May 24, 2002
Visual merchandising: Your 'Silent Salesman'

By Susan Hayden

How would it feel to walk into your garden centre as a customer and "experience" it for the first time? What does your customer think and feel when he or she experiences your store, and have you designed your space to 'seduce' that customer over the lease line, into 'your' territory, and around your whole sales area? The following suggestions could help you to take an objective look at your retail store and create an irresistible shopping adventure that culminates in additional 'action' at the cash desk.

     Let's logically begin at the lease line with Jane, a prospective customer. This is where she has the first, and most important, impression of exactly 'who you are' as a retailer. This is also where she will create her impression of your corporate identity. You must know exactly who your 'target market' is and begin with a unique and creative storefront design, memorable and exciting company colours and logo, inviting entranceway and compelling window displays to tell only that one simple, strong visual message - your corporate identity. Cor­porate Identity is all that you are and all that you do, including the benches and flowers outside your entrance, the smiling face Jane finds in every department, and the free flower seeds that she receives when she makes a purchase.

     Don't be fooled into thinking that Corporate Identity and sophisticated Corporate Communications are only for the 'big guys' in retailing. With a small sales staff and great product knowledge information to share with your customer, great 'communicating' is essential. Professional in-store signing can entice Jane to explore departments with bright, fun graphics, educate her about new trends or ideas and info on how to use a product. They also communicate prices and special offers without the help of a salesperson. Newsletters can keep customers in touch with the garden centre and its products between visits, and remind them of the garden centre's presence in that big sea of retail competition. Birthday cards, thank-you cards and affordable promotional postcards keep your company's name at the forefront of your customer's mind - right where you want to be. With today's desktop computing, all of this can be generated from your own office computer, and even large-scale graphics can now be printed at reasonable prices for small "runs."

     But let's go back to just inside your lease line or entrance. If you have display windows, they must be simple and professional; never underestimate the power they have to sell your company image and specific merchandise. In addition to dynamic windows, when a "Jane" glances into your space, be sure you tell at least two strong stories about yourself from this vantage point. Don't allow this customer to pass by without telling them more than one merchandise "story." Also, don't let your customer think that you only sell one category of merchandise. And yet you can't overcrowd this space, or the confusion does not allow the viewer to get a clear image of anything. This is prime selling space, which should not be filled just with a cash desk. You don't sell cash desks, do you? I hope that your gar­den centre has a traffic-stopping display platform right inside the main entrance. Go to any Ikea to see a great example of this - they always have the hottest promotional items displayed (and signed) right inside the front door, up on a platform which bring the merchandise closer to hand and eye level. As customers, we love to see, smell and touch a possible purchase as part of the purchasing experience. Research shows that most customers turn right when they enter your 'selling space', so be sure that one of your hottest, seasonal departments is located in this spot - this is a great area in which to create lots of impulse sales. You know that if you don't sell that seasonal 'stuff' during those few key weeks, that you will be marking it down and praying that it sells as clearance.

     As Jane steps over the 'boundary' and into your retail space, she should immediately be surrounded by the unique ambiance and atmosphere you have created. You may not want to go to the expense of something like The Rainforest Café, which takes you directly to an African rainforest with animated gorillas and thunderstorms, but in this competitive retail environment, you need to create a special experience for the shopper that will remind them of you and bring them back wanting more. Installing flagstone floors, wood beam ceilings, birdcalls and bales of hay certainly say more to your customer than beige linoleum and white painted walls. Assemble those garden fountains so they can enjoy the sounds of running water, and be enticed to buy one for their own home. Cash desks and fixtures can be made from old wagons and wheelbarrows to make the space come alive, while antique armoires and furniture can house accessories in a charming and enticing way.

     And don't forget about the 'other' senses. Decide on the best music to entertain your client and pipe it in all day long. I can always tell when the owner is not on site, and the young staff is in control, because the music goes from yuppie to rocky. Treat your customer to aromas that suit the store's atmosphere, and select a scent that you sell, so that you can also gain some related sales from intrigued customers. Never lose sight of the 'sixth sense' as well - the feeling that they are respected and appreciated as a customer. No matter how beautiful your space is or how great your merchandise mix, if you don't treat your Jane like a Queen, she can find plenty of other places to buy her gardening supplies.

