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Spring 2011 From Pushcart to RMU

Thirty years ago, specialty retail was born and the pushcart was pressed into service. One visual merchandiser reminisces about those humble beginnings, the evolution of the pushcart and how visual merchandising in specialty retail changed along with it.

Pushcarts have been a part of retail for many years; all over the world, vendors have used pushcarts to move and sell their goods from place to place. Long ago farmers from villages brought their produce to sell at markets in urban communities. A flatbed wagon, which was used to bring the produce to market, was quickly converted to a counter to sell wares. European immigrants to the United States used pushcarts too—and sold everything imaginable to urban residents.

Pushcarts in specialty retail

In 1976, the Rouse Company developed a new concept in retail, a “festival marketplace” named Faneuil Hall Marketplace. To camouflage vacant storefronts, the Rouse Company brought in pushcarts stocked with merchandise. When the pushcarts began to register success, the idea of the cart/RMU was born—and a different way of selling merchandise was underway.

My exposure to pushcarts came in the early 80’s. My client, a marketing director for an upscale mall, had heard about a new sales concept in the marketplace and wanted to try it out. To add some excitement to the center, she wanted to implement a festival marketplace in New York City during the holiday season. Just like today, people in the industry were looking for new concepts to increase revenue and add excitement to their properties. When she explained the idea to me, I didn’t understand how a wooden wagon was going to sell “novelty merchandise” in the common area of the mall. My education was just beginning.

Since I was the mall’s visual merchandiser, I was given the task of making sure the pushcarts (the term RMU hadn’t been established yet) conformed to the upscale mall’s high standards. I had trained in department stores—designing and implementing window displays and “swing shops” in various sections of the department store. A swing shop is one where the entire merchandise concept is changed frequently.

Merchandising pushcarts

Still not entirely sure what the pushcart looked like, I worked this project assuming I was installing displays in a freestanding swing shop. There were no meetings with the vendors to see the product and to use that as a basis for merchandising the cart. The mall manager and I discussed different approaches from my stock of props and fixtures. Her goal was to make the carts as creative as possible and make t hem stand out in the common area of the mall. Five tenants had signed on for the first year. The products they sold were packaged popcorn, whimsical matching sweater and scarf sets, handcrafted jewelry, and infant accessories. At the last minute, the regional department store adjacent to the mall was signed on to set up a promotional cart advocating their monogramming services.

Since the five carts were to be in a row, I wanted to create a rhythm with the propping and merchandising of the carts. Some carts would have simple visual merchandising; others would be more elaborate. Since sightlines for inline tenants weren’t a consideration at that time, my goal was to visually fill the cart for impact by displaying the product at different heights. For the whimsical sweater vendor, I reworked the idea of kites. To make the sweaters look like kites I put a dowel through the sleeves and hung these from the rafters of the canopy. The back stock was stacked in piles on the bed of the cart.

The popcorn came in large drums, so I stacked them up and filled the bed of the cart. For the infant accessories vendor, I tied clotheslines to the posts of the cart and hung the baby clothes with pastel-colored clothespins. Wooden buildups were covered in white fabric and used for gift baskets and baby accessories. Back stock was also folded into piles on the deck of the cart.

For the jewelry vendor, I arranged gift boxes decorated in holiday themes, in a pyramid configuration, and then placed the jewelry on jewelry forms.

The department store decided to set up the monogramming cart as a satellite shop. Their visual merchandising team used blouse stands at various heights to display robes and clothing items. Stacks of pre-monogrammed towels surrounded the blouse stands. A poster promoting the store’s monogramming service was hung from the rafters of the canopy.

Before the setup, I saw the pushcart assembled in the mall storage area, and was a little taken aback; it was a wooden wagon and looked like it had come straight off the farm! It had a huge bed, big wheels, and a canopy, and there was a boxy storage area under the bed of the cart. There was no electricity (no lights), no phone, no credit card machine, no register. And it did not complement the mall décor. I was worried.

But the carts were a success. With unique products and simple merchandising, the concept was a hit with the customers at the upscale center. Over the next few years, both the carts and the specialty retailers evolved. Certain vendors were brought back and new vendors were found through word-of-mouth and at craft fairs. The pushcarts were supplied electricity by running extension cords to nearby outlets in planters. Registers were now added and the addition of simple “can” lighting increased visibility.

The humble pushcart evolves

My next exposure to carts was several years later. They were now in many malls as a viable source of revenue. Specialty retail and leasing was thriving during this developmental phase of the cart. There was a variety of merchandise categories now—demonstration products, jewelry, scarves, sunglasses, brand-name products and local handmade products. Specialty leasing agents sourced trade shows, trade publications, surrounding communities, and the competition.

The physical structure of the pushcart changed and it was no longer a wooden wagon. The wheels were removed to provide the cart with adequate storage, modern lighting, and add-on shelving. The cloth canopy was replaced by an open grid, which provided a better opportunity for the visual merchandiser to suspend props. The new carts came in a variety of sizes and finishes.

Visual merchandising for the pushcart also evolved. It started with a simple display; there was no precedent. But there was a trend to move beyond cubes with merchandise stacked on them. Today specific fixtures are sourced for a variety of vendor needs, and visual merchandising of carts and kiosks is an integral part of a mall’s overall merchandising strategy.

The specialty leasing process also became more formal. Initially, vendors and carts just fell into place informally. Soon every cart and kiosk—justifiably so—became a well-planned installation. Meetings that involved the vendor, a specialty leasing agent and the visual merchandiser became the norm. These meetings allowed the visual merchandiser to see the products and discuss merchandising ideas. Sketches needed to be submitted to management for approval. Creativity was emphasized and nurtured to make the overall appearance of the cart unique. Stores like IKEA, Target and Walmart provided the fixtures and props needed to accommodate the variety of products. One of my challenges was to overcome the size limitations on many carts to find fixtures in the right finish and size to fit the cart and accommodate the product.

Contemporary merchandising

The pushcart from thirty years ago has evolved into the RMU of today. The RMU makes an important contribution to the merchandise mix of each property. Property owners now understand that any major product or service not available with an inline tenant can be featured on an RMU for a brief time, thereby giving the customer a reason to come back and see what’s new.

These days, RMUs have been further improved upon. Custom furniture and other accessories are designed to blend with a mall’s décor, so the customers see the merchandise not the RMU unit.

Streamlined and sophisticated, the RMU is a versatile, cost-effective retail tool incorporating the best aspects of a pushcart (mobility) and a kiosk (permanent installation). The RMU is flexible so it can expand and contract to fit most locations in the common area of the mall. The canopy has been streamlined to a simple bar of lights to enhance the merchandise and allow for the visibility of inline store signs.

Manufacturers have listened to specialty leasing managers and now offer different add-on fixtures to showcase a variety of merchandise. This helps the visual merchandiser. With a variety of custom-built fixtures designed for the RMU, I can focus my attention solely on props and other effects that add to the drama at each unit.

The new RMUs accommodate vendor signs and graphics. This allows the use of images to enhance the merchandise.

As I look back at the evolution of the humble pushcart into a sleek, functional unit, I am amazed at how much the industry and all its workings have evolved. As specialty retail continues to grow, it’s exciting to imagine what new designs and merchandising challenges lie ahead.

Alex Laird

Alex Laird is a visual merchandiser and creative retail consultant with extensive experience assisting retailers design innovative retail displays

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