As indie shop owners and buyers, it’s part of your unwritten job description to bring creativity, inspiration, and innovation to your corner of the world. If customers didn’t want your unique offerings and lovely ambiance, they’d be hoofing it to the mall with the rest of the herd, or stockpiling double-wide shopping carts in a big-box store, or—dare I say—pointing and clicking to their heart’s content from their favorite armchair.
Like cooking a gourmet feast and artfully arranging the food on your finest china, displays are the “plating” for your unique products, delivering a powerful message about their worth. After all, you wouldn’t serve your gourmet meal on paper plates, would you? Displays generate subconscious messages, so if they look cheap and thrown together, that broadcasts the value of what you’re trying to sell, no matter how elegant and pricey the items. Would someone be more apt to purchase that expensive diamond ring glimmering by itself on a velvet cushion or sitting dejectedly in a plastic ring holder?
Displays are the framework for your store’s flow
Store layouts work like bumpers in a pinball machine—customers get pulled to one section and bounced off to the next (hopefully slowly) without realizing why they’re moving in that direction. Your display placement starts their gears in motion, but it’s the way you merchandise that propels your customers through your store. Color, size, height, signage, texture, aroma, and even the direction a product sits determines where your customers go next, as well as what they will notice and confidently want to purchase.
No matter the size or configuration of your store or any permanent fixtures you’re stuck with, certain rules should be obeyed:
- Location, location, location. It’s a natural inclination for customers to walk toward the right when entering a shop. Make sure to put your most important displays there so they are seen the minute someone enters your door.
- Upward mobility. Put larger items higher up, especially if they are easy to see.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition by color, shape, or vendor helps customers notice merchandise. Use caution, though, because too much repetition makes for boring displays and putting out multiples of the same item can cheapen it, depending on what it is.
- No floor shows. No matter how tempting it is, don’t put inventory directly on the floor. It will rapidly look shopworn and end up on the sale table.
- Flat is boring. Add visual interest with risers, such as small pedestals or anything that gives height and depth to a display.
- Encourage impulse not junk. Tempting as it may be, don’t use the front counter as a gathering place for mass quantities of small impulse items. This is the last impression a customer will have of your shop, so keep it remarkable—one or two displays at the most.
- Neatness counts. Nothing destroys a display faster than disorder, so obsessively keep everything straightened up (and, of course, dust free) all day long.
- Confusion is confusing. Group disparate items in ways that make sense (by color, by lifestyle use, by artist or vendor, by theme, etc.).
- Don’t mix and match. Keep styles consistent; whimsical doesn’t work with sophisticated and elegant.
The total look of the environment surrounding your inventory adds immeasurable perceived value to what you are selling. Aesthetic touches (for sale or not) such as art on the walls, antique cabinets for shelving, a lovely fountain, or even some lush plants here and there allows customers to understand why something costs what it does. Don’t overdo—and do keep it simple.
Adding props can make a display more interesting, but beware: Overly decorating a display, especially with cutesy items, can become distracting. You might be tempted to add moss, fabric, stones, or other bric-a-brac as fillers, but do it conservatively. On the other hand, filling a bowl you are trying to sell with something fun, such as brightly colored balls, real or fake fruit, puzzle pieces, or tumbled glass attracts attention and instantly inspires creative uses for the item.
No matter what you do, avoid buying bunches of tacky decorations to fit a holiday theme. To me, nothing depreciates a shop more than such clichéd paraphernalia as exploded New Years Eve streamers, Easter grass, or Christmas tinsel, no matter how festive you think they might look. Come up with your own creative decorations that fit your brand or make a statement. Instead of metallic Valentine hearts, for example, make giant pastel-colored “sweethearts” out of foam core (poster boards sandwiching Styrofoam) featuring positive affirmations or informational messages. How about an oversized family of bright yellow felt Peeps scattered on your existing displays to convey an Easter feel? The sky’s the limit for creative décor.
Change is good
Once you’ve fashioned the look and feel of your shop, it’s far too easy to rest on your laurels and not keep displays fresh. After all, you’re ever-so-busy, and no one will know if a display is six months old, right? Wrong.
It’s absolutely crucial to change things around, not only seasonally and for those important holidays but just because. It can be as simple as moving a display to a different part of your store, or rethinking it completely if the line hasn’t been selling. It may not be the line’s fault!
Moving inventory helps move inventory (a body in motion tends to stay in motion). Besides, when you give new life to your merchandise, you are energetically re-loving it, and that’s often when customers will love it enough to give it a new home—theirs.
If you’re doing the same kinds of displays over and over and are bored with them, rest assured your customers will be stifling yawns as well. That’s the message your store is sending out, even to people who’ve never crossed your threshold before today. Just sayin’.
What to do now?
Now that you know it’s time to shake things up, what steps can you take?
Step 1: Look around. If you’ve been displaying anything the same way for over a year, it’s time to change it in some way. It doesn’t have to be drastic—it can be as subtle as using fabric in a different color, rummaging secondhand shops to add a new display piece, or just putting the merchandise somewhere else in your shop.
