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Colour provides a shot in the dark

With darker shades dominating yet again, clever merchandising can help stores pep up their offer

Grey, black and midnight blue - the mood for the season is stubbornly dark. So how can retailers breathe life into the sea of sombre hues and ensure the products they sell look fresh and eye-catching in store?

Karl McKeever, brand director at consultancy at Visual Thinking, says the key is to work with colours that add accents. "The best way to do this is through print and surface decoration - the use of embellishment, embroidery, or whatever the current fashion detail happens to be. This tactic can be used to link together and create a stronger critical mass of colour in the collection."

Successful visual merchandising boils down to detail and contrast, says McKeever. Rather than choosing colours in isolation, try an approach that takes the complete look into account. "Making a mini mood board will guide the overall selection of colours," he adds.

In an ideal world, he says every neutral shade should have at least two highlight colours - tones that are complementary to the main tone and also representative of current trends.

So does McKeever agree that dark colours are trickier to merchandise? "I think it's a myth," he says. "It's a question of what you put with them. From a merchandiser's point of view it's more difficult to merchandise too many bright colours, because you have to be careful about colours fighting each other."

Womenswear brand Bandolera, which has 20 franchise stores and six standalones, advises its retailers on how to merchandise colour successfully. Head of design Susanne Roosganguly says: "We would never advise putting dark colours together. We suggest that retailers put groups of product together so the colours are integrated and lively - for example, twinning forest greens with greys, and gold accessories with black or white.

"Dark shades need to be freshened up, otherwise the feedback is that they look too boring and shoppers won't buy them. A trendy customer normally wants a dark or neutral colour on top and a design, or brighter colour, underneath."

John Lewis senior manager for visual merchandising Val Crook is quick to emphasise the importance of display, especially when it comes to dark colours. "Lighting is critical: it's key to make sure plenty of light falls directly on the product," she says. "Also, think about accessories - anything that will grab customers' attention."

Another of Crook's tips is to dress mannequins at the front of a display in dark colours, introducing colour on mannequins behind.

So does all the extra effort required to present darker colours effectively mean more money should be spent on staff training? "Displaying darks does mean a little more effort and tweaking, but it's part of employees' ongoing training," says Crook. "People with an eye for fashion tend to do this automatically."

Fortunately, despite the work involved in merchandising them, dark colours remain thoroughly commercial. Angela Jones, joint owner of womenswear independent Angel in Okehampton, Devon, says: "Blacks and greys are commercial colours - think of the lasting popularity of the little black dress. There's always room for these colours in a collection."

Jones agrees that the secret lies in canny use of brighter colours and different textures. "It's important to pick out highlight colours such as bright blues, lilacs, raspberries and pinks, and mix them with the rest," she says.

House of Fraser visual communications manager Naomi McMahon, says point of difference can come as much from shape and length as from colour. "When we think about outfitting, we always bear it in mind that trousers, jackets and shirts need to be mixed up," she explains. "Print and pattern pieces can also be used to break dark colour up. Black and navy worn together will be big for autumn 07 and a splash of a pattern will break up this combination on a display.

"If I was a small retailer, I'd look at magazines and do a bit of competitive shopping, looking at the competition to keep up to speed. There are always ways to create interest around dark colours, but more concentration and imagination is needed along the way."

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