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Spring 2003 Windows That Sell

A good display window can sell hundreds, even thousands, of dollars’ worth of merchandise if that merchandise is properly presented, according to Neil McGowen, Sr., a display specialist, now retired. McGowen did window displays from Michigan to Florida for more than 35 years, and received much of the credit for sprucing up tony Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. In 1979, he started McGowen Displays Inc. (Riviera Beach, FL), a store fixture/display company that his son, Neil (Andy) McGowen, Jr., now runs.

In the right light

Lighting isn’t just important to see the display—it’s key to the display’s effectiveness. But McGowen, Sr. says many retailers get it wrong. “The average store doesn’t have the right lighting,” he says. “They don’t have spotlights at all in the window. They’re content to simply set out the merchandise and think that’s going to do it, but it won’t.” Much more effective: merchandise, or a good mannequin, with a background and spotlights. “Then it looks like something on stage. The customer feels that merchandise is special because it’s been singled out for display—and it’ll sell like crazy.”

The best lighting, McGowen says, is a combination of fluorescent and halogen track lighting. “Fluorescent will light a sizable area inexpensively, while the track lighting will highlight the display, dramatizing your merchandise much the same [way] as stage lighting [does].” Put tracks in the center of an area so you can spotlight to the right and to the left. Dramatic halogen track lighting and an imaginative talented display artist can create “magic” in any store, he says. But he cautions against using all track lighting because it generates a great deal of heat. And while many retailers use colored lights to dramatize or get attention, he advises against using them on merchandise. “Then you’re fooling the public, and that’s not honest display work.”

Another mistake retailers tend to make, says Andy McGowen, a freelance display designer for 20 years, is trying to put too much “stuff” into a window. “It gets too cluttered, too mish-mash, and you don’t see anything at all.” Instead, he uses a few very large items from the store, and then maybe a few small pieces around them, giving each small item its own space.

“Either that, or break up the window into small divisions, so that each division has its own story,” he says. Do this by simply leaving a few inches of space between each one, or a divider, or a color change. “Anything to show a different story. Try to keep it as simple as possible.”

Expert tricks

With more than 75 years of display experience between them, the McGowens have numerous tricks of the trade to pass along—like these:

Add something. Borrow paintings from a good artist to use as backgrounds to dramatize your merchandise. To create ten window displays for an upscale women’s apparel store in Palm Beach, McGowen, Sr. borrowed expensive oil paintings from a gallery as background for mannequins dressed in gowns and accessories. “The store sold six gowns before I reached the last window!” Or borrow a prop from a different store or a flower arrangement with the right colors in it. (Be sure to credit the artist and stores you borrow from. Everyone benefits.)

Watch what others are doing. To come up with new ideas, look at other types of stores, go through decorator magazines, and attend trade shows. “There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re always copying ideas from some other field and incorporating them into store windows,” says McGowen, Sr.

Change window merchandise at least every two weeks. This is especially important in a heavily trafficked area. If you don’t change those windows, it looks like you have no new merchandise; like you’ve done no new buying. Many merchants change windows every week because they want to keep everybody interested. Twice a week is too often, because the average customer will rarely go into a shopping venue more than once a week.

Keep props simple. Simple props are usually the best idea. Sometimes the prop is so domineering that you can’t tell what the retailer is trying to sell. Then again, they can be dramatic and surprising. For a Worth Ave. antique/decorator shop, “we spotlighted four large ceramic dogs from Italy playing poker around a card table. The display stopped traffic,” he says.

Keep it clean. One important task many retailers neglect is keeping the windows clean, and not just the glass. “Lights will be burned out and the carpet dirty. You often see cobwebs and debris lying around. It makes them look sloppy. You never see that in a successful store. Everything’s immaculate. Merchandise is showcased so that it looks important.”

Get professional help. Most independent retailers struggle along doing their window displays themselves, but McGowen, Sr. feels they’re only fooling themselves. “If I were a small merchant, I would certainly get a good freelance display person and turn him or her loose a few times. It makes a huge difference.” Once retailers see how good the windows look when a pro does them, he says, their eyes pop open. “And the whole shopping center then comes alive,” he says, “because the other stores see one store looking so much better… so they all shape up. Everyone benefits.”

Freelance visual merchandisers charge around $35 to $50 an hour (possibly more in larger markets), but it may not be as expensive as it sounds, because they often work quite rapidly. Of course, window size and the merchandise being displayed affect time and cost. But McGowen, Jr. says retailers can help keep those costs down. “If the display person goes into a window and finds the old stuff still there… dirt on the floor and junk in the way, it takes him time to just prepare.” To save time and money when you hire help, the McGowens say to:

  • Have an idea of what you want in the window, what you really want to sell—preferably the most expensive items, or what’s exciting and you have a lot of.
  • Make sure that merchandise is ready.
  • Have an idea of the look you want. If you can’t describe it, which stores have displays or interiors you like? Is that the look or feeling you want?
  • Tell the designer who your target customers are—the shoppers you’re trying to attract. What are the demographics, preferences, styles? Are they wealthy or cost-conscious? Older or younger? Singles or family folks? And so forth.

Rather than hiring a freelance designer to create the window display, you can hire and work with a designer who also consults (probably at $100 or more an hour). Instead of spending one day or even two full days to do the window themselves, they can tell you in about an hour or two how your merchandise, props, lighting, etc., should be laid out, and how to do it yourself. “So much of it is physical labor—move this fixture over here, move this merchandise there, flip these racks, move that back four feet. You don’t need to hire somebody like me [at] $50 an hour to do physical labor,” he says. Instead, you can hire someone for perhaps as little as $15 an hour. “And they’ll probably do it faster.”

But do something. Whether you hire someone to actually design your window, or bring in a consultant to give you professional advice so you can do it yourself, McGowen, Sr. says you’re missing the boat if you aren’t using your windows to full advantage. You have something showing in your store window 24 hours a day, he says, so you have to do more than simply lay merchandise on the display-window floor. “Today’s rents are so high, you need the best 24-hour [salesperson] you can get.” And that’s an attractive, well-designed window.

Dana K. Cassell

Dana K. Cassell has been writing full-time since 1976. Early on, she specialized in the retail trade magazine field, but for the past dozen years has concentrated on pharmaceutical and medical topics. Of her titles available on, two are The Encyclopedia of Drugs (Facts on File Library of Health and Living) and Food for Thought.Her credits also include children's magazine fiction and nonfiction, greeting card verse, consumer magazine articles, ad copy, editing projects, writing for business clients, PR articles, and ghostwriting, amounting to around 2,000 articles/columns and a dozen books.

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