The Land of Empty Boxes

I went into Toys R Us recently, and wandered into the electronics section. I further wandered over to the Wii section to discover that practically every single box in there was empty. Yup, just boxes of air.

Now, I understand there are very good reasons that they couldn't put boxes of real things on the shelves (for example, they didn't actually have any Wii units to sell), but there's something very strange to me about filling the shelves with cardboard mockups.

You can start to feel like you're in the Twilight Zone or the Truman Show or something. It's like having a library of books with blank pages. I'm just waiting for the camera to fall from the sky. Toys R Us is not alone in this, of course, but that just makes it more strange.

I believe the entire point of shelves is to put actual things in them. Or if you want to use an empty box as a symbol, you can just put one out and call it good. Not twenty. If you don't have actual products, put something else there, like live demo units. I realize it's easier said than done, but still.

This model works very well for the Apple Store. Instead of stacks of empty iMac and MacBook boxes, they have real, live working Macs and iPods along all of the walls and plenty of three-dimensional white space between them. In the center are boxes of real software and accessories.

I have this visual of walking into the grocery store one day and realizing that all those boxes of crackers and bottles of soda are actually for display only.
Design Element
The Land of Empty Boxes
Posted Dec 3, 2006 — 11 comments below


Ben — Dec 03, 06 2545

Shelf presence, and shelf space, in a standard retailer, is an incredibly valuable resource for the maker of a product. It's the final front in point-of-sale marketing, where a customer in there to compare, say, video game systems for Christmas presents is going to be impressed (in the old-fashioned sense) by the one that takes over their field of vision. Nintendo might even be paying a kickback in the form of a lower wholesale price to Toys R Us for the amount of shelf space they get. That kind of thing is not at all uncommon.

Whether the boxes are empty or not is a decision that is made much later in the pipeline, by the "loss prevention" people. Looks like everyone succeeded: you didn't steal a Wii, but you're here talking about it because its shelf presence made an impression on you.

Finally, Apple Store != Toys R Us. Apple is the manufacturer of most of the products it sells at retail, so they can take a holistic approach to the store layout and design. Toys R Us doesn't have that luxury, nor the motivation.

You might think that this whole system is a little silly, and you might be right, but that's the free market economy in action.

Scott Stevenson — Dec 03, 06 2546 Scotty the Leopard

I understand the reasons for doing it, it just feels strange. I think Nintendo would be better served by using the same space for an additional demo unit, even though I realize that's more tricky to set up. As for theft, the electronics are already in their own security gate-controller corral.

Apple is the manufacturer of most of the products it sells at retail, so they can take a holistic approach to the store layout and design

I agree to a point. They make the Macs and the iPods, but many of the books, software, and accessories are third-party. None of them are empty boxes, at least not in the stores I've been to.

I don't think empty boxes are the end of the world, I just think it mucks with the experience a bit. Feeling the density of the thing inside is part of the reason for picking up the box in the first place. It's at least much more satisfying than a "brochure cube." :)

Kay — Dec 03, 06 2547

Did the store actually have Wiis to sell or have they just pretended they had?
I think that's the really interesting part. If they could actually sell you those twenty machines, I find it reasonable to put up empty cardboard boxes. If they just pretended I'd call it marketing and not retail, though.

I can't remember that I've ever seen shelves full of empty boxes that weren't backed by an actual inventory here in Germany, so I might not be the ideal person to wonder about these things ;)

Kay — Dec 03, 06 2548

Note to self: Don't post comments past midnight ;)

Scott Stevenson — Dec 03, 06 2549 Scotty the Leopard

Did the store actually have Wiis to sell or have they just pretended they had?

I doubt they had any, but my guess is it would be empty boxes either way.

Ben — Dec 03, 06 2550

but many of the books, software, and accessories are third-party. None of them are empty boxes

Not so-- Photoshop and its ilk are generally empty boxes at Apple Stores, too. Whether or not a box is empty is some function of its value and its size/weight.

You're right about Nintendo's demo units-- more good kiosks don't hurt. But kiosks are expensive and usually in short supply if the console manufacturing is still trying to keep up with consumer demand.

Overall, I agree with the sentiment that it makes you feel like a loser to pick up a hefty product and realize you've been duped into thinking you're looking at the real thing.

Rob Winchester — Dec 03, 06 2551

Blockbuster used to do this... for new releases they'd have an entire wall of VHS boxes staring at you... great marketing. Then Netflix came into my life. I haven't left the house since.

Christopher Ashworth — Dec 03, 06 2552

The opposite case--having full boxes but refusing to sell them--is even weirder. (Though much less common.)

The sandwhich shop I frequently visit for lunch always has stacks of the day's papers, with a post-it note atop each stack that displays the words "No Sale" in black marker. No one is allowed to touch them or buy them, and if you try the proprietor (an asian man) just urgently repeats "no sale! no sale!"

I'm utterly confounded by it. The stacks are right in front of you when you walk in the door. They are always up to date. They always have the yellow notes warning that they are not for sale. The mystery may never be solved.

No sale!

Ankur — Dec 04, 06 2554

Years ago, when I was a little kid, I wanted to borrow a video from the library. When it finally came onto the shelves, I found it was empty, so I waited patiently for weeks, hoping that the video would get back inside the case. Later I found out that you had to take the empty case to the counter and they'd put the video in.

Robert — Dec 04, 06 2559

YES !!! The web insanity of the 90s was ALYWAYS RIGHT-ON !!

One day a generation will SUDDENLY awaken to this fact ...

... notice at the close of the internet generation the HUGE growth of Walmart supper store and some other NEW chains that are even bigger then WaM !

These huge warehouses will soon by occupied by large coops of students who will turn them into Zero cost dorms as the realest market collapses in the USA.

They should be great fun at Halloween and Christmas time when they put huge haunted houses and Christmas scenes on the roof !

The kill app that will kill real shopping will be virtual tech that will allow you to feel and move as the software directs, this will be done with EMS,

I have used this for years to exercise and it is particularly good because it hardens your muscles against cramps, and the back against pain from strain.

But at minor amps to create the sensation of touching something its great and to make move, it can do that TOO !

Then all we need is smEllO vision, a little ionizer that stick your nose and has scratchySMELLs that can be activated by the ionizer !!!

Don't bother suggesting this to APPLE I already did many times and a long time ago !

Steve-o — Dec 04, 06 2560

Er... yeah.

Anyway, I think the simple reality here is that Toys "R" Us didn't want a mess 'o empty shelves - looks bad and tacky. Best fill it with what amounts to billboard advertising, especially when the manufacturer (in this case, the Big N) pays for the shelf space.


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