Making Spirits Bright

Retailer insights, tips, and advice for holiday merchandising.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

August 1, 2014
Making Spirits Bright

The all-important fourth quarter is not quite here, but most shoppers have already begun to look for holiday gifts and décor. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly one fifth of consumers begin their holiday shopping before October! Even if your store is proudly known as the antidote to commercialization and the last place you’d expect a deluge of red and green, you can still highlight your store as the destination to find truly unique and meaningful gifts for all the winter holidays and decorate in a way that highlights the festive energy of the season.

To tree or not to tree?

Decorated trees have long been a focal point of winter celebrations, from pre-Christian solstice festivities to modern-day Christmas pageantry. Even if you don’t sell ornaments and your store’s style doesn’t lean to Santa and candy canes, you can still generate excitement about your unique offerings by incorporating a tree (or tree branch or vertical display) “decorated” with small gift items such as jewelry, small wind chimes, sun catchers, dream catchers—even small electronic gadgets and winter accessories such as mittens and scarves.

If you like to go big at the holidays, now is the time to pull out all the stops, which is precisely what STUFF in Kansas City, Mo., does well. Their 10-foot Christmas tree is loaded with 1,000-plus LED bulbs and 6,000 ornaments and sits atop a custom-built riser. Says co-owner Sloane Simmons, “The holidays at STUFF are thrilling and a true shopping experience. Even the jewelry cabinets are highlighted with seasonal color backgrounds or small accent pieces such as pinecones, small ornaments, and vintage decorations.” Deborah Leydig, owner of Norton’s U.S.A. in Barrington, Ill., also sprinkles on the Christmas charm, and her nine-foot tree is the pièce de résistance. “You can see the tree glowing in the front window from six blocks away. It makes the whole neighborhood look good!”

For other stores, a decorated tree might not make dollars or sense. Elysian Fields in Sarasota, Fla., once featured elaborate Christmas displays for their store (fully decorated tree, lots of garlands, and so on), but co-owners Kim Perkins and Lea Semple found the Christmas blitz did not translate into increased sales. “Now, we hang lights in the front windows, a few ornaments, holiday decorations from the ceiling, and decorated wreaths out front, and we are all set,” says Perkins. “It still looks very festive, but is much simpler to do.” Semple, who designs their displays, takes a less is more approach. “Don’t work yourself to death decorating. Make your statement at the front door. Once customers are in the store shopping, they really don’t pay much attention to the decorations, and too much can be distracting and look cluttered.”

Maureen O’Neil Garcia, owner of The Treehouse Green Gifts in Berkeley, Calif., opts for understated when it comes to holiday trees: white, yarn-covered, three-foot-tall trees full of colorful, Fair Trade ornaments. Says Garcia, “My advice would be to lure customers in with engaging holiday-themed window displays but focus on selling your regular merchandise so you can minimize post-holiday clearance items.” Denise Ellis, co-owner of Be Inspired in Pittsford, N.Y., takes a similar tack. “For the holidays we keep it simple. We put a small tree in our front window, and redo our jewelry cases. We use holiday-related items, but try to find them in natural, or at least natural-looking, materials.”

Every window tells a story

For most stores, an engaging front window display is the most effective way to capture the attention and interest of holiday shoppers passing by. For Sloane Simmons, that front window is all about initiating the story they want to convey about the experience awaiting shoppers inside the store. “In our store, that starts with the 14-foot display window, and it continues into the displays inside the store. There is no part of our store that is jarringly different from the others,” adding, “We tell a story and build flow within the walls of the store, and every square inch is engaging and exciting, bright and bold.”

Jean Haller, owner of Journeys of Life in Pittsburgh, Pa., creates a theme each year for their front window. “We create a holiday display of ornaments and lights in the front window. Below that we have gift products, not necessarily red and green, that can be given for holiday gifts.” Her planned theme for this year is renaissance angels from Silvestri!, which she describes as “just gorgeous.” Equally important, says Haller, “most will sell year round.”

Maureen O’Neil Garcia uses movement in her front window to attract customers bustling by. “Every year we put a rotating shelf in the window that has never failed to catch people’s eye. Each shelf appears to be moving independently of each other.” Another element to create visual interest, says Garcia: “windows trimmed in lights, of course.” Seasons Koll, owner of Presents of Mind in Portland, Ore., ramps up her display windows for the holidays as well, but also carries that theme into the store itself. “We transition a few key areas of the store to holiday-specific merchandise and decorate heavily throughout,” explains Koll, adding, “Elaborate window displays and Christmas lights outside complete the transformation.”

Royce Morales, owner of Harmony Works in Redondo Beach, Calif., goes all out with holiday window displays, and finds her efforts have paid off in engaging conversations with shoppers. “Our best holiday window ever was a bikini-clad snow woman made from huge plastic bags filled with Styrofoam popcorn, with window lettering that read, ‘It’s snow joke!’” Morales points out it’s important to match the holiday décor to the feel of your store. “If the shop is funky, keep the decorations funky, not elegant,” she says. “We love adding humor to our window to stop passersby, and that’s the feel of our shop as well, whimsical.”

