Countdown Supermarkets New Zealand is owned by Woolworths Group Limited an Australian trans-Tasman with extensive operations throughout Australia and New Zealand. With 185 stores New Zealand-wide, and their first online supermarket e-commerce site launched in 1996.
Company Size
18,000 +
Tools Used


Wine, bacon and periods: product categories and our journey to wrangle them

Why Countdown started looking at how their users shopped

Countdown Supermarkets recognised that their online shopping experience was lacking the browsability needed for successful online shopping. Typically e-commerce is more browsing than search.  Data showed that over 50% of Woolworth’s (Australia) customers were browsing, compared to only 7% of Countdown (New Zealand) customers. 

How do we make the shopper UX better?

Having identified the big question, why aren’t more shoppers ‘browsing’? The next step was to find out why, and how to improve the users’ experience. Meaning they are more likely to complete their task (purchasing their cart) and find what they are looking for.

Jenny Leng and her team were brought in to find out exactly why and make the necessary changes to the Countdown e-commerce site, not a small task. Especially when one of the first discoveries was that the product categories had ‘bloated’ from 120 product categories (in 1996) to over 6,200 categories for 10,000 products on the website over the past 20 years. Leaving shoppers finding it nearly impossible to browse and find the products they wanted. Meaning missed sales, abandoned carts, and a poor user experience.

Identifying our end goals

Part of the research process meant identifying what was needed:

  1. Simplify the product categories and reduce the number of choices. 
  2. Standardize the taxonomy and make it consistent across the site. 
  3. Modernize language, to better reflect current customer needs and usage. 
  4. Develop guiding principles to manage the integrity of the schema.
Mental models and shopping lists 

During the discovery phase, the team needed to understand how real-life shoppers grouped their shopping. Optimal Sort was used to run unmoderated card sorts with customers to understand how they grouped their shopping lists when they went instore. Through the card sorting Jenny and her team were able to learn about their customers’ mental models and where they expect to find products in-store. These insights were valuable for sorting products into more intuitive categories and improving the taxonomy of the categories. 

Using Treejack,  tree testing was conducted to compare finding 20 products using the existing Countdown schema against Woolworths’ existing schema. Results showed that Woolworths schema was 50% faster to complete the 20 tasks. This highlighted issues within Countdown’s site labelling, sorting, and naming. The site was not intuitive and difficult for users to browse, search and follow. Making it slow (and frustrating) for users to find products they wanted and to complete tasks.

Based on these insights and further market research, Countdown reworked and developed a new schema. Further tree testing was used to optimize the level 1 categories (bakery, meat, household goods etc).

Introducing Period Care

One of the key fundamental changes that Jenny Leng and her team spearheaded was a change to the Feminine Hygiene category. Recognising that it can be a confusing name with no real indication of what the products were or what they meant. Rather a negative connotation for what is, for more than half the population, a very real and normal part of life. There was a ‘brave’ and controversial decision to change ‘Feminine Hygiene’ to ‘Period Care’. 

Through a simplification of the category name, which was much more than taxonomy. The category name change sat squarely with a change in attitudes, modern language, and timeliness that allowed it to be picked up not only through the e-commerce site but in physical Countdown stores across the country. 

This was a world first, with other businesses shortly following suit globally. This a sign of the times and that having an ear tuned to your customers is important, relating to them in their language and reacting to changes when needed. In the real world and online. Users that feel truly seen and listened to will have a positive user experience and are more likely to interact and continue to interact with you.

What are the signs of success?
  1. Using insights gained through card sorting and tree testing Jenny and her team reduced the product categories by 90%. Given fewer choices means customers can browse more confidently and effectively. 
  2. The launch of the newly updated website was seamless. There was an expectation that a few customers would struggle or find the new site difficult to navigate. However,  there were no complaints. A big sign of success.
  3. Countdown has seen a 100% increase in browsing. Reinforcing that the information architecture is intuitive and simply makes sense.
  4. And a true sign of a successful e-commerce site? A 91% increase in add-to-cart from the browse pages. Meaning that users are not only browsing but finding what they are looking for (and maybe more).
  5. Global changes to the period care category – the light that Countdown shone on the female hygiene category and listening to their customers and the broader society influenced not only their own naming and labeling of this but was picked up across the world. 

Jenny Leng and Countdown are ahead of the game now, but recognise that ‘done is never done’. Their e-commerce website needed to be challenged after 20 years of ‘organic’ growth. They won’t leave it that long again. They will continue with constant evaluation of the performance of individual categories through a/b testing. 

More from our customers

Pie tree visualizations helped the team understand the critical bottlenecks with the current version of the website.
Pie tree visualizations helped the team understand the critical bottlenecks with the current version of the website.
“We had results in 4-5 hours, which was impressively fast.”
“We had results in 4-5 hours, which was impressively fast.”

— Joe Russell, Smart

Tree testing is a quick and cost-effective way to validate assumptions about information architecture.
Tree testing is a quick and cost-effective way to validate assumptions about information architecture.

— Ben Hills-Jones, Senior Content Designer, Freelancer