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Having a way with words

‘A picture’s worth 1,000 words,’ the old adage goes. Not so, say retailers and brands that are trialling innovative ways to communicate and pique the interest of recession-hit customers

Canny retailers are adapting how they communicate their brand’s credentials with consumers, whose budgets and shopping habits have been re-evaluated as a result of the credit crunch.

A string of eye-catching window displays using words instead of imagery as visual merchandising tools have sprung up in stores, conjuring a different way of asking the customer to interact with a brand.

Retailers including Nike, Selfridges, Diesel, Liberty and Oliver Sweeney are using text to encourage a conversation with today’s smarter customer, one who is no longer susceptible to the high numbers of images peddled to them each day.

This new wave of influential signage in windows and stores has some roots in the evolution of social networking and blogging, creating a relationship with brands and customers through the written word.

It also has its role in the cash-strapped consumer’s psyche - one that requires a straight-talking relationship, and one that responds to brands which talk directly and honestly.

Short text and Twitter-inspired sound bites in a casual tone have replaced lavish aspirational lifestyle photoshoots. Formality has been ditched in favour of personal directness.

Lorna Hall, retail editor of trend forecasting website WGSN, says: “The whole way retailers used to sell was via aspirational and lifestyle imagery. Retailers can’t do that anymore. We have adjusted since the credit crunch.

“Most consumers have realised that they can’t afford that aspirational image and have revisited how they spend their money. Retailers have had to look for other ways to sell and visualise in stores.”

Hall says that as customers have evolved to use the internet as a social networking tool, the use of messages in visual merchandising has become increasingly attractive and created an inclusive way of involving the customer.

She says: “There is a casual ‘in-the-know’ tone of voice to these campaigns as well as in-jokes and things that make you think.

“What is interesting is how we can see it in all areas of the market, from niche - such as the windows at Liberty for [Paris indie] Merci - to Nike, where they are being to-the-point with information about why something is worth it. They need strong information that creates value.”

There are many advantages to this form of visual merchandising.

Retailers can be clear-cut and straight-talking and individual product features and benefits can be communicated simply and directly to the consumer. Humour and thought-provoking text will engage the savvy shopper on many levels.

Retailers are able to say what the customer is thinking but also give silent customer service by appearing to understand them more.

There is also another equally important reason for using words over imagery.

“Words are cheap,” says Hall. “A lot of visual merchandising budgets have been cut back. It is a cost-effective way to visually inspire. “

The cost means that smaller retailers and independents are able to capitalise on this particular trend, placing them at an advantage to their multiple retailing counterparts.

“For independents, to be able to capitalise in a local way and spell out their local connections is important,” says Hall. “They can spell out their point of difference.

“People in general are thinking harder before they spend. They want to justify what they spend and so retailers need to give them information they have got to convince a customer they need to buy something. It is easier to do with words than images.”

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