At Twig in Chapel Hill, N.C., owner Shawn Slome uses a subtle, inclusive approach to the holidays, noting his own shopping aversion to “Christmas regalia” overload. Instead, says Slome, “I make my storefront a beacon of light and life. I want people driving by or walking by to take notice and recognize that something vital is going on there. I use string lights, oversize gift bows and ribbons, and natural greenery.” Once inside, explains Slome, shoppers are met with displays that “evoke the positive emotional feeling with that time of year—comforts of home, warmth, purity and cleanliness of snow, and so on.” He avoids the familiar sights and sounds of Christmas, such as Christmas music and the “obligatory green and red,” pointing out customers find his approach a pleasant relief. Similarly, says Journeys of Life’s Jean Haller, “We do not do any holiday displays or play holiday music until the day after Thanksgiving. Our customers really appreciate that.”

Where do you sit on the holiday spectrum?

These holiday strategies highlight how crucial it is to know your customers and stay true to your brand. If your customers eschew red and green, it doesn’t make sense to transform your store into Santa’s workshop. However, if your customers have visions of sugar plums and silver and gold decorations—and it fits with your product mix and marketing approach—don’t disappoint! Identifying what appeals to your customers and determining how the holidays fit in with your brand will make the job of deciding what type of décor—if any—to employ (e.g., classic red and green versus a natural winter look) and what level to take it to (e.g., a front window display versus a storewide winter wonderland). Whatever you decide, advises Elysian Fields’ Lea Semple, “Stick to that idea and color way with any decorating you do anywhere in the store.” That approach has been successful for Seasons Koll, too. “By transitioning large areas of the store in key positions to holiday and holiday gift-specific displays, we target holiday sales in a comprehensive way. You couldn’t come in to the store and not be enticed to shop for the holidays.”

Jean Haller complements her themed front window display by incorporating one holiday piece into her everyday displays throughout her store. “This gives people the idea to think about buying for holiday gifts.” Haller adds that unless your customers are shopping your store for holiday merchandise such as tabletop decorations, ornaments, and holiday wrapping paper and cards, it’s best to instead work on making your everyday merchandise appealing for holiday giving. “Over the years I have found that fewer people are buying true holiday merchandise before the after Christmas sales. I want to be known for thoughtful, meaningful gifts to give, and use that approach in all my marketing.” Twig’s Shawn Slome agrees. “In the end, I believe if you have goods that resonate with your customers and you present them with attention and beauty, the shoppers will take care of the rest.”

In Barrington, Ill., the market for holiday merchandise is alive and well, and Deborah Leydig has positioned her store to meet that need. “We have so much for the holidays we have to rearrange the whole store. Our glass ornaments take up the center of the store and our holiday cards practically take up a whole wall. And the toy department, we try to make it like a wonderland.” Leydig also hand-screens her wrapping paper, a popular, personal touch her customers can’t find elsewhere. Another personal touch: collecting food for the local food pantry. Says Leydig, “We ring the bell every time someone donates, so that bell is ringing all day long. And of course, we tell the children that another angel just got its wings!”

Presents of Mind also has a strong customer base for holiday-specific goods, and Seasons Koll doesn’t disappoint. “Our well-curated yet vast selection of gifts for everyone—cards, decorations, and gift wrap, as well as specific holiday goods—sets us apart from large retailers and many of our neighbors.” The message that her store is a holiday shopping destination is carried throughout the store. Says Koll, “The repeated message gives customers motivation to think about the holiday shopping they need to do while in your store.”

Royce Morales echoes the importance of reinforcing whatever holiday marketing you implement. “We choose a theme every year for the ‘holidaze,’ whether it be a color scheme or a decoration we repeat around the store,” says Morales. “I find visually the best thing to do is have holiday reminders everywhere that aren’t overpowering but give the feel of the season.”

Help your customers shop smart

Whatever the scale of your holiday décor and whether you stock holiday-specific gift items or not, merchandising your regular inventory as holiday gift items helps your customers select thoughtful and meaningful gifts for their loved ones. Says Haller, “Give you customers reasons to buy. We try to display gifts throughout the store for certain categories: kids, teachers, men, ladies, teens, and so on.” She goes a few steps further, supplying customers with suggested gift-giving lists for those categories and the products they offer. Other possible gift categories: gifts under $20, gifts for co-workers, gifts for pet lovers, and gifts for techies. Offer a few categories by price, type of gift, and intended recipient you think your customers will find most helpful.

Many customers are looking for quick gifts and stocking stuffers, and the cash wrap is a great place to market suitable small gift items. Highlight merchandise you already carry that you can promote for add-on sales: jewelry, small accessories, card decks, incense, essential oils, small candles, socks, pocket stones, soaps and lotions, CDs. As Haller points out, the cash wrap is also a great place to feature a hostess gift for last-minute partygoers.

However you decide to display your merchandise, translating your products into gift items and gift groupings and arranging your merchandise according to your shoppers’ needs will ease your customers’ journey through your store—and to your register. You can make that journey even easier by posting attractive, easy to read signage throughout your store to guide shoppers to the items on their list.

The winter holidays are a special time of year, and however your customers choose to celebrate—even if simply enjoying the beauty of the changing seasons—embracing the best of the giving season throughout your store can help transform your customers’ shopping experience into something delightful ... and see you through a magical fourth quarter!

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.