By definition, visual merchandising (VM) is the use and manipulation of attractive sales displays to engage customers and improve the sales. For many brands, it is also a creative outlet. Is there a smart way to reconcile commercial goals with an artistic message?

GETTING STARTED

“The best VM starts with a clear vision of what the brand stands for and the response you wish to elicit from your audience. Done right, it is built-in advertising that stimulates the senses – it compels, attracts, excites – it sets the tone for what and how the consumer will experience your brand and ultimately buy,” says Deborah McKeand, the Founder of Worktable – a New York-based agency providing creative direction to lifestyle and fashion brands. Having worked with the likes of Nike, Fossil or Aerie, she knows all the sides of the business and believes that visual merchandising is about creating an experience. Nowadays, brands are experienced digitally first, so the retail presence has to be “much stronger to make it worth the consumer’s time to stop in and shop.”

“Visual merchandising starts with the DNA of the brand. What are the values of the brand and how would you communicate this visually to your customers,” says Sanna van Hellemondt, a Visual Merchandising Consultant at a Dutch agency Visual Retailing. “To visually explain a trend or season is paramount but I would say it is the brand identity that needs to be communicated,” adds Lucy London, a lecturer at the Univerisity of the Arts in London and a Visual Merchandising Specialist.

THE DISPLAY

According to McKeand, it all starts with a thoughtful selection of materials and their combination to create an intrigue. “The subtlety of a minimal, quiet concept can be just as powerful as a completely over-the-top display,” she says.

Hellemondt counts elements such as routing, signing, eye-level or the message as important. It is also essential to differentiate between in-store and exterior displays. The window display can highlight a product or an idea while the interior serves to showcase the entire assortment. “They should work in tandem with one another, so they have to be conceived together,” adds McKeand.

Elpida Magkoura is a Visual Merchandiser with an experience working for Selfridges and Giorgio Armani. In order to maximise the sales, she points some of the most important rules: “It is key to display a product and show its features – it makes it more desirable. Most purchases are driven by a want rather than a need. Good visual merchandising ‘creates the desire to buy.’” On top of that, the window display and the way the product is presented inside the store need to be in-line and demonstrate brand’s identity. “Successful brands have a very loyal following because they have a strong identity that is delivered across all customer touch points,” she adds.

Is there any rule regarding the frequency with which display should be changed? It depends on the type of the business you have. Magkoura points that a boutique can adapt to the changing outside conditions: “Sometimes it is good to react to unexpected factors like weather changes.” McKeand thinks it also comes down the the number of deliveries as well as who is shopping in your store: “A shop that sees repeat customers may change their windows and interior more often to keep things exciting.

THE COST

For an emerging brand, the costs of visual merchandising are definitely a consideration. One should think about the necessary props, set design and potential consultation with a professional in the field. “Smaller stores may have minimal budgets and use mostly stock to convey a visual presentation,” says London. McKeand believes that an irresistible display does not need to be expensive, as low-budget projects require even greater creativity. The basic elements she advises to include in the budget are mannequins or body forms, imagery systems, riser/tray package, furniture, fixtures, hangers, hardware, props, found objects and accessories for fit rooms.

AS A YOUNG BRAND

If you are at the beginning of your fashion adventure, you need to accept it takes time to grasp the rules of visual merchandising. Within this ever-changing environment, it is a good idea to start simple. “Be as clear as possible about who you are. The product is the ‘hero’ and you might not need the other elements – you can even build dominance with one product,” says Hellemondt.

Magkoura warns against one of the most common mistakes: “Smaller businesses tend to believe that using a slow selling product in the window will help sell it. It might help sell a few but ultimately what you want is to showcase your best product – that will bring the customers in.”

London puts emphasis on the creative potential of collaborations: “Any brand or designer on a tight budget could work with VM students. I train teams of students that look for experience. The main priority when making a window on a minimal budget is to get the look across. Simplicity is key.

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