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Friday
Jan062017

Visual Merchandising: The Silent Salesperson 

8Seconds, Shanghai, China. Image © Gensler.

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series on retail and the customer experience.

When I last wrote about my experiences at the International Retail Design Conference, I mentioned visual merchandising as “one of the prime vehicles for creating a retail experience that’s memorable for consumers and profitable for brands.” I also mentioned that it is a pain point for retailers. Why?

Let’s start by defining visual merchandising. Visual merchandising creates a journey through a physical space and engages the customer in a variety of experiences and storytelling to maximize sales. It builds upon the design of a store, reinforcing a fresh and inviting customer experience. Successful visual merchandising attracts, engages, and motivates the customer to make a purchase. In fact, when stores are designed for end-to-end customer experiences, revenue grows 10 percent and customer satisfaction grows 20 percent. (McKinsey & Company, 2013)

Creating a strategy for visual merchandising includes many tools. Here are the ones I find most valuable:

  • A customer journey map expressing how the brand should be experienced from the windows to checkout. This will set the stage for all other elements of impact for the customer.
  • A floor map that creates a merchandise hierarchy and zoning for merchandise placement.
  • Window displays that communicate current styles, content, and price messaging. They are often used to entice customers into the store.
  • Feature presentations and walls to engage the customer as they enter the store, departments or transition spaces. These can be achieved by vignettes of mannequins, forms, furniture, fixtures, and visual communications, including digital content and photography.
  • Tables, vitrines, hanging floor and wall fixtures for presenting merchandising to create a customer experience with interest, density and display.
  • If applicable, fitting rooms. This could be the most important area of discovery and engagement… human connection and a reason to come into a store vs. purchasing online and having it delivered to your doorstep.
  • While the checkout experience might not seem like a visual merchandising tool, it’s the last place on contact with the customer before they leave the store. It should be just as impactful and engaging as the windows.

Back 40 Mercantile, Old Greenwich, CT. Image © Gensler.

So, why is this seemingly simple concept an area of question in a retailer’s budget?

For starters, visual merchandising has become somewhat of an after-thought in the industry. Some specialty retailers, like Anthropology, continue to invest in this highly valued talent. It is what makes their stores so inviting and fun to shop. Likewise, high-end department stores, like Bloomingdales, Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf’s continue this investment, because they also see the bottom-line value for the brand. That being said, department stores, as a rule, used to employ whole teams dedicated to window styling and storytelling. However, many department stores have merged with others over time and become more efficient with their store design, more promotional, less engaging and experience-focused. With that trend, there is less need for the high touch and talent of a visual merchandising team, not to mention the added pressure of online sales growth.

What solutions exist for retailers struggling to define a visual merchandising strategy?

A major electronic and technology corporation approached Gensler to assist with the customer experience of their mobile phone stores. After assessing their current in-store experience, we created an approach and three principles that informed their merchandising strategy and playbook for their stores. This approach is not exclusive to their brand and can be successfully applied to many retailers:

  • Be consistent. Consistency is fundamental to brand building. Through consistent touchpoints, customers build familiarity and a relationship with a brand is formed. Familiarity becomes a shorthand way for customers to engage with brands and connect with brands more quickly.
  • Connect Emotionally. The retail environment allows customers to have a sensory experience. This environment allows customers to participate and connect emotionally with a brand. By inspiring, surprising and delighting a customer, they are more likely to remember the brand and become a brand advocate.
  • Keep it Simple. Life is complicated and filled with stressful decisions and distractions. A good retailer edits assortments and presents simple, yet inspiring solutions on behalf of the customer. Presenting solutions in a simple way reassures the customer, reduces stress and builds confidence in a brand.

Harman International, New York, NY. Image © Gensler.

In today’s complex world, the last tenet, “keep it simple,” has become increasingly vital. For many retailers, it all comes down to aligning your design and visual merchandising principles to your core brand drivers and customer values. For a major children’s retailer, we defined two core principles:

  • We know how mom shops. We defined a set of design principles for each stage of the customer journey: threshold (entry), navigation (environment), browsing (merchandising), decision (purchase) to connection (exit).
  • We design our stores to meet mom’s needs. Each store, regardless of location or floorplan, should always meet the core design principles, which provide brand continuity and guide Mom through her in-store experience.

While interest in visual merchandising may have waned over the years, recently there has been a renewed energy and interest around the topic. It may not look the same as it did in its heyday of 50+ person teams focused on high-touch windows and in-stores displays; however, retailers who prioritize this element as a part of their design program and brand strategy will see the results in their bottom line, as well as brand loyalty.

Sharon Lessard is an influencer of the customer experience. She combines physical, emotional, and sensory elements to bring brands to life and believes creativity is the lens that connects every experience. Contact her at sharon_lessard@gensler.com.