Business growth

Visual merchandising: How to arrange your store for success

By Margrethe Lunde
On 13 October 2017

As a store owner, you love your store. 

It’s the first thing you think about in the morning, and the last thing you think about going to bed. 

You’ve selected the items carefully, and you always go deeply into what you think your customers want.

So, why aren’t sales blowing through the roof?

Sometimes, it’s not about the items in your store – it’s about the way they are presented. It could also be that you need to take a quick look on how the customer journey is set up through your store. 

This brings me to an essential part of running a store: The visual merchandising. 

If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s about time.

Having worked some years as a visual merchandiser in a retail store, I can tell you it’s not only about dressing mannequins and touching up store decorations. It just so happens, it has a huge impact on sales.

In fact, I would dare to say it is the one thing that can compete with ‘customer experience’ in the “most important”-category of any store. The book of visual merchandising has many chapters, which sadly cannot be covered in just one article. 

Sorry to disappoint you.

However, in this article, I have collected some of my very best tips and tricks to get you well on your way. These can already now be rather easily implemented in your store to help it reach its full potential. I hope you’re ready!

#1: Top priority: store window

The very first thing you need to approach is your store window.

This is the most important ad that your store will ever have, and the very “make it or break it” point of whether potential customers will choose to enter or just keep on walking.

Every morning, you should be standing outside your store window, asking yourself:

  • Are the windows clean and the exhibition free from dust and dirt?
  • Is it inspiring and inviting?
  • Is there a clear theme, and is it relevant for your target customers?

You can compare your store window to any typical online ad. Something draws your attention and speaks directly to your needs. Now, let’s say you click it. Obviously, you expect the website to match the ad, so you can get to see more of what drew you in in the first place. Right?

So the page is loading, you’re all excited, but wait – the site doesn’t address the content that you were interested in. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you just been the victim of clickbait, right? You get where I’m going.

Use a theme or message to tell a story. Then, make sure you stay consistent with that story. 

Some essential tips in order to do so, are:

  • Make sure your front store area resembles your window exhibition – regardless of whether you’re running a clothing store, furniture, paint, or even pet store. 
  • Window items should always be easy to spot and in good stock. 
  • When something sells out, make sure to quickly remove it from the window (and ideally, replace it with something else).

If you ignore the above, well let’s face it; you’re not really any better than those click baiters, are you?

#2: Choose the right layout and interior

When it comes to the layout of your store, there are a few things to consider:

What kind of store do you have? How much time do you want your customers to spend? How much room for creativity and decoration do you need?

And, perhaps most importantly: How do you want your customers to move?

There are of course a lot of different layouts you can choose between - I’ll just run through some of the most common ones.

Straight floor plan
Using a lot of open space with items along and parallel to the walls – often referred to as a straight or a grid floor plan – has the advantage of maximising the store’s floor and wall space.

This layout makes it easy for the customer to gain an immediate overview and make their errand in a quick and easy way.

It’s also great for highlighting specific offers or items. As you’ve probably guessed already, this layout is a favorite among supermarkets, grocery stores and smaller retailers with a large inventory of stackable goods.

Loop floor plan
The “loop” floor plan has become very popular with retailers due to its customer-friendly nature.

This layout provides a setup where your store literally guides the customer through it, creating a journey for the shopper and a great possibility for you to show more of your items. Genious, right?

Tables, racks, and shelves are placed strategically so it forms a pathway throughout the store, where the customer, conveniently enough, is exposed to all the things you want them to see.

Larger stores like IKEA and Bed, Bath & Beyond have really embraced this concept, but it’s also a perfect fit for most smaller retailers.

If you want my advice: a mix of the straight and loop floor plan is in many cases a safe bet if you have a medium sized store with a large selection of different products.

Mixed floor plan
A third, very popular alternative, is the mixed or “free flow” layout. This is basically a floor plan where there are no “rules”, and you can use it to mix elements from different floor plans.

A mixed or free floor plan will in many ways require more work and creativity, but if you do it right, it can give you some unique advantages through its great flexibility.

The mixed layout is perfect for retailers selling items with smaller stock since it doesn’t focus as much on large quantities on the shelves as much as product groups and inspirational exhibitions of single items.

A good interior tip for the two latter floor plans is to use a mix of tables, shelves and/or racks in different heights and sizes. Not only is it essential to keep a good balance in your store layout - it’s also an easy way to create some excitement for the customer.

The bottom line is: It all depends on your customers. The old cliche, I know. 

But let me give you a concrete example. 

Say you’re selling baby equipment. It’s quite essential that your customers are able to move around with a stroller, right? And for a convenient store or a small tobacco store, perhaps allowing your customers to shop quickly and easily is better than leading them on a journey of inspiration? 

Whichever you choose – just make sure it fits your customer's’ needs

#3: Use the right lighting

Have you ever been to an Apple store? 

Of course, you have. 

Did you pay attention to their characteristic lighting?

