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Store locator usability: problems and best practices

by Mike B. Fisher on September 21, 2009

Quick Summary: Many would-be bricks-and-mortar shoppers go online to find the location of a nearby retail store. Often their efforts are frustrated by the poor usability of store locators. In this multi-part article we’ll examine the problem and explore some best practices.

It’s hard to imagine any company making it more difficult than necessary for customers to shop in their retail stores. Yet this situation occurs on a regular basis; websites often fail to provide highly usable store locators.

A warning up front: this topic requires that I include quite a few large visual examples. Bear with me; I think you’ll find the images useful.

The situation

Customers want to find your store. And these days fewer of them use phone books. Instead they rely on the internet to locate a store, determine its hours, and calculate a route to get there. Not only that, many of your customers have GPS devices in their cars and pockets, and may need nothing more than an accurate street address to find your store.

Store locator usability problems

Customers often come to a company’s website in search of a nearby retail location. But their efforts are impeded or derailed by poor usability. Common barriers include:

  • A store locator link that’s difficult to find
  • Inadequate search flexibility
  • Too little information displayed in search results
  • Too much information displayed in search results
  • Use of rich media like Flash to display results
  • Poor error handling

Many of these problems stem from mistaken assumptions about how customers use the Internet and what they need when they’re looking for a store.

The stakes here are pretty obvious. If customers can’t find your store they may:

  • Encounter frustration, resulting in a negative customer experience
  • Give up
  • Go to a competitor

These aren’t positive outcomes are they?

Store locator best practices

There are a number of considerations that should inform the way in which a store locator works. Best practices include:

Make the function/link easy to find. It’s an obvious suggestion but one that’s sometimes overlooked. The link to a store locator needs to be where users expect to find it. This goes for the critical home page as well as pages throughout the website. Many websites already do a good job of this, as in this example:


But others are less effective in making this important link easy to find.

Consider this image from the home page of PetSmart competitor PetCo:


Here the store locator function is in a good location but displayed using light gray type. Note how the light gray links are displayed near the much darker type of other navigation options. This makes it more difficult than necessary for users to notice the locator link.

There’s no universally accepted “best” location for a store finder link, however many websites place it near the top right of the home page. This location works fine provided the text is large enough and has enough contrast (more about type size and contrast in this article).

One way to simplify and improve the usability of a store locator to integrate it directly into the home page. This saves users the extra step of clicking a link to access it. An example of this can be seen on the Lowe’s website:


Requiring one less step improves the user experience and also makes the locator more “mobile friendly” (more on this later).

Smart, flexible radius is your friend. It’s wise to enable easy selection of a wide range of search radii. Why? For some companies the number of stores can vary drastically in different cities. This can create some serious problems with displaying store search results.

If you’re looking for a PetCo location in Lincoln, Nebraska there are only two choices:


This search allows no choice of search radius; it defaults to a distance of 20 miles. This is fine; with so few stores in Lincoln a 20 mile radius works well because it enables users to see stores in nearby Omaha.

On the other hand, a search for PetCo locations by zip code in West Los Angeles returns this map:


The much greater number of stores should logically trigger a smaller default radius. But it does the opposite; it defaults to a larger 40-mile radius. This creates an extremely dense display that’s not very user-friendly. Worse, there’s no option to refine the search results by selecting a smaller search radius.

The good news in PetCo’s case is that beneath the map there’s a list of stores sorted by proximity. But users are out of luck if they wish to find a convenient location using the provided map.

Simply offering an easy way to adjust the radius (for example with a drop-down menu above the map) would transform this store locator map from essentially unusable to very helpful.

Speaking of map display problems, my favorite example of a badly implemented store display can be found on this page from the Joann Fabrics website:


This map does one thing very effectively: it communicates that Joann Fabrics has many locations. But the density of store markers renders the display nearly useless. Fortunately the Joann website does a better job of displaying results once the user enters their search criteria. Still, they’d do well to skip displaying the map until a user searches for a specific location.

In part 2 of this article we’ll continue examining store locator best pracices – including methods for keeping search criteria simple but flexible.

Photo by Alberto. Creative Commons licensed.

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Related posts:

  1. Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 2
  2. Store locator usability: problems and best practices, part 3
  3. Reduce costs and improve usability with visual standards, part 1

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User experience articles September 22 « User Experience News
September 22, 2009 at 7:27 pm

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Blevins September 23, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Yes, absolutely. Store Locator on the home page, above the fold, people. NOT like this:

To their credit tho, when you manage to find the locator, they do have flashing warning signs that google, yahoo, and mapquest don’t work for their store. Unfortunately, i plugged in the address from their home page into my GPS. DOH!

Nick Wood March 15, 2010 at 5:11 am

Anyone agency or developer using Google maps for store locations / branch finders will see not only usability issues but towns not being shown accurately and results in the wrong order. Thats the poor quality solution you get for being cheap !

The directions and privacy in the eyes of the user is an issue and Google state that Google free is a basic mapping solution and by this it is ideal for amateurs (not professionals, SME’s or large business’s)

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