How To Create Great Visual Merchandising for Retailers

Feb 20, 2017

Visual merchandising is an important component of retail store success; how products are displayed in a store drives sales.

How your store looks is sometimes more important that what you are selling. Is your store entrance inviting? Are your fixtures and wall standards easy to access? Are you telling a good visual “story” with your windows?

All of these questions are key to success when you’re attempting to create a space that customers want to shop and spend time – as well as their money. Land more loyal customers in 2017 by learning the basics of visual merchandising and how to build a formula to keep your store fresh and exciting for all your customers.

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5 Goals Of Great Visual Merchandising

According to design:retail magazine, “visual merchandising takes your consumer from the retail display to the cash register. Encouraging sales through creative color and commercial retail design is a key element to keeping a customer interested.” So what does this mean for you as a store owner? It translates to five simple goals:


    1. Create Excitement – You want your store to draw your customer into your world through the merchandise in it.


    1. Stimulate All Five Customer Senses – A great store plays to sensory perception. You want to attract not only with sight, but smells (subtle scents), touch, sound (complimentary music) and taste, too (salt water taffy bits or fudge for tasting – you will sell more boxes this way).


    1. Create A Successful Floor Plan – Ask yourself, “What’s the traffic flow in my store? Do I have enough merchandise to set a promotional display?” Set a clear image of your store layout in order to achieve your end result.


    1. Know Your Shopper Demographics – Shopper, also known as customer, demographics are “the who and what” of the people coming into your store. Knowing who are you attracting and what are you hoping to sell them is important to successful product display.


  1. Be Inspired By Others – Visit other retailers and capture the environment around you. What about their store inspires you or makes you excited? Can you incorporate those things into your store? What inspires you will most likely visually excite your own customers.

With these five goals for visual merchandising success, it’s also important to add some KAOS to your store. KAOS means:


    • Kinetic – Your merchandising should depict motion, not just static imagery.


    • Assortment – Your visual merchandising should show depth in your presentation of multiple product offerings.


    • Over Communicate – Your store should carry a sales theme through the department or entire store and make sure your associates are in the loop.


  • Sale! – Again, your end result is to attract sales by leading the customer through the entire store. Make sure discount merchandise is in the back of your environment


How To Create Great Visual Merchandising In Your Store


Use Planograms To Develop Flow

A planogram is a diagram that shows how and where specific retail products should be placed on retail shelves or displays in order to increase customer purchases. Planograms allow your to plan how and what you are merchandising. They help you decide what tools, fixtures or props will be needed.

Your planogram should also include a “blueprint” of the entire store. Take time to study the traffic flow. Are there any dead spots or un-shoppable corners? What areas of the store will a display have the most impact? Your main goal here is to focus your guest’s attention as you want them to shop the entire store. The planogram is the roadmap to your merchandising success. Do you have a shipment of product meant for display? If so do you have enough? Again, keep the end result in mind and share your presentations if you have multiple locations.


Understand Traffic Flow

As you study the traffic flow put yourself in your guest’s shoes and absorb what they see. Let’s take a walk…


  • Outside: Your windows facing the parking lot or walkway outside your entrance set the theme for the visit. Make sure graphics are clean or the story you are telling with a display has clarity.


  • Doorway: Enter your store into the “Transition Zone” – about the first 5 feet or so past the door. Here your customer is taking the store in, removing sunglasses, adjusting to the sights, sounds and smells. Not much retail is done here, so no real need to for merchandising.


  • Entrance: Past here is the “Strike Zone” — or your first impression “speed bump”. Place a table presentation, gondola or fixture here with a good average price point. Not “sale” items, but not high-end either. Promotional, for sure, to continue the theme from your windows or seasonal merchandise.


  • Sidewalls: Next stop is likely the inside wall to the right of the entrance. InWestern cultures, we tend to move to the right of an obstacle. Continue with the medium-priced product, perhaps a secondary promotion. You could also expand with like-product or similar branded items from the front focal presentation.


  • Back of Store: The back of the store should be reserved for high-demand as well as higher-priced items. This makes your guest walk the entire store to get to the good stuff – whether it is a sale zone or your high-ticket merchandise. Make sure this area is visible from the front. Display add-on and impulse items here as well to help with your multiple sales.


  • Walkways: Keep your aisles wide. Make sure you are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant (36” wide or face the possibility of up to a $5,000 fine in some states) and it helps your customers roam a bit more freely through all your merchandise. Allows for better visibility from your associates as well.


    • Point Of Sale: Your cash wrap is an important security post! You need great visibility of the sales floor here – especially if you are asking a minimal sales force to police and protect your merchandise. Avoid clutter and keep an open countertop for your guests to place their purchases. If there is a bunch of junk on the counter the guest will be confused and might limit additional shopping. You should place add-on and impulse items here for that last grab for their cash but position product above, near or behind the associate – neatly, in bins. Be aware of the size of your cash wrap – too big and you are taking up valuable floor space! The best placement for the cash wrap is to the left of the entrance (to the right facing out) or towards the center/ front of the store.



Leverage Fixtures To Create Features

So you know your store plan a bit better but how do you display all the stuff you want to sell? On fixtures! Take a look at your needs – they are different by store type and they can be different between departments. Are you fixturing for ease and speed (less-expensive shelving in gift shops catering to tourists, convenience markets for consumables) or are you creating ambiance (high-end, better environments).

Make a checklist next as you’ll be looking for sturdy fixtures that offer the most flexibility to your store. Make sure the fixtures will relate to your needs – can you attach shelves, hanging bars, a waterfall or face-out? Make sure you get all the hardware too – screws, bolts and attachments. Look at the return on your investment as well. Don’t buy a $10,000 fixture to display low priced trinkets or onesie sales items. Keep round racks and straight bars for sale merchandise and use four-ways for non-folded apparel and gondolas for accessories, tables for folded presentations.

Just like the cash wrap watch your size here. Don’t bog down your sales floor with a huge shelving unit but don’t waste space by placing a fixture with little impact that may go unnoticed. Think outside the box with your fixture solutions – have fun with an armoire you found at a yard sale! Furniture makes great displays. Also, take advantage of your vendor’s hospitality with any fixtures they offer but don’t overdo it when placing them on the sales floor. Too many different themes upset your floor balance and confuse your customer. One final note – rotate your floor pattern often. Especially if you have a repeat customer. You may have put a fresh stack of tee shirts on the front table but if it’s the same table in the same place your customer will not “see” the change.



Understand The Use of Lighting

How will your guests see the goods? Lighting of course! Lighting is key component in emphasizing your product and promotional displays. Get to know your lights, they fall into three classifications:


    1. General lighting for the sales floor, usually fixed in place.


    1. Accent lighting for accentuating displays, flexible – cans, pendants or track.


  1. Task lighting is for cