What Is an Assortment Strategy?

An assortment strategy in retailing involves the number and type of products that stores display for purchase by consumers. Also called a "product assortment strategy," it is a strategic tool that retailers use to manage and increase sales. The strategy is comprised of two major components:

  1. The depth of products offered, or how many variations of a particular product a store carries
  2. The width of the product variety, or how many different types of products a store carries

A deep assortment—the opposite of a narrow assortment—of products means that a retailer carries a number of variations of a single product. A wide variety—the opposite of a narrow variety—of products means that a retailer carries a large number of different products.

How Assortment Strategies Work

Essentially, a product assortment strategy is a retail industry sales tool with the concepts of depth and breadth at its core. However, not all retailers will be able to use both components of this strategy at the same time. An assortment strategy can have many layers of sub and related strategies, as each store will need to tailor the strategy to address its own particular needs and goals.

An assortment strategy is not one-size-fits-all; it needs to be customized to respond to a business's parameters.

A Challenge for Small Stores

Retailers face a trade-off when determining an assortment strategy. Choosing both a wide variety and a deep assortment of products simultaneously requires a large amount of space, and is typically reserved for big box retailers.

Stores with smaller spaces may choose to specialize in a certain type of product and offer customers a variety of colors and styles; other stores may offer a deep assortment of products but a narrow variety—one reason why a 7-Eleven (private since 2005) might carry just one brand of canned cat food, for example, while a Kroger (NYSE: KR) likely would have the space to stock 12 brands of canned cat food, if it chose to.

A Brick-and-Mortar Term

Originally, assortment strategy referred only to brick-and-mortar stores because the strategy's components of depth and breadth had a lot to do with physical space and the visual and tactile interaction between consumer and product. Recently though, all sales venues—brick-and-mortar, click and mortar, and e-tailing—have used varieties of the strategy to gain competitive advantage.

Adjusting for Demographics

By grouping together items that they believe would appeal to certain types of customers, retailers may fine-tune their assortment strategies to target consumers' demographic profiles. If a retailer wants to attract customers who are new parents, for example, it might fill the shelves with infant apparel from trendy brands, along with toys, bedding and so on.

A Strategic Selling Tool

A strategically arranged product assortment can upsell customers on supplemental items as they search for the thing that brought them to the store. Grouping related items together strategically, whether or not they are necessities, is a common way to stimulate impulse buying:

  • By placing garden hoses near sprinklers and other lawn-care products, a retailer could possibly drive more into a customer’s basket. Likewise, installing a luxurious patio dining set—complete with attractive outdoor dishware and bar accessories—in the middle of the more prosaic yard-care products could even send some customers scurrying to the housewares section of the store.
  • A presentation of flashlights—or any battery-driven product—could include a nearby display of the batteries needed to use the product. Or a manager could locate the batteries near the check-out counter to remind the customer before he leaves the store that the flashlight won't work without them.

Potential Disadvantages of Assortment Strategies

Although the depth of product assortment may help attract customers, there are certain caveats to relying only on an assortment strategy. If items in an assortment are placed incorrectly, the demand for these products may vary drastically. For example, if less-popular items are mixed in with popular items, they could detract from the more-popular items' appeal. Or if the assortment is too vast, then customers may have difficulty finding the item they are looking for. Overwhelming shoppers with too many buying options can be counterproductive and discourage customers' engagement.

key takeaways

  • An assortment strategy is a strategic retail-industry sales tool.
  • This strategy is centered around the concepts of "a deep assortment," and "a wide variety."
  • Originally, a product assortment strategy referred only to brick-and-mortar stores.