Apple uses a lot of cold, clean colors and large illuminated surfaces to give their stores a uniform, modern and “techy” look. In other words - their store lighting actually plays a part in strengthening Apple’s image credibility in their role as an innovator and tech leader.

Today, more and more store owners are becoming aware of the often-underestimated potential of store lighting. After all, light is a great way to draw attention, inspire and create mood and drama. 

There are, as you might know, many different types of lighting.

Firstly, we have the basic lighting. Whether you want to go for Apple’s cold, sterile version or a warmer, more luxurious and cozy feeling is up to you. Just make sure your lighting fills its primary purpose: To make your products visible.

Secondly, you have something I like to call highlighting. This is the next level step, and it literally means highlighting specific products or areas by placing a strong light source, such as a ceiling spotlight, over it.

Just remember to adjust the lights when rearranging the products. (It’s surprisingly easy to forget about it).

You can also use light as actual interior, and play around with the shape, color and design of the light source to create mood and add drama. It’s up to you - and how creative you can be.

The one thing that is excepted from all other light theory, however, applies to clothing stores. 

And yes, you’ve probably guessed it: It is THE DRESSING ROOM.

We’ve all tried standing in a dressing room, filled with excitement over the fabulous piece of clothing we’ve just discovered, only to be kicked in the face by the sight that meets us in the unforgiving mirror.

Bright, overhead fluorescent light might do wonders for your garments on the hanger, but it has not made any human look good. 

Ever.

And you don’t want your customers to leave your store feel bad about themselves, do you? This will not only draw the attention away from the products - it might actually make your customers associate your store with negative emotions.

Investing in more flattering lights in your fitting room area, therefore, is a rather low hanging fruit when creating that great customer experience. 

After all; customers are a lot more likely to buy something that makes them look or feel great.

#4: Secure mix, presentation and placement

You’re probably familiar with the clever move of strategically placing add-on items near the cash register - right? 

This is a great example of an indirectly-selling spot that your entire store should be filled with.

Which items you choose to highlight and give the best placement, should never be just randomly selected. 

Successful stores (with the best visual merchandisers) always make sure to keep a careful mix of new, inspirational items and the “bread and butter” items in the best spots. It’s also highly effective to present similar items together.

Are you displaying a new set of plates? Then why not set a table with plates, cups to go with, a tablecloth and a lovely vase? 

This brings me to an essential principle:

Show, don't tell. 

These three words are actually the very essence of visual merchandising. Are you displaying a new bike, a new pair of shoes, your top selling lamp or other? Show them how they will use it, or what to use it with.

  • Put together an inspiring outfit in the front of the rack.
  • Display the lipsticks next to a picture of someone wearing the lipstick.
  • Have an awesome bike video running near your bike department.

For those over-achievers out there - yes, you can also combine it. Just proceed with caution.

A good way of managing “show AND tell”, is to use signs. Signs can actually be a great way to communicate what you’re offering, a great deal, or hot items the shopper should check out.

However – too many or unclear signs can actually have the opposite effect. It will make the shopper feel confused and overstimulated, which often leads to decision avoidance, and the customers leaving without buying anything

Simply because: 

It’s. Just. Too. Much.

Keep it simple and be specific, and you’ll provide the shopper with a better experience, as well as increasing the chances of impulse purchases.

When working with product presentation, let me introduce you to something most visual merchandisers defer to: Omne trium perfectum.

“The rule of three” (sounds a lot more poetic in Latin right?) is a known term within several fields, everything from literature and writing to technology and mathematics.

Threes are surprisingly pleasing to our brains because our brains actually love thinking in patterns. Threes are the lowest possible numbers that allow us to form a pattern, and therefore humans throughout history have been making stories, songs, and expressions that all involves threes of some sort.

As fascinating as it is, it’s also a great principle to use in your store arrangement.

Display three outfits, three sizes, three different heights and so on – you will also find it to be a great framework for creativity.

#5: Appeal to all senses

The human brain is an intriguing puzzle, and even using some of the most basic psychology can have a massive effect on your customer’s buying behavior.

Humans are visible creatures by nature. In fact, 90 % of the information transmitted in our brains are visual.

Nevertheless; when running a physical store, your biggest advantage is that you are able to appeal to all the traditional five senses in your customers. Sadly, many stores limit their efforts to only one or two of these.

I understand that it’s not easy to make your customers taste your special imported car handles, but as an example, we can see that many stores – of all kinds – offer a beverage or a treat, is using a calming or exciting scent, customized music and similar.

Appealing to more senses is part of the customer revolution that is happening in society. Expectations are higher, technology is better and competition is more fierce. Providing customers with extraordinary customer experiences has been one of the clearest trends within 2017, and it will most likely keep pushing store owners to be more creative and customer-obsessed. Therefore, this is probably one of the most important tips in this article.

#6: Observe, interact, adapt

There is a much underrated, yet highly effective tool to get valuable insights about your customers and the way they shop.

It’s simple really. Just ask them.

