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Shop-Window Science

Display your merchandise poorly and customers will walk on by. Use these tips to create displays that'll skyrocket sales.

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Editor's note: This article was excerpted from Retailin Detail.

Appearance is so important in a retail shop that you should puta 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; itmust also be appealing to the eye. That's why parsley growerssurvive. Not many people eat parsley, but tons are used as agarnish on platters of fish and other foods. Why? To provide atouch 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, qualitymerchandise; you must display it in a way that says to customers,"Take me home."

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

Deciding on a Theme or "Look"

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

This theme can go in many directions, from whimsical to veryformal, with anything in between. It's determined mainly by theproducts you want to sell and the customers you are trying toattract. Have you ever been in a shop that really turned you offbecause the displays were random or uncoordinated and made you notwant to come back? Naturally, you want yours to have the oppositeeffect and you want the look to be as distinctively yours aspossible.

You don't have to settle for an unwelcoming interiordécor 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 warehousebay, unless, perhaps, you are selling industrial chemicals andforklifts. With a little imagination, you can transform "plainvanilla" into a "hot fudge sundae"! When you look ata rental space, train yourself to see beyond the obvious to thepossibilities!

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

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

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

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

If decorating bores you or you simply can't come up with anygood, imaginative ideas, you may want to get professional help onyour displays. Some franchises offer this service and some mayinsist on certain forms of display, but even large card companiesgive the owners some leeway to inject their own personalities intothe atmosphere of their shops. Whether or not you get professionalhelp may depend on your feeling of self-confidence in this area orit may depend more on your financial situation. If you can'tafford outside help, brainstorm with your friends and family,develop some ideas, and go with them. Remember: you can alwaysadjust the ideas later, if they don't produce the results youwant.

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; thisis entirely up to you. This decision will probably depend on thetype of merchandise you wish to sell. Movable fixtures are moreflexible and keep the store from becoming boring by looking thesame all of the time. This is important in gift, decorating,furniture, and other shops that depend upon creating an ambience toput customers in a buying mood and to illustrate ideas for usingtheir products. If you're selling hardware, paint, or gardentools, this is obviously not a critical consideration, so permanentdisplay racks may work just fine.

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

It is probably a good idea to have a mixture of permanent andmovable displays. This combination approach will provide you withsome needed flexibility, while minimizing the work of constantlyputting displays up and tearing them down.

If you need display pieces that you are not able to build, lookin your phone book Yellow Pages under "Store Fixtures"for companies that specialize in fixtures of all kinds, both newand used. You may also be able to find local cabinetmakers orcraftspeople to custom--build the items that you need. Other usefulsources are garage sales, flea markets, and auctions. One advantageof a country shop or one selling retro merchandise is being able topick up old, primitive items that can be used to enhance your look,often at bargain prices. In these times of nostalgia, older piecescan still provide attractive displays, even if your productsdon'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 pickup new ideas. You can't let your displays become stagnant. Youmust be constantly updating and changing them to keep customersinterested.

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

Store Layout Strategies

Now, you're ready to decide on a floor plan. The mostefficient method is using a graph of the floor dimensions, drawn ongraph paper. Measure your display pieces, sketch them on paper tothe same scale as the floor plan, and cut them out. Then place themon the graph and move them around to find the most effectiveplacement. Moving displays on paper is a whole lot easier on theback 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 checkoutcounter. In most instances, it is more attractive to have somethingset up in the center section along with things against the walls.It is pretty boring to walk into a shop where everything isdisplayed against the outer walls. Plus, you lose a lot of gooddisplay area. Be careful not to put breakable items on an unsteadysurface where people can bump into them: that is a commonsense ruleof display.

When possible, try to match products with displays. Forinstance, you could display foods, magnets, spice trivets, andcookbooks 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 compatibletheme. Highly pilferable items should be located where you can seeand control access to them, such as your checkout counter.

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

Window Displays

Window displays are very important. Make them interesting enoughto encourage people to come in and see what else you have for them.However, it is also important that potential customers not be ableto see everything in the store from the front window or else theymay be reluctant to come inside. Window displays should piquecustomers' interest and make them want to explore a littlefurther by coming inside. One expensive mistake you can avoid isputting something in your window that is susceptible to fading orsun damage, if your store frontage is exposed to directsunlight.

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 torecognize it. If you have others involved in your business, such asa spouse or another family member who does have creative talent,consider dividing the work accordingly. This will greatly improvedisplay quality, not to mention preserving tranquility in familyrelationships. If no one in your business is creatively inclined,you should enlist someone with a flair for decorating to assist youin planning and setting up your displays. Some knowledge can beacquired in these areas, through study and seminars, but excellencein display skills comes more from innate ability than learning.


Ron Bond has more than 30 years experience as amanager, chief executive officer, consultant and small-businessowner. He and his wife Susie have successfully started and operatedthree retail gift stores and a bed & breakfast. They currentlylive in Harrison, Arkansas.

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