Editor's note: This article was excerpted fromRetail in Detail.

Appearance is so important in a retail shop that you should put a great deal of thought into planning and executing your displays. Master chefs are taught the importance of "presentation" of food. It's not enough that food be good and nourishing; it must also be appealing to the eye. That's why parsley growers survive. Not many people eat parsley, but tons are used as a garnish on platters of fish and other foods. Why? To provide a touch of color and make you want to order the dish.

Some restaurants feature color photographs of their specialties, displayed around their dining rooms. They are invariably colorful, balanced displays of their food that invite you to partake. Unfortunately, the real food doesn't always match the photos! But the point is that it's not enough to have useful, quality merchandise; you must display it in a way that says to customers, "Take me home."

Imagination is the key ingredient to planning eye-catching and appealing displays. Don't be afraid to do something different, maybe even a little outlandish at times, within the bounds of good taste, of course. The more distinctive your store, the more your customers will remember it.

Deciding on a Theme or "Look"

Instead of mixing all sorts of displays in your store, you would be better served to establish an overall theme that will unite your merchandise. All displays need not look exactly alike, but they should be compatible or blend in with each other.

This theme can go in many directions, from whimsical to very formal, with anything in between. It's determined mainly by the products you want to sell and the customers you are trying to attract. Have you ever been in a shop that really turned you off because the displays were random or uncoordinated and made you not want to come back? Naturally, you want yours to have the opposite effect and you want the look to be as distinctively yours as possible.

You don't have to settle for an unwelcoming interior décor just because the space you are leasing is plain, box-shaped, and finished in a generic and boring standard decor. Not many people are attracted to a shop that looks like a warehouse bay, unless, perhaps, you are selling industrial chemicals and forklifts. With a little imagination, you can transform "plain vanilla" into a "hot fudge sundae"! When you look at a rental space, train yourself to see beyond the obvious to the possibilities!

Lighting can be a key ingredient of any store's ambience. Most retail spaces are finished out with commercial fluorescent lighting fixtures, which usually give a good level of light, but do little to add to a warm atmosphere.

All this is to say that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear if the desire is there. Consider this story about a woman who has a gift shop in a service station. The gas pumps are still bringing in a major portion of her income, but she has added a beautiful gift shop, carrying everything from small gift items to expensive collectibles. She enjoys seeing the faces of her customers when they walk in to pay for their gas--not your usual gas station!

A good way to get display ideas is to look around when visiting other retail shops. Go to other towns and look at shops similar to yours. You may not want to copy their ideas exactly, but it may trigger a new idea for you. See what appeals to you and make a note of it. Likewise, note things you don't like, so you won't make the same mistakes. Does this approach sound familiar? It should, as it's the way most people decorate their homes--looking around, filing away ideas, discarding things they don't like. Your shop may not be able to mirror your home decorating scheme, but it can reflect your tastes. This can be your chance to be a little bolder than you would at home.

You can get some pretty good ideas by going to trade shows and noticing the displays of the vendors. Some are really professional, while some obviously did not put much thought into displaying their wares. Trade magazines are also good research sources, or just magazines in general.

If decorating bores you or you simply can't come up with any good, imaginative ideas, you may want to get professional help on your displays. Some franchises offer this service and some may insist on certain forms of display, but even large card companies give the owners some leeway to inject their own personalities into the atmosphere of their shops. Whether or not you get professional help may depend on your feeling of self-confidence in this area or it may depend more on your financial situation. If you can't afford outside help, brainstorm with your friends and family, develop some ideas, and go with them. Remember: you can always adjust the ideas later, if they don't produce the results you want.

Permanent vs. Movable Displays

After you have decided on a theme and done some research, it's time to think "permanent" and "movable." You may not want any permanent displays; this is entirely up to you. This decision will probably depend on the type of merchandise you wish to sell. Movable fixtures are more flexible and keep the store from becoming boring by looking the same all of the time. This is important in gift, decorating, furniture, and other shops that depend upon creating an ambience to put customers in a buying mood and to illustrate ideas for using their products. If you're selling hardware, paint, or garden tools, this is obviously not a critical consideration, so permanent display racks may work just fine.

