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Visual merchandising: Seeing is believing

Product is king but the polish on the crown is provided by great visual merchandising.

Why do some customers walk into one particular store instead of another? Yes, a 50-something woman might not be hankering after a floral dress from Miss Selfridge, but an eye-catching window can pull in drifting customers who hadn’t previously planned to step through the door.

While price plays one of the most important roles in a shopper’s decision-making process, visual merchandising (VM)can capture her attention, encourage her to run her fingers along garments hanging on rails and, along with store design and layout, can persuade her to browse other products - and ultimately purchase them.

On the high street, retailers continue to invest in VM. Perhaps no other retailer’s moves in this area are in the spotlight - and debated so hotly - as those of Marks & Spencer, which is attempting to battle against flagging clothing sales. The business is investing in shop refits and segmenting each of its clothing brands to create distinct looks and identities, almost like shops within shops.

Still, Marks & Spencer continues to receive criticism for its product density - an area the retailer claims to be addressing. Ryan Becker, M&S’s head of product presentation for lingerie and beauty, says: “We have an aspiration [to have] less product density. We are introducing a new system to replace stock quicker so we don’t need as much on the shop floor.”

Overwhelming customers with product isn’t a practice just restricted to M&S. Value and discount chains are often criticised for this, with critics suggesting too much stock creates a poor shopping experience.

Jonathan Baker, course director of fashion retail branding and visual merchandising at London College of Fashion, cites Jane Norman as one retailer that needs to scale back on its stock. “The amount of merchandise it has in an environment in which people are supposed to shop is hopeless,” he says. “I don’t know how people like to shop there.”

At the other end of the market, the more premium retailers tend to offer a very different experience. Jaeger head of visual merchandising Tracy Mclennan says: “We retain the luxurious and elegant nature of our offer by keeping low product densities that allow each piece to ‘breathe’ and maintain its focus on the shop floor.”

For David Dalziel, group creative director and co-founder of design consultancy Dalziel + Pow, density in itself is not an issue. “Many retailers embrace density as a virtue; it is their policy to present a huge choice and depth of range. Without density they may not have the appeal they achieve. The shoppers are in control here. They choose the brands and the store experiences they prefer.”

Dalziel says Zara is one of the few exceptions to this rule. “In its recent flagship fit in Park House on Oxford Street it presents an experience once restricted to Armani and Chanel. It is hugely impressive but may not be as profitable as some competitors.”

The mannequin is heralded as one of the best ways to showcase a product. From windows to the shop floor, dummies help customers envisage what an outfit might look like when worn, or how to co-ordinate products together.

When it comes to which retailers are dazzling their customers with the finest mannequins, WGSN visual merchandising editor Claire Dickinson says Zara and Harvey Nichols stand out for their use of mannequins, adding that the retailers aren’t afraid to experiment with hair, make-up and design details. “Sometimes it’s as simple as a row of 50 hair grips but they always ensure it’s executed beautifully. They both create elaborate headpieces for mannequins, often using random objects such as tennis rackets and paintbrushes, for a touch of humour or to build a narrative. Also, neither is afraid to apply permanent, irreversible treatments to mannequins. For example, Harvey Nichols recently had paint-spattered faces and Zara dipped mannequins’ feet into gold paint.”

Marks & Spencer has started playing around with its mannequins too, beginning to group together bigger sets of them to provide more of a wow factor and welcome customers into stores. “It gives much more of an impact,” says Becker, who adds that the retailer has rolled out this feature to 10 stores and plans to extend it to about 80 by the end of the year.

To catch the eye of the wandering shopper, many retailers create tantalising visual windows through the imaginative use of props (think All Saints with its display of vintage sewing machines), playing up a designer or celebrity collaboration (recently seen at H&M with its Beyoncé partnership) or embracing current trends (both Topshop and Urban Outfitters are currently backing the festival season).

Dickinson says Oasis has created “beautiful” eye-catching windows, such as an ‘overgrown meadows’ installation and more recently a kitsch picnic theme. “The windows began the story, which continued in the atrium with mannequins standing inside an oversized wicker box,” she says. “Picnic baskets were then used in the accessories area as display fixtures. It’s not necessarily a new trend but it’s well put together, which deserves recognition.”

You might think creating a strong window in stores nationwide could be an expensive affair for cash-strapped retailers. Not so, says Drapers stores editor John Ryan. “You don’t need a lot of money, you just need a good creative idea,” he says. He points to lifestyle retailer White Stuff, which in April dressed up the windows at its Spitalfields store in east London with old-style keyboards and computers, greenery, sunflowers and mannequins. “It’s a simple idea that works,” says Ryan. “It’s not all about massively dressing up mannequins.”

Jaeger adopts a co-ordinating approach, meaning that what the customer sees in the window is reflected in its key displays and mannequins in store. “What is styled in windows is replicated at the front of the store, focusing the customer’s attention on hero pieces and making it easier for her to shop,” says Mclennan.

This might seem like an obvious move, but it’s not always followed by retailers, says Baker. “There is nothing more frustrating [for a customer] than putting a product in the window that you only have one of,” he adds.

With windows viewed as the soul of the store, retailers need to ensure they’re clean, removing all those pesky dust mites that can glimmer in the light. “The rule of thumb is to every morning walk your windows,” says Sakeena Banful, visual merchandising manager at Moss Bros. “Something could have fallen down. Mannequins tend to come alive at night.” It’s equally important to ensure mannequins look immaculate, so check regularly for wear and tear.

“You have to make a £2.99 product look like a million bucks, so make sure the product is appropriately presented and looks beautiful,” adds Banful.

A striking window will always turn the head of a potential customer. Ryan praises Uniqlo’s approach of presenting products in bulk, with jumpers, shirts and jeans stocked on top of each other: “It’s a colourful presentation, which makes you want to shop.”

Along the shop floor, there are plenty of ways to spark customers’ interest. “Floor layouts are extremely important to the ease of shopping for customers,” says Jackie Smith, head of visual merchandising at New Look. “Identifying strong sightlines in a store and utilising pause points such as mannequins, graphics, displays or strong product handling all contribute to the pace of the store, ensuring customers circulate the whole space and are excited and inspired as they walk through the floor.”

Remember, the product is the hero. But with a striking backdrop, retailers can grab shoppers’ attention - and that’s no mean feat.

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