  • What made you purchase this item? 
  • What is it you like about this store? 
  • What do you think about the new collection?

In my experience, many customers will also actually provide a lot of feedback unprovoked. So if you’re not always out on “the floor” to hear it yourself - make sure to ask your employees frequently what feedback they are getting from customers.

You should also make a habit out of (discretely of course) actually watching your customers and tracking their steps through the store. This makes for a great map that you can use for locating “hot spots” and planning the customer journey.

A common belief is that most people tend to go to the right and that your store should be adjusted accordingly. 

However, research actually shows that this might be a matter of being right- or left-handed.

Thus, a good idea is to follow your customers natural movements from they enter and until they leave in order to see what is the case for your store.

#7: Beat your visitors to the punch

For this one, I’ll give you a great tip – provided you already have a good overview of who your customers are. (And of course you do, right?) 

Dedicate certain areas or spots of your store to address specific personas. 

Now, you’re probably wondering what personas are. Let me explain.

A persona is, simply put, the personification of a specific part of your target group. This is often created and treated as a fictive person, based on the knowledge you have about your customers.

For example, you could say that “Harry the Hiker” or “Sally the Soccerplayer” are two of your most important personas for your sports store. 

You can use whatever insights you have to create these personas – observation, insights from your Facebook page, experience, customer interviews and so on.

As a store owner, you probably have a lot to go on already. Based on the size of your store, I would recommend you to keep it to a maximum of about 4 personas to not overcomplicate it. 

When you’re all set, here is what you do:

Try to dig deep into your personas’ needs and desires and make sure you offer these things within the same, dedicated areas.

Not only will your customers appreciate this consideration, but they will also be likely to purchase more products and increase your PPR (Pieces Per Receipt).

#8: Internal training and routines

Your employees are one of the most important factors in your store. Furthermore, they’re a crucial part of your store interior.

Think about where your staff should be “stationed” to be present when customers need help or just might need an extra opinion.

If you’re running a clothing store, you might know that places like the dressing rooms and jeans department are the store locations where most people will need some help to continue their purchase.

All retail stores have these spots – and you probably already know where they are. 

Use them wisely. 

The same goes for knowledge around hot spots, top selling items and garment care.

Here I actually have a challenge for you: All your employees should be able to - within seconds - list the top five selling items in your store (and more if possible!).

Also, make sure you have routines in place for the three magic words: Change, refresh and prioritize.

A technique I can recommend (that we also used in my store), is the 4-2-1 approach. Many stores have embraced this routine (or some version of it), where the concept is to change the larger theme or visual concept once a month, then do a rotation every 2 weeks, while taking commercial actions based on sales reports on a weekly basis.

However, you might find that this can be a bit too often or even too seldom for your store.

The bottom line is:

Based on resources, size and nature of your store, find out what works best for you. The important thing is to have a routine you can teach and manage.

#9: Use the numbers you have

All store managers will probably nod their heads in agreement when I say that numbers are important.

Conversion rate, PPR, average purchase, number of visitors, sales reports etc. are key metrics for you to use when arranging your store and placing your products.

When reviewing what products are selling and which are not, try spotting the underperforming items that might just need a new touch or better placement.

Also, keep in mind that your stock numbers are equally important. If you have overstock on some products, and the season sales are still oh so far away, try working strategically with these to boost the circulation speed of your storage.

If you combine the above with the ability to act on sudden circumstances such as weather, trends and so on, you’ll be invincible.

I remember several times when just small actions made the PPR increase like crazy. This could be exchanging some of the add-on items near the register or just add some trendy accessories to one of the “styling tables”.

Track, analyze and take action. (That’s not half bad as a daily mantra, I’d say.)

--

Now, go outside your store and stand in front of your window. 

Seriously, do it. I’ll wait. 

I want you to go through the front store area.

  • Can you find all window items? 
  • Do you feel inspired? 
  • Is there a mix of trendy, inspirational items together with the “bread and butter” bestselling items?

Move around the store.

  • Does your path feel intuitive? 
  • Is it easy to navigate? 
  • Is there a good balance between direct (signs, posters etc.) and indirect sales communication? 
  • Are you constantly discovering new items that you need to check out?
  • Are the dressing rooms clean, inviting and properly lightened?

I want you to do this type of review once every day, and keep in mind how you feel moving from A to Z in your store.

By taking your own customer journey, you will also be able to see things in new ways – and take action on the parts where it’s needed.

If you manage to do this, I can almost guarantee that you will see results very quickly.

The very purpose of visual merchandising is, after all, to tell a story that attracts, delights, inspires…

... and ultimately - converts.

Do you have any tips or tricks that you use in your store? We’d be happy to hear or even see some pictures! Reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter, or simply send us an e-mail.

Margrethe Lunde

Energetic word nerd with a writing speed of 100 WPM and a passion for adventure, good stories, and simplifying the overly complicated. When she's not absorbed in a book or a blog post, she's on "fjellet" (in the fells) or somewhere near freshly brewed coffee.

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