     "Merchandise that is well lit is half sold" is an old retailing idea that is very valid. You cannot rely on general lighting, created by fluorescent tubes in most cases, to sell your merchandise. All it does is light the retail space in a uniform brightness. Focal points, displays and merchandise will only 'dazzle' the viewer when a contrast of low and high light is created with 'accent' lighting, most notably the MR16, a small halogen light you can see in use in most malls now. Harry Rosen uses it beautifully to 'punch out' the brightly coloured ties on his conservative grey, black and brown suits. These lights can be added to your existing lighting bit by bit to make it an affordable proposition. Consult a professional like Juno Lighting that will understand your specific retail requirement and provide an estimate at no charge.

     Let's presume that Jane is now in our retail space - the next challenge is to ensure that she explores the whole store, and not just the front displays before she leaves. This can be a real problem, because if she doesn't see anything that excites her right from the front door, she may leave before you can convince her that you have exactly what she needs or wants. Although the entrance and surrounding areas are known to be superior and prime selling areas in a store, the back of the store is categorized as non-productive. This means that in order to generate sales at the back, you must lead the customer there, using a creative traffic flow, focal points and displays, as well as great departmental signing. FREEFLOW traffic configuration arranges aisles and fixtures to cleverly bring your customer right to the back wall- also know as 'the stage' - as well as inviting them to browse and wander amongst your beautiful offerings. GRID traffic flow lines fixtures up in straight rows, much like a supermarket, and will best suit basic purchases or items that you sell in mass quantities. Most stores work well with a combination of these two styles.

     If your store is really large, you can create a RACETRACK flow, like the main floor in a department store, where the main traffic aisle sweeps around the store, with all departments facing out onto the main racetrack aisle. This ensures that every department 'comes to the aisle' and cannot be missed by Jane as she swiftly navigates your store in an effort to take in everything quickly. Whatever the best plan is for you, it is critical to plan to seduce Jane into inspecting your whole space, and another powerful way of doing this is to create focal points all along the main traffic aisle and in major sight lines.

     A focal point can be a display or presentation of merchandise at eye level on a fixture, on a wall, a promotional sign, a department sign or anything that will catch attention. They should be located at aisle intersections, on the end of gondolas and behind the cash area. These areas are known to 'sell' two to three times more product or service than any other area in your store, so they are also ideal locations for interactive demonstrations, video screens and anything that's new and exciting. While placing merchandise in these hot spots, be sure to keep small, inexpensive, trendy impulse items at the front of the store for easy pick up, and larger, more expensive, destination purchases towards the back of the store. In this way, Jane is encouraged to pass by everything else in the store to reach the department where her destination purchase is located, and if she never makes it to the back wall, she will have already seen the impulse "goodies."

     There is no hotter area in your store for selling than the actual cash area. People come here to pay, but while they are waiting, you can present them with opportunities to pick up a lot of little impulse items. When a customer has made a decision to buy one item, research shows that the next purchase is a whole lot easier to add to the shopping cart. Don't overload the area so that it becomes confusing, but take advantage of the wall behind the cash, vendor fixturing and creative signing to create related and impulse sales here.

     And speaking of related sales, Faith Popcorn, famous author of Clicking and trend consultant to numerous corporations, speaks of our rushed lifestyle and the necessity for retailers to be what she calls a "one-stop-shop." If you can help our harried Jane save time by providing other services related to your main company identity, she would love you forever. Can you link her up with gardening services, provide on-site product knowledge sessions and a cute café and sell garden furniture? Do you deliver or provide a bridal registry, etc? Look how well Home Depot does with its gardening centre because we can visit it while we are on-site buying lumber for the deck.

     Can you also claim to carry a house brand that Jane cannot buy anywhere else, so that she has to come back to you to purchase more of the same? Or maybe you can even consider creating a shop-within-a-shop to highlight a unique line that nobody else carries in your city.

Susan Hayden is a professor in the Visual Merchandising Arts Program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. If you are interested in hiring students or graduates to inspire you to develop superior visual merchandising strategies, contact the coordinator of the program, Ann Callaghan at 1-905-845-9430 ext. 2410.