Display on a Dime

You don't have to break the bank to create displays that sell, sell, sell.
by : 

Jacki Smith

September 1, 2012
Display on a Dime

Get out your toolbox—it’s time to create some new displays! This is a different kind of toolbox, one filled with thumbtacks, fabric, boxes for stacking, and ceiling clips, as well as odds and ends you can repurpose into some of the best displays in town. This toolbox may even be the larger, more coveted display closet where you keep such goodies as the four-foot glowing pumpkin or the wicker sleigh. Diligently, you’ve scoured the craft store clearance sections, yard sales, flea markets, store closing sales, and even may have trash-picked a piece or two.

Ready to up your game? You might be surprised that it can be done without much more money than what you’re spending right now. All you need is some creativity, know-how, and maybe a little extra time and elbow grease.

An experience they can’t resist

Your customers are walking into your store with a want, even a need, to be inspired by you … so give it to them. Give them a dozen reasons not only to shop, but to buy, and to return over and over again.

Any good salesperson knows the first thing they have to sell is themselves; once the client likes them, the product seems that much more appealing. And, by the same token, once your customers feel connected to your store, you sell more.

Your entire business is about a shopping experience. From books to body lotion, candles to collectibles, you are telling a story, and your displays are some of the leading characters. Keep your central displays about experiences, not things.

In a typical store, shelves are functional and positioned along the walls. Products are lined up like little soldiers, labels fronted, categorized by color or alphabetical order, and awaiting discovery by attentive customers. This is the grocery store model of selling, in which you assume your customers come in with a list and fill it from your inventory.

Let’s be clear: Yours is not a grocery store. It’s a unique shop competing for that last expendable dollar with all the other unique stores in town. Create a great experience for your customers, and they’ll be more likely to spend money with you and come back for more.

Thirty to 50 percent of all sales in the gift market are impulse purchases, and the impulse display gets rotated more frequently because those shoppers return quickly and want something new. Nothing gets your customers’ impulses pounding more than a display that appeals to their sight, touch, taste, and emotions.

When you entertain your customers by turning your products into eye candy, you will sell out faster, generating more profit. Fortunately, creating irresistible displays involves some key techniques, but not necessarily a big budget.

Be welcoming

Your customer’s first visual experience of your store is the most important one and needs constant attention. Start at your front door—do you have a clean and welcoming storefront? Putting planters in front of your store is a known draw. For less than $100, you can start the greening of your entrance and upgrade your storefront to send the unmistakable message, “WELCOME!”

Look at your display windows—do they catch the eye and are they lit well? Dark windows can make your store look closed from the street. Empty, faded, or dirty display windows are an immediate turn-off, and you are in the business of turning your customers on! When you create your amazing window displays, make sure they are floor-to-ceiling, as low window displays don’t catch anyone’s attention.

The first displays your customers see inside your store need to draw people in. They don’t have to be your biggest, but they should be so appealing that your customers feel compelled to touch the products. Make them enticing, but don’t make them so big that they become an obstacle customers can’t see past.

Make everything seem new and exciting. Shopworn products don’t belong on your front or window displays. Dated product that doesn’t look worn is fine, but show it used in a new way or displayed with correlating products. For example, take that basket of stuffed animals you bought on a whim and create a jungle filled with “power animals.”

Increase the perceived value of your inventory

When you display with care, your product looks more valuable than you think. Items displayed higher off the ground tend to be viewed as more valuable; inversely, when you inventory products on the floor, the value is seen as rock-bottom or unwanted. Remember: Don’t inventory on the floor unless it’s part of the display and makes sense.

Thrill, fill, spill

I heard these three words at a displaying seminar, and they are my mantra when building a display. Thrill your customers with something eye catching. Fill your display with lots of products. Spill your products up and down levels, even allowing some to touch the floor. I know this breaks the above rule, but when it makes sense, a few products on the floor can keep the eye moving and your display very appealing.

