Creating Your Retail Look
Your business has to have an identity. Sure, it has a name, but there’s more to it than that. Your retail identity is a combination of elements—name, products, displays, signs and much more—that sets a tone and creates an ongoing positive and persuasive image. It sets the visual, perceptual foundation of your business for years to come. So even if your displays, signs and layout change, your retail identity stays the same, your look stays recognizable, and your customers know they can count on you for what they come in for.
Establish your identity
To get to the heart of your retail identity, start with these questions:
- Who are your target customers?
- What are they looking for? (E.g., teens looking for the latest must-have accessory.)
- What kind of shopping environment do they want—energetic? sophisticated? high-tech? urban? family-friendly?
- What does that environment feel like—fun? subdued? cold? young?
- What feelings does your product line evoke? (E.g., silver/chrome for high-tech, brights for children’s, green for gardening.)
- What images, words or symbols are associated with your products?
Jot your answers on paper, and for the last question, list everything that comes to mind. (This exercise in free association can be fun.) For example, a cart retailer selling RC toy cars might list speed, kids, dads, laughter, tires, seat belt, danger, joy stick, Daytona 500, bleachers/fans, driving gloves, helmet, race photos, Texaco, skid marks, racing stripes, wheel covers, sunglasses, pit crew, checkered flag, red/yellow/green, among other things. A theme—an identity—starts to emerge. To establish it concretely and carry it through, that retailer can put racing stripes in red, yellow and green on the cart’s sides and top, and the same colors (stripes or not) on fixtures, fabrics, signs, props, packaging, even receipts. Your own list will point you toward a distinctive identity. The possibilities are endless, but there’s only one unchanging goal: to meet your customers’ wants and needs so you can get their attention—and their business.
Gotta have a plan
Once you come up with your retail identity, how do you put it to work? Through a visual merchandising (VM) plan you create.
Good visual merchandising is more than neatly arranged products: It’s understanding how your customers shop, and what they want, and how to display merchandise to motivate them to buy. But you have to get their attention first. You do that by putting several of these tried-and-true techniques into your VM plan, and into action:
Motion. If it moves, it attracts. If you can find a way to create movement, do it! Try things like animated character props, blinking lights, flapping pennants, twirling turn-tables—anything that moves gets attention. Inexpensive rotating displays that hang from the ceiling or cart roof get noticed. So do “spin displays,” self-contained fixtures that rotate products (available from many fixture manufacturers). And perhaps best of all are product demonstrations. Demonstration is low-cost, high-impact, almost irresistible motion—shoppers stop in their tracks to watch, and those who watch usually buy.
Color. Strong colors get attention, and the right dash of color does wonders. In fact, certain colors can influence shoppers’ moods. According to research, these are some common effects:
- Red: exciting, dynamic, aggressive; activity, impulse
- Orange: vibrant, warm, extroverted; a teen favorite
- Yellow: warm, sunny, cheerful; little kids’ favorite (but not adults’)
- Blue: calm, cool; cleansing, purity, peace; America’s favorite color
- Purple: regal, rich, mysterious; spirituality, creativity; older teens’ favorite
- Green: fresh, clean, healthful; nature, ecology; America’s #2 favorite
- Black: sophisticated, mysterious, elegant; mourning, magic; a favorite of urbanites, fashionistas, intellectuals
- Neutrals: Sometimes a lack of bright color works best. Beige, cream, tan, gray or white as background colors won’t compete with your merchandise. But keep in mind that whatever your color scheme, you need a strong contrast between background and product to punch up visibility: e.g., cream on white won’t work.
And keep it simple: two colors and one accent. Anything more is usually too much.
Shine and sparkle. Add glitz with high-gloss, metallic, pearl or other special-effect paint. Some papers and fabrics have metallic fibers or finishes, too. With the lighting set at correct angles, shiny surfaces reflect it in different ways as the customer moves, which creates a sense of motion, highlights merchandise, and generates interest.
