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Karl McKeever

The director of retail consultancy Visual Thinking discusses peeling wallpaper and iconic underwear with Charlotte Marrion

What do you find so satisfying about visual merchandising?
I am keen to dispel the myth that visual merchandising (VM) is purely aesthetic – it has to pay. I love it when we have worked on one store in a huge group and the results make the head office team sit up and take notice. It’s fantastic to convert non-believers and show that thinking like a customer can have an enormous commercial impact. Also, I love to see newly learned skills bear fruit.

What’s been the biggest project you have ever worked on?
Developing the look for high street chain Marks & Spencer, it was shortly after Sir Stuart Rose took over in 2006. At that stage M&S had so many variables and so many different store designs. We produced a VM training academy manual called The Look that illustrated how to display every product in every category along with general best practice. It was a huge project in scope and simple in delivery – a flagship piece of work. From an international point of view, we designed Beirut Kids in Kuwait before it was built. The entire project was conceptual.

What is the most simple change that retailers can make to improve the feel of their store?
Make bigger, bolder product statements and reduce complexity. They should create dramatic concepts and simplify them. The second thing would be to improve simple retail standards such as housekeeping, manners and customer service, which cannot fail to add value to a customer experience.

What is the biggest challenge in VM?
Keeping things fresh and new. In clothing there is a lot of similarity, so retailers need to make an investment in handling. For instance, if you are selling long and lean trousers, display them in a pared down way so that the focus is on the shape. You should look with fresh eyes and refresh the look every season. For Visual Thinking specifically, the other great challenge is self-promotion. For a number of reasons, a lot of our clients don’t want people to know that they have called in VM consultants.

How important is it for shopfits to echo the personalities of the brands they display?
It is essential. We did some work with a mono brand Timberland store, including changing the way it displayed its jeans, and sales went up 30%. The key is for the store to have its own VM style. John Lewis is the best example of a store with a definite house style.

What is the future of sustainable shopfits?
It’s fair to say that green hasn’t hit VM yet. There have been massive high-level
advancements, especially in terms of renewable energy, but until now there has really been no choice in the market. VM equipment such as tables and mannequins have not been available in green versions, so there is definitely room for that.

Which is the most inspirational shop you have visited?
I am drawn to ABC Carpet & Home in New York. The building is a seven-storey dump with bare floorboards and peeling wallpaper and is not a good example of store design, but it just works. Each floor is a masterpiece. I’m also a huge fan of Liberty. I love the way it manages to be cutting edge and inspirational.

Karl McKeever is director of retail consultancy Visual Thinking

My Icon

Who is your fashion icon and why?
It’s such a clich頢ut Calvin Klein. Over the years he has experimented so exhaustively
with a pared down, minimal aesthetic. Everything from the iconic packaging of his underwear and fragrances to the store design, brand handwriting and clothes is consistently excellent.

Calvin Klein
Famous for his clean lines and palette of neutral shades, Calvin Klein’s first collection was a range of men’s and women’s coats launched in 1969. Later the same year he was described as the ‘supreme master of minimalism’ by Vogue and his collection quickly developed into a complete range. By the mid-1990s, massively successful jeans, fragrance and underwear campaigns saw ‘nothing coming between [Mark Wahlberg/Kate Moss/Brooke Shields] and [their] Calvins’. And not that much coming between Calvin and a healthy turnover. Perhaps the brand’s greatest strength is its ability to portray a consistent brand image despite its highly complex structure of brand licences.

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