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Five Retail Design Myths Debunked

Five Retail Design Myths Debunked
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The display furniture at WildFibers in Mount Vernon, Wash., is a creative alternative to the traditional display fixtures in most yarn shops.

There are plenty of books and consultants dispensing advice about how retailers should and should not be designing their stores. But don't take everything you hear and read as gospel.

"It pays to make an effort to break from the norm," says Debi Ward Kennedy, an Orange, Calif.-based retail consultant. "Take those principles of design and bend, break, configure or camouflage them to serve your business instead of the opposite, where you … are held hostage by rules of interior design."

Here are five common design myths to watch out for:

Myth No. 1: Neutral walls are a must. 
Sarah Parker painted the walls of her yarn shop WildFibers a nondescript taupe color when she moved into a new location in 2007, but the Mount Vernon, Wash., shop lacked the warm feel she was going for. A few years later, she learned from Kennedy that choosing a neutral color was a design myth she'd been too quick to embrace. When she repainted her walls three different colors--chocolate brown, purple and chartreuse green--the space felt far more inviting. Kennedy recommends that retailers develop a "brand palette" of colors that connects with the logo and business concept. At WildFibers, the colors on the walls can also be found in accent furniture. "Think about it in terms of how everything ties together to tell a story to customers," Parker says.

Related: Creating Shops from Shipping Containers

Myth No. 2: Stick with fixtures designed especially for your type of store. 
Shop owners often feel obligated to use the same fixtures their vendors use for their products, says Georganne Bender, a retail design consultant in St. Charles, Ill. While a vendor might supply a display fixture or advise you on how to arrange a particular product, you certainly aren't obligated to follow the suggestions. Parker, for example, avoids using the standard white pressboard cubby shelving found in most yarn stores. Instead, she uses bookshelves, glass cubbies and found objects, ranging from paper towel holders to cake platters. Such creative displays will make your store more memorable to customers. "Everywhere I go, I'm looking for something that you can possibly display yarn on," says Parker.

Myth No. 3: All your fixtures must be flexible. 
Building flexibility into your shop is important for making merchandise changes and keeping the space looking fresh throughout the year. But often shop owners will take this to extremes, using only temporary fixtures as a way to avoid making design decisions, says Jennifer Carpenter, a New York City-based architect. "Unless done really well, when everything is flexible, it gives the store a temporary, noncommittal look that can be off-putting." Some permanent shelving and fixtures that incorporate lighting, on the other hand, can give your store a more polished and professional look. "Think about where you need flexibility and where can you make more commitments," Carpenter says.

Related: 7 Low-Cost Design Ideas for Small Retail Spaces

Myth No. 4: You can't afford an interior designer.
Small retailers assume they can't afford professional design help, but that's not true. While you might not be able to pay for an interior designer to plan your entire store, you can choose some services that will help you make smarter design decisions. Parker paid $75 an hour for a less than two-hour consultation that helped her choose the right colors for her store. "It gave me the tools I needed to do the work myself," she says. Often, paint retailers will offer free on-site consultations. You can also consider bringing in a professional for advice on important tasks such as redoing window displays. "Sometimes it pays to hire a professional for the most crucial part of the process and then take it from there," Kennedy says.

Myth No. 5: The big retailers know best. Copy them.
While major retailers can provide lessons in logistics such as aisle width and lighting techniques, independent retailers sometimes fall into the trap of too closely mimicking the look and feel of a large store. They assume the big players know best and try to recreate the color schemes and layouts of stores that have far greater resources. "They are trying to replicate what's already been done and that puts them in the underdog position right from the get go," Kennedy says. If a small bookstore tries "to use the same design and store colors as Barnes & Noble, they will never look as good as them. You don't want your customers to immediately have the impression that [you] are trying to copy and are falling short." It's far better to develop your own look through distinctive wall colors, store displays and signage.

Related: 5 Ways Store Colors Can Influence Shoppers

Jane Porter is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find more of her work at Janeroseporter.com

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