Texture. Textured papers, fabrics, trims and paint add dimension. But paint can be cheaper. You can add style and interest with painted stripes, stenciling or faux finishes on walls or display cases. Free how-to information on paint effects is online and in brochures from paint stores and home-improvement centers.
Lighting. A vastly underestimated element, good lighting can sell. But there’s more to putting your merchandise in “the best possible light” than a few bright bulbs. The right lighting can direct customers’ attention as well as illuminate product detail and quality they might not notice otherwise. Recent advances in lighting, like fiber-optic signs and low-voltage/high-intensity halogen fixtures, provide a number of interesting options. Sequenced lighting creates the illusion of motion, and several RMU manufacturers have introduced compact spots, floods and track lights that help make products shine.
Oversizing. Something that’s much larger than expected always gets noticed. Depend-ing on the item and the context it’s in, it might startle, delight or surprise—but it won’t go unnoticed. Best of all, oversized props, graphics and fixtures make shoppers consciously aware of you from a distance—50 or 100 feet away—thereby beating out competing signs to bring shoppers to you. And as with any other VM element, the best oversized props or graphics reinforce your retail identity.
Humor. Putting some fun in your visuals is a great attention-getter. Anything that makes people smile will draw them to you and create some buzz for your business. Be aware, though, that humor can be tricky: like beauty, humor is in the eye of the beholder. It takes a light touch and a little wit, whimsy or a dash of absurdity (but nothing offensive, of course) to make it fun and effective.
The possibilities are endless, but sometimes the best gags use a visual “hook” that relates to your merchandise and identity in some way. Examples: a sunglasses retailer’s oversized cutouts of cows wearing stylish shades; a pet-adoption center’s window outfitted as a cat’s apartment (and loaded with puns); a children’s photographer’s staff wearing brightly colored silly costumes and whimsical hats.
For ideas and inspiration. Look through trade magazines—and don’t overlook consumer magazines. Fashion, lifestyle, decorating and even travel magazines are excellent sources of display ideas, even though the focus isn’t retail per se. Look through home-décor books, too. (After all, gurus like Christopher Lowell always tell us to “merchandise” that tabletop!) Decorating books are a great source of ideas you can adapt.
It comes down to this: When you create something that’s out of the ordinary, you get shoppers’ attention. But you want only good attention, so here are some VM mistakes to avoid:
- Overcrowding. Displays cluttered with too much product or set too close together invite confusion and frustration.
- Overpowering. Make product the focal point, not the display. The merchandise is the star of the show. If your displays overpower it, they’re working against you.
- Static displays. Displays can’t stay the same forever, even if they’re good. Customers want something new. The ones that sit there for months shout “Nothing new here!” So change the displays often.
- Poor lighting. If your customers can’t see your products, they won’t buy them. Even if the light seems bright enough, you have to be sure your merchandise is in flattering light. Sometimes spending $50 to upgrade the lighting can mean the difference between a browser and a buyer.
- Hand-lettering. Unless hand-lettered signs and price tags tie into your visual merchandising theme somehow—and they’re nicely done—don’t do it. In most cases, they’re sloppy and unprofessional, which isn’t the retail identity you want.
Evaluating your image
Once you’ve put it all together, see if your VM plan, and your retail identity, are on track and working. Otherwise you may need to do some tweaking:
- What does your look say to shoppers at a glance? What image does it project? Ask friends or other retailers for their impressions. If what they tell you isn’t in line with what you want, make changes right away.
- Does your business name, logo and signage (from entrance sign to price tags) reinforce your retail identity and image? Again, ask. And again, if the answers indicate making changes, make them right away.
- Is the lighting right? People walk away from light that’s too bright or too dim.
- Is the overall effect clean, clear and simple? Sometimes more is less. Are there elements that confuse people, or detract from the identity you want? If you have too many colors, props or even product on display, edit (as the designers say). Take some out, and you’ll see an improvement.
Overall, does your cart, kiosk or store look attractive and inviting? And does it convey your business identity? If you can answer with a resounding “Yes,” you’re on your way to reaping the benefits of a successful—and profitable—retail look.