Get your customers’ attention with color

Few designers have the skill to pull off monochromatic displays. When you have a lot of matching tones, the eye is bored and moves on quickly, turning the display into a dud. Having a variety of colors will make people look twice at your displays, causing even the drab and bland to seem more entertaining. Adding color additionally draws the eye where you want it to go—right to the product you want them to buy. If you have a monochromatic product you need to move, pair it with flowering plants or contrasting accessories to bring life and color into the picture.

While we are on the subject of color, make sure the ones you use are contemporary. Get rid of old tablecloths in outdated hues—I’m not kidding. Mauve and taupe are no longer acceptable. Head over to Target or Home Goods and dig through the clearance section for new table coverings. Put a bit of texture in there, too, and your display will show your products to their best advantage.


When your store comes equipped with banks of fluorescent lights, it’s easy to overlook more effective lighting solutions. There are always dark corners in your store, and bringing pops of light into your displays will grab the attention of your customers. Garage sale and clearance sale lamps go a long way toward giving your displays height and illuminating the whole vignette.

The last thing you want to do is lay extension cords along the floor, but imagine inverting a lamp and securely hanging it from the ceiling (its cord will run along the ceiling and not the floor). Ikea, Target, Pier One, and other stores geared for college-bound kids will have lots of inexpensive paper hanging lights. Remember: Dark stores make your customers’ experience seem dingy and less than exciting.


Reach to the heavens with your displays. Lifts and levels make the eye travel and bring an interesting depth and dimension to your overall look. How about putting an old ladder-back chair on top of your table to highlight your tapestries? Nesting tables, garage sale telephone tables, even cool vintage TV trays give lift to your tabletop displays. If stacking makes you nervous, get ceiling clips and start hanging some of your merchandise. Inexpensive fishing wire can change the dimension of your whole store.

You also can get a feeling of height by visually stacking your displays with perspective. A short display of associated merchandise in front of a taller display can create a message from afar that inspires purchases of related items.

On the cheap

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on displays, but what you don’t spend in cash you spend in time. Garage sale scouting, thrifting, and scouring the clearance racks at discount stores can bring some excellent display finds—and, in some creative cases, products to resell. Some of the most creative displays I’ve seen are shabby chic, with the emphasis on chic.

Doors and ladders are great sources of cheap creativity. One of my favorites was an old wooden ladder opened up fully with a discarded louvered door through it to make a tabletop display with a tall center. The store owner put progressively shorter glass shelves through the rungs to create a pyramid.

Short ladders or interesting sawhorses can be used as table legs. Doors can be hinged together to create a screen to hang pictures from. A salvaged wooden screen door can be used as an interesting, handmade jewelry display. Since these are salvaged pieces, feel free to paint or decoupage to your heart’s content.

Things to look for while salvaging are: interesting doors, ladders, chairs, end tables, vintage tablecloths, old chandeliers, TV trays, bottles, canning jars, candle holders, glass block, candy dishes, and even teacups. Some of this you may already have around your own house, and if you look at these pieces with a designer’s eye, you may be able to use them to create something fun.

Before you begin spending your precious Sundays at the flea market, start with what you already have in your store. Many of your vendors have ready-made displays, so ask for them. Check out old fixtures you no longer use—can they be painted or repurposed? Do you have plants you could incorporate? How about lamps or other lighting?

Don’t forget your in-store signage

Signage is a great opportunity to get creative, reinforce your brand, and have some fun at the same time. Hang signs from the ceiling to avoid taking up shelf space; find some cool old chalkboards or use chalkboard paint on panels surrounded by old frames to create changeable signs. Product information, staff picks, and “Today’s Feature” are all great messages to share through shelf talkers and other signage, but make them fun, intriguing, and readable.

One last tip: If you have a “WOW” factor in your store, or something that’s the biggest draw, put it in the back of your retail space to draw traffic through the entire store. The more time a customer spends in your establishment standing, looking, and browsing, the more they will spend. So, get creative, get inspired, and get your customers’ attention with displays they can’t resist!

Jacki Smith is the founder of Coventry Creations (www.coventrycreations.com) and the author of the best-selling book, Coventry Magic. She continually studies the retail market to help her customers survive and thrive in business. She believes in the adage, “Your success is my success,” and she lives it every day.