal, which is next to the canned goods, which is next to the ethnic foods.  This path creates a mental checklist that often reminds the shopper to pick up something, or to be lured in by the sale prices that are prominently displayed.  The non-grocery items are interspersed with necessities such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies and convenience items that might ordinarily be purchased elsewhere.  The shopper probably didn’t intend on picking up that can of WD40® but, since they passed it on the way to the paper plates, they put it in the cart.  Picnic supplies such as Sterno® tins, foil baking pans, etc. are located next to the plastic tablecloths and paper cups.

 The core of the building houses the refrigerated section that covers pre-chilled soda to frozen dinners and dessert items.  These items are often on a list, and are positioned next to impulse items.  The front of the store nearest the bakery has seasonal sale items.  This is graduation week, so the items featured are tall stacks of sodas, cakes decorated with the different high school colors, and party goods.  Next to the fresh flowers and leis, an abundance of helium filled balloons can be grabbed on the way to the check-out lines.  On the opposite side of the store, the first thing one comes to is a Starbucks® mini coffee shop.  This is located across from the bank branch that is located next to the customer service desk.

The store does a superb job of signing the aisles.  The large hanging signs identify the items on the different aisles, while smaller, cantilevered signage can be read from the end of the aisle denoting smaller categories.  While the large hanging sign may read Breakfast Foods, the smaller signs let the shopper know where the boxed cereal, Poptarts®, and snack size foods are placed along the aisle.  The Baking goods aisle has smaller signs pointing the way to the raisins, flour, sugar, and dried fruit.  Impulse point of sale displays have LCD screens that display special or new products, and flat screen televisions have been installed at the check-out lines to broadcast information about products.  Even the shopping carts are sources of information. They have placards on the outside that can be changed out to advertise items, while the bottom of the baby seat lists the aisles and their contents. 

The product labels are a wealth of information and the benefits of the products are often touted, along with the brand.  Whether it be gluten free or vegan or reduced calorie, the current buying trends are emphasized.  Stickers are placed on each apple identifying the product code, while the deli prints out labels for each container of potato salad that contains information about the ingredients, the weight and accompanying price.  The food triangle has been replaced with the current dietary recommendations, and the serving size is listed on every item.

Our market is located near a major traffic artery, and attracts both the neighborhood shoppers and those passing through on the way to the mountain communities, or the wine country.  As a result the demographic is broad.  It appears that the passersby on their way home from the long commute pick up essentials like milk and bread and the local shoppers come armed with a list.  In addition to the harried expressions and business attire, the passersby can be identified by their determined gait as they hope to get in and get out in less than 10 minutes. 

The local shoppers, with their casual clothing and accompanying children tend to stroll and shop in a more laid back way.  While they have a list in their hand, it is often ignored and they seem to buy more than what they came in to purchase.  As long as the children behave, they are relaxed.  When the children begin to whine, or beg for items the pace is quickened and they, too, become frazzled.  The locals tend to use the manned check-out counters, while the commuters tend to go for the self-check-out stations.  In this part of the city the customers tend to be part of one category of shopper or the other.  This is not a store that people come to just hang out, or browse.  Most of the clients seem to have a purpose.  The difference is the pace.  The Starbucks® only has two small tables and seems to be more of a takeout counter.

PHOTO: Dover Discovery Centre, Dover, Kent, United Kingdom

Libraries and supermarkets do have a lot in common.  They have aisles that have shelves of categorized items.  They have informative posters and directional signs.  They have employees that can help to locate hard-to-find items.  Where they differ is in the mentality of the marketing.  Libraries typically are non-profit places of respite, learning, or pleasure reading that are funded by taxes or grants.  The supermarket is a for-profit business, designed to attract customers who will, in turn, part with a large portion of their paycheck.  Most libraries have sections of comfortable chairs, coffee tables, benches, study tables and lounging areas.  The supermarket is more concerned with utilizing every inch of its space in a way that will encourage sales.

A previous director of our community library did not want to encourage the patrons to stay and browse the shelves. The Dewey classified non-fiction was divided into “bookstore categories”.  There are sections on cooking, parenting, classic literature, foreign languages, and computer software manuals.  These aisles have pulled together volumes from varying Dewey Decimal categories and placed them together on the same aisle.  This has taken a toll on the understaffed county library as the patrons are often confused about where to locate the material.  For example only a smattering of the software manuals are in the bookstore pull out, while the rest of the less used software manuals are located in non-fiction and filed by the Dewey Decimal Classification number.  There is a section for new releases that have special loan periods, while the realia has loan periods that differ from standard books.  As a part of the recent remodel, the director chose the least comfortable chairs for the reading areas, and set the quiet reading room up as if it were a conference room with one long table and wooden chairs. 

This bookstore approach to the arrangement of the stacks has increased the number of complaints and does not seem to be the best method for our local demographic.  The word, community, is an integral part of the library’s name.  Inherent in the library’s name is an organization where the patrons of the neighborhood are the focus group.  With this in mind, every effort to accommodate the public should be considered. The community library is located in the same campus as the district courthouse and the adult mental health office, so many of the patrons come to the library for hours on end while waiting for appointments or relying on the public transit schedules.  The surrounding neighborhood is composed of seniors only housing and the tract housing is home to upper middle class residents.  Given this unique mix of clientele, the atmosphere of the library should be a welcoming and informative place to visit.

While many shared elements of the grocery store and organization of library material are beneficial, the mentality of the library must be one of service.  A library’s focus is the patron and their needs, not a customer with money to spend.  Ranganathan Five Laws of Library Science should be followed and the collection of materials should match the local demographics.  Ranganathan’s ideas:

1.                  Books are for use.

2.                  Books are for all.

3.                  Every book its reader.

4.                  Save the time of the reader.

5.                  The library is a growing organism. (Rubin, 2010)

Overall, the organizational structure of a library can utilize the same strategies of a supermarket in the placement of goods, traffic flow, etc. However, care should be taken to remember the purpose of the library and the community.  The community library has a more casual approach, while the large public library is more formal.  The academic library on a large university campus will have a different set of standards than a middle school library.  Each successful library adapts to the personality of those it serves.


Rubin, R. E. (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science Third ed. New York, NY: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.