If you sell products for indoor use, you can use furniture for a good portion of your displays. The furniture can even be for sale, but sometimes, when a display piece is so covered up with merchandise, the customer may not realize it is for sale.

It is probably a good idea to have a mixture of permanent and movable displays. This combination approach will provide you with some needed flexibility, while minimizing the work of constantly putting displays up and tearing them down.

If you need display pieces that you are not able to build, look in your phone book Yellow Pages under "Store Fixtures" for companies that specialize in fixtures of all kinds, both new and used. You may also be able to find local cabinetmakers or craftspeople to custom--build the items that you need. Other useful sources are garage sales, flea markets, and auctions. One advantage of a country shop or one selling retro merchandise is being able to pick up old, primitive items that can be used to enhance your look, often at bargain prices. In these times of nostalgia, older pieces can still provide attractive displays, even if your products don't exactly fit a retro theme.

Keeping Displays Fresh

You should be constantly researching new ways to display. Whenever you travel to a new town, take in the local shops to pick up new ideas. You can't let your displays become stagnant. You must be constantly updating and changing them to keep customers interested.

Old merchandise moved to a new spot will sometimes make the customers think it is newly arrived and pay more attention to it. This sounds strange, but it really works. This is an especially effective strategy for regular customers who come in frequently. Maintaining regular customers is another reason to keep a steady stream of new merchandise coming into your store. Many of them will come in and simply ask, "What new things have arrived since my last visit?"

Store Layout Strategies

Now, you're ready to decide on a floor plan. The most efficient method is using a graph of the floor dimensions, drawn on graph paper. Measure your display pieces, sketch them on paper to the same scale as the floor plan, and cut them out. Then place them on the graph and move them around to find the most effective placement. Moving displays on paper is a whole lot easier on the back and the nerves than physically moving them.

Keep in mind that you need a smooth-flowing traffic pattern. This should determine where to place the displays and the checkout counter. In most instances, it is more attractive to have something set up in the center section along with things against the walls. It is pretty boring to walk into a shop where everything is displayed against the outer walls. Plus, you lose a lot of good display area. Be careful not to put breakable items on an unsteady surface where people can bump into them: that is a commonsense rule of display.

When possible, try to match products with displays. For instance, you could display foods, magnets, spice trivets, and cookbooks in an area of your store decorated with a kitchen theme. You can set up similar areas for children's clothes and toys, adult clothing, and jewelry, each decorated with a compatible theme. Highly pilferable items should be located where you can see and control access to them, such as your checkout counter.

Your checkout counter should be located toward the front of your store, so that you can greet customers individually as they come in the door. Even in a commercial situation, people have a need to be recognized and acknowledged. Be careful not to appear pushy or put pressure on them to buy, but do acknowledge their presence and let them know you are glad they came.

Window Displays

Window displays are very important. Make them interesting enough to encourage people to come in and see what else you have for them. However, it is also important that potential customers not be able to see everything in the store from the front window or else they may be reluctant to come inside. Window displays should pique customers' interest and make them want to explore a little further by coming inside. One expensive mistake you can avoid is putting something in your window that is susceptible to fading or sun damage, if your store frontage is exposed to direct sunlight.

Display Talents

Displays call for creative talents that not all of us possess. If your talents do not lie in this area, it is important to recognize it. If you have others involved in your business, such as a spouse or another family member who does have creative talent, consider dividing the work accordingly. This will greatly improve display quality, not to mention preserving tranquility in family relationships. If no one in your business is creatively inclined, you should enlist someone with a flair for decorating to assist you in planning and setting up your displays. Some knowledge can be acquired in these areas, through study and seminars, but excellence in display skills comes more from innate ability than learning.

Ron Bondhas more than 30 years experience as a manager, chief executive officer, consultant and small-business owner. He and his wife Susie have successfully started and operated three retail gift stores and a bed & breakfast. They currently live in Harrison, Arkansas.