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A view of the industry through the eyes of independent and chain retailers.

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Visual Merchandising, Pt. I

Taking the mystery out of a well designed store.

by Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender (May 20, 2013)

Visual Merchandising -- the fine art of presentation and display -- is one of the most important pieces in running a retail store, yet it is often one of the most neglected. Visual Merchandising is an art, but it is also a science with specific, easy-to-implement formulas to help you sell more merchandise. Here, we start a discussion of the basics used in the savviest retail stores. Next issue, we'll continue with such elements as color, fixtures, cross-merchandising, and more.

A Little Store Planning

Your first mission is to set your fixtures in a pattern that allows for maximum traffic flow. Your store layout will determine how customers will shop the store, and very often it is affected by the shape and size of your sales floor. Three of the most popular are the Grid layout, the Loop or Race Track layout, and the Free Flow layout.

Grid layouts are commonly used in grocery stores and big box stores. In a Grid layout the fixtures run parallel to the walls, so customers typically grab a shopping cart, start in a front corner and walk each and every aisle. Grid layouts are easy to shop because they offer clean sight lines throughout the entire store. Another advantage of the Grid layout is that it allows for maximum End Cap exposure. And we all know that the job of an end cap is to encourage impulse purchases. Use your ends to display promotional and high impulse items -- never to house basic merchandise.

You will find Loop - or Race Track - layouts in a variety of stores including Target and Best Buy. This layout offers a clearly defined main aisle which circles through the store like a race track. Fixture placement in a Loop layout differs in different parts of the store: The perimeter fixtures run perpendicular to the wall, and the fixtures in the center of the loop run parallel to the side walls. In a Loop layout customers typically flow to the right and move up and down the aisles in a serpentine manner.

In a Loop layout, perimeter walls are just as important as end caps because the layout leads customers to the wall each time they go down an aisle. This means that walls need to be merchandised with particular care.

A favorite choice of specialty and boutique retailers is the Free Flow layout. This layout offers multiple opportunities to highlight merchandise and create display vignettes that make the merchandise more romantic. Unlike the Grid and Loop layouts, the Free Flow does not allow you to maximize inventory per square foot.

In a Free Flow layout, there are no set aisles, so customers roam the store freely. Fixtures are not placed in straight lines, rather they are angled to easily move customers throughout the store, exposing them to merchandise displays at every turn.

You may already have a blueprint that will help you visualize the entire store to determine choice of layout and appropriate locations for merchandise departments. If you don't, measure your store and draw a rough blueprint of your own. Add in all the columns, doors, bathrooms, and other nuances, and hire an architectural student from your local college to create a blueprint for you.

In either case, make a copy of your blueprint, mount it to a piece of foam core board, and overlay it with tissue paper. This will allow you to merchandise and re-merchandise your sales floor on paper before you ever touch a fixture. This will save you loads of time and aggravation when contemplating floor moves.

Check Out Counter

Regardless of the layout you choose, where you place your checkout counter will have a big impact on business. People tend to shop the way we drive - on the right side of the road. Watch your customers -- you'll find that 90% of them look or turn to the right when they enter a store. This makes the front right of your store prime real estate, definitely not the place for the checkout counter. A better choice is to place the checkout counter on the front left side of the store, at the natural end of the shopping experience.

A few more tips: First, make sure that they provide enough space for customers to complete their transaction. There is nothing more annoying than having to juggle change, keys, purchase, and kids with one hand while trying to get out of the way of the next customer.

Second, stock your checkout counters with fun items customers can pick up on impulse; "shut-up toys" mom can buy to keep the kids quiet; and those items customers most frequently forget. And make sure that you set interesting displays behind the checkout counters so that customers are constantly thinking about the merchandise that you sell in your store.

Outside Looking In

Even with the perfect floor plan, it's important to note that visual merchandising begins even before the customer enters your front door. Stand outside your front door -- are your windows a good representation of what the customer will find inside? We once sent a group of women into what we considered to be a beautifully merchandised store. We asked them to take a look around and report back on what they saw. We anticipated that we would hear only good things. Boy, were we wrong.

One woman was particularly annoyed by the dead flies she saw in the front window. Now, dead bugs in your windows are a fact of life; every store window in the world has a few, but this woman equated the fly carcasses as poor attention to detail. She felt that if the store didn't sweat the small stuff, then it probably wouldn't go the extra mile for its customers. We thought that was a stretch, yet we couldn't disagree, because this was her opinion -- her perception -- and perception is what counts with customers.

Front windows must be clean, uncluttered, and have a simple message. They are not meant to be an historical museum of signs for community events that have already taken place. Customers will typically take just a five-second glance at what's in your windows, so if yours are filled with complicated displays, or too many signs, most customers will never see your message.

First 10 Seconds

First impressions -- first perceptions -- are formed within the customer's first 10 seconds inside your store. How does yours stack up? What does it say to customers? Customers enter the store at the same speed they had in the parking lot. This means that many customers are rushed and distracted when they walk in your door, so you need to offer them the opportunity to slow down from walking speed to shopping speed. That's the job of the Decompression Zone.

The Decompression Zone is generally the first 5' to 15' (the amount of space depends on the size of your store) just inside the store. This area needs to be uncluttered, inviting, and easy to navigate. This means that shopping carts and baskets and floor signs need to be placed at the end of the Decompression Zone or customers will walk right by them.

Why not station a Greeter, ala Wal-Mart, in your Decompression Zone on busy days? The mere presence of the Greeter will delight most customers. The Greeter can offer a cart or a basket -- a good thing because studies show  that customers with shopping carts spend 25% more in the store, and up to 15 minutes longer. The Greeter can also tell customers about things in the store that they won't want to miss.

Speed Bumps

The Decompression Zone refocuses customers to a shopping pace, but strategically placed Speed Bump displays get them shopping. Speed bumps displays work much the same way as speed bumps in parking lots work: they slow customers down so that they do not miss important merchandise in the front of the store. Your Speed Bumps can be merchandise displayed on tables, dumped in bins, or stacked on pallets. As long as the product is interesting or a good value, then it will make for a perfect Speed Bump.

Power Walls

Just inside the store and to the right is a key wall. It's one of the first things customers see as they turn right, and in too many stores, it's just another wall used to house basic merchandise. Use this highly visible space to showcase new items; to tell product stories; and to display high-demand, high-profit items. You may even want to use this area for demonstrations during events and other high-traffic times.


Have you ever noticed tables of product near the aisles in stores? These are called Merchandise Outposts and their purpose is to entice customers to pick up product on impulse. You may recall walking through the deli department of your favorite grocery store on your way to the butcher shop only to pass display after display of items that make you think, "I need that, too." That's the power of a Merchandise Outpost: present customers with a cross-section of merchandise while they are in a buying mood.

Use Outposts throughout your store to cross merchandise; as a magnet to draw customers through the store; to introduce a new department or merchandise story; and to feature top-sellers and other highly profitable merchandise.

If you want to make changes in your store but aren't sure what to do first, e-mail photos of your visual merchandising challenges to info@kizerandbender.com. We’ll email back ideas to help get you started.





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