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Expert Shares Savvy Display Tips

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Want your store displays to look as "tight and fluid" as those seen in big retailers like Anthropologie, Z Gallerie and Target? Read on, as Michelle Teele, owner of L.A.-based design and merchandising firm Bird's Eye View, shares her insider's expertise on a variety of merchandising topics. Then, read her ideas for on-trend displays for spring and fall 2009.

Q. How can well-executed merchandising help small retailers?

A. Consumers are becoming very savvy about the way they shop. They are used to seeing well-merchandised stores. In order to compete, you have to be on your game! The best thing a merchandiser or a well-educated merchant brings to the table is the ability to look at [displays] through different eyes. When I merchandise a store, I try not to set up and walk away. I try to educate the staff about why I'm doing [a display]. These include things I learned from big retailers, like how they make a display look so tight and fluid. What the store looks like is what visually gets [customers] in. Then, it's the same product you would see at Target and higher-end stores.

Q. Since store layout is essential to displays that sell, what are your "rules of thumb" for floor planning?

A. You should be able to stand at the front door andóas you look from front to back and left to rightóbe able to see 90% of your store fixtures and displays. This is also important for shoplifting.  I always try to start with a round table. If you put a long, rectangular table or bookcase as the first thing you see, this tends to be a big blockade for customers. It's like saying "Stop here."

Remember to work your fixtures from low to high. Start with tables, and work back to bookcases and etageres. To break up the floor and force customers through the store, change the directions of your tables. Put a rectangular table, then a round table and then a rectangular table in the opposite direction. That way, each place customers turn they're seeing a different vignette or tabletop.

Use the "butt-brush factor" developed by Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy. For example, if you have a table in front with your newest items but there are other fixtures too close to it, the person engaged in the product will constantly get brushed on the butt or back with an arm or purse. It's a space issue. That person will get so annoyed that they just drop the item and walk out. Once he/she walks away they're not going back for that item. [If it's required by your state], remember to allow three feet of clearance around everything for wheelchair access.

After you've set up your floor space, stand back. Once the doors open, watch how customers navigate through the store. If there's an area that customers aren't going to, tweak the fixtures. Then step back and watch again.

Q. Besides the "butt-brush factor" described above, what other merchandising mistakes should retailers avoid?

A. There's a theory that [humans] need negative space and multi-layered active spaces. They need the negative space so their eyes can breathe. In some stores, every square inch of tabletop is covered and the walls are, too. As a consumer, that's all so overwhelming.

When I refer to a "tight" display, it's not what I call the "garage sale" effect. That is where store owners put out one of everything they sell and the store look is not cohesive. In a tight display, there's height so everything is not on a flat plane. Like items are kept together and themed. If you have one type of baby lotion and 25 units, don't put the lotion in five places in the store. Put baby items in the baby section. [Otherwise,] it makes it difficult for consumers to find products and impossible for you to get a read on how that product is selling.

Don't let customers walk in the store and see that the front table has very little on it because it's sold down or you're fearful of shoplifters. All tabletops should have about the same balance of merchandise so it doesn't look like one table is understocked and the other overstocked. Remember that you have to romance displays of older merchandise that you're carrying through because it's a bread-and-butter line like Crabtree & Evelyn. Want to try out new merchandise [on a smaller scale?] Try putting new items in a display that [rotates] in and out in two months. Then, keep the new merchandise that really sticks.

Q. What suggestions do you have for window displays?

A. I suggest you keep your store window turning every two weeks. That's because you have the same people moving by the window every morning. Reinvention is huge, and with windows you get the chance to embellish what you're doing without reinventing the whole store. Plus, it doesn't have to cost a lot. Most of my clients are on budgets. It's amazing what you can do with found items, and those from craft stores and Home Depot. Anthropologie taught us dumpster diving. Now, I get crates from the fruit market, and burlap potato sacks and coffee bags.

[Remember,] if you have one window, you're doing yourself a disservice by putting too much in the window. You understand where you're going with the display, but don't realize you're shooting yourself in the foot more than doing yourself good. If you glob items in one big statement, you have lost the cohesiveness of a theme. If you have more than one store window, then show the multiple items you have.

Q. What hints can you give our readers about the correct balance and scale for merchandising?

A. For me, balance means that you don't have all the large items on one side of the store and the small on the other side. If all the big, tall vases and large objects on tables are on the right side and the left side is small gift items, it looks out of balance. It's an aesthetic thing. It goes back to the floor plan. Have one table low, then a high table behind. I might put chairs on top of tables and load the tables up, but behind them I place something bigger. Balance and scale go hand in hand. If your store has super-high ceilings, you can scale extremely high and balance that out with something lower in front. In smaller store spaces, the scale has to be downsized.

Q. Please give our readers a few ideas for trend-themed displays for spring and into fall.

A. Spring is always garden. Create a huge outdoor entertaining display by placing a canopy in the middle of the store. Add pots with live plants and sell them together. Mix old and new by adding an outdoor dining display atop a found object like a picnic table. Or use furniture you're selling. Drape a piece of burlap on the tabletop with a crate or box in the middle. Remember not to cover the entire table like a tablecloth. If you're selling the table, it's hugely important that customers can see what the table looks like.

Use melamine plates and arrange shovels and spades as the table's "flatware." At Anthropologie, we built tables and covered them with plastic. The top of the table was "set" with sod from a garden store. [With the plastic cover, the sod could be watered.] It was cost effective and so kitsch, fresh and unexpected.

For an ethnic display, do a tabletop that mixes African baskets with something non ethnic like tableware with a Missoni print. Add canned goods with gorgeous, bright labels from an ethnic market as risers. Don't get overly ethnic. You don't want the display to look like a souvenir shop.

For an eco-display, take newspaper and stitch different pieces together with bright yarn like a quilt. Use the quilt as a base for the display, then stacks of old newspapers and glass-topped crates as risers.

Note: Teele can be reached at (310) 529-4360 or

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