Step 2: Do some research. Do a search on Google or Pinterest for “shop display ideas” or snoop around other shops to get inspired by what works (and what doesn’t). If you buy from trade shows or merchandise marts, get permission to take photos of how vendors display their wares. They must be doing something right if their line caught your eye. Downsize the bigger-budget ideas of bigger stores (say that three times fast!) for your small shop. Take a field trip to your local junkyard or vintage shop. When you start thinking display, you’ll see potential props and creative staging techniques in just about everything.
Step 3: Observe customers. Notice traffic patterns and the natural flow when they walk in. Is there an area they seem to be pulled toward or a spot they seem to walk right by? Adjust your display pieces accordingly.
Step 4: Match merchandise to lifestyle. Are your displays set up as lifestyle vignettes? Customers love to see how something will work in their home, so set a table by putting that new teapot that just came in next to a plate piled with some fake (or even better, real) cookies. Set a few bars of your new line of luxurious soap in soap dishes. If you don’t sell soap dishes, get creative with something vintage or recycled from nature. Better yet, start selling soap dishes that lend themselves well to your displays!
Step 5: Don’t mix and match. If you’re selling widgets, create a widget display, not a candle display with a few widgets thrown in. Even if you think they look adorable and the colors work together, they’re confusing clutter and will make it difficult for customers to see what you’re trying to sell. Simple elegance works.
Step 6: DO touch the merchandise. If your displays look perfectly staged but people are afraid to touch or pick up the merchandise, the display has failed. It’s fine to stack things high in artistic ways, but make sure to have accessible items in front.
Step 7: See the light. Nothing kills a display like poor lighting. Investing in good spotlighting will add value to all your merchandise. Make sure to re-adjust lighting after redoing a display, and if you’re stuck with florescent lighting, make sure to use warm-colored bulbs.
Step 8: Details, details, details. They may seem insignificant, but details show others how much you care or don’t care about your shop. Remember, everything in your shop shouts a message to your customers. When was the last time you re-thought the little things, like your hang tags? Or updated that passé logo? Or changed your color scheme? You can maintain the branding of your shop, yet still rejuvenate by paying attention to the details.
Step 9: Outside matters. The look and feel of your shop starts before people set foot inside. What can you do that would invite (or compel) people to come in? Creating stellar window displays makes a loud statement about your shop and provides a 5-second teaser “commercial” for anyone walking by.
Step 10: Liven up the dead zones. Shops often have a “dead zone,” that annoying spot (often a corner) where nothing seems to sell or that people walk by without noticing. Spruce it up with a splash of color, a lush plant, or perhaps something large as a filler (that is or isn’t for sale) to subtly lead customers in other directions.
Step 11: Look up. The best display area is from mid-body up to six inches above the head, since people tend to look up, not down. With that in mind, don’t forget that vast, underutilized display area: the ceiling. Suspend something interesting—bicycle wheels, an old window frame, branches—that can be used to hang ornaments, chimes, and more. You also can purchase metal grids from merchandising companies for use as unobtrusive framework for hanging items from the ceiling.
There are endless creative ideas for displaying product. Here are some specific ideas to spur your imagination or springboard into what could work in your shop:
- Create an enlarged version of an item. For example, if you’re selling nesting dolls, make a super-large one out of Styrofoam or a huge paper silhouette of one to support the display? Or, take a photo of one and blow it up for a visually interesting backdrop. Try painting fabric with the same or similar print for use as a wall accent.
- Nothing attracts attention like movement. Put fans in your window to add a wind-blown effect or a laser light show to stop people in their tracks. Put an item that needs to be seen from all sides on an old record player or rotating Christmas tree stand—but make sure it’s secure and balanced!
- Switch out those pre-fab jewelry forms for something original. A pile of vintage books stacked randomly works great to drape necklaces on. Or, open the books, fold the pages, and place rings on each fold. Old screen doors mounted on the wall can be used to hang necklaces and earrings. Throw bracelets into a bowl of colorful buttons or hard candy. Pea gravel, raw beans, rice, or grains in any neutral color work perfectly as a foundation in a jewelry case and makes an elegant and easy backdrop statement. What about clipboards for fun necklace hangers? Or, attach door handles to a wall as scarf holders. If your creative juices are a little dry, simply embellish those standard display units with paint or glitter or collage them with newspaper or tissue to “fun” them up.
- Think beyond what items typically are used for and try something crazy! Hang funky chairs on a wall and use them as shelving. Bring in an old sink or tub and use it to display soap and other bath products. Stack phone-cable spools of different sizes as tables. Stacked vintage suitcases make perfect risers—keep the top one open with scarves, books, or T-shirts spilling out. Old ladders make great shelves, either free-standing or leaning on a wall (make sure to secure them well). Pile bricks, stones, or weathered wood to create a funky, recycled centerpiece.
The bottom line is to do what works in your shop, and if it doesn’t work, change it out. Have some fun and shake things up! As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Happy displaying!
First published in Vol. 29 No. 5 of Retailing Insight. © 2015 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.