The Reason Retail Stores Have Such High Ceilings

Retail stores want to give you plenty of overhead space. There's a scientific reason why.
Retail stores want to give you plenty of overhead space. There's a scientific reason why. / Hispanolistic/iStock via Getty Images

Aside from noticing whether or not your favorite cereal is within arm’s reach, you may not stop to think too much about retail architecture and design. But think about this: Despite most items being stocked on shelving that rarely exceeds 6 feet in height, many supermarkets and other retail locations have ceilings that shoot up for dozens of feet beyond that.

In a warehouse-type environment, like Sam’s Club or Costco, it makes sense: Inventory can be stocked to the rafters. But why do comparatively smaller footprints need so much open space above our heads?

Like most retail design choices, it’s meant to get you, the shopper, in a place where you’re comfortable spending the most money.

In an interview with the Star Tribune in 2019, Target's vice president of store design Joe Perdew said that ceiling height impacts how consumers process buying decisions.

When discussing a new Target location in New York City that used elements of an old building and had varying ceiling heights, Perdew said that choices were made to make sure they were still shopper-friendly. “We don’t want [the ceiling] to become that low,” he said. “There’s a universal design principle that you want to expand ceiling heights when you want people to make holistic decisions and you actually contract them a bit, or shrink them, when you want people to make detailed decisions. So that’s why it’s OK to drop beams and stuff over produce, because you’re picking out that specific orange you want.”

This strategy was supported by a 2007 study [PDF] published in the Journal of Consumer Research in which marketing scholars Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui Zhu invited participants to sit down in a room with an 8-foot ceiling or a room with a 10-foot ceiling. (A distinctive lighting fixture was placed over their heads so that they’d make note of the ceiling.) Generally, subjects in the “taller” room completed imagination-based tasks, like thinking of anagrams or word association, more quickly.

What does this have to do with shopping? In retail, lots of products require imagination, like how a piece of furniture may look in your home or what sorts of recipes you might use for that can of tuna. High ceilings not only free up people physically, but seemingly psychologically, as well. They tend to think in more abstract terms, while a lower ceiling might have them thinking more about details.

To illustrate that point, Meyers-Levy and Zhu had subjects examine a photo of a coffee table and wine rack in both low- and high-ceiling rooms. Those in the high-ceiling room tended to describe the furniture as sleek in appearance, while those in the low-ceiling room tended to dwell more on details like knots in the wood or other irregularities that might have them thinking twice about a purchase.

Put another way, a high ceiling seems to get consumers thinking—but not too much.

Practically speaking, a tall ceiling can allow for signs directing shoppers to explore other areas of the store. They can also help obscure security cameras that can be mounted high enough to have a wider field of view without making shoppers feel watched. Of course, looking for—and anticipating—a guest’s every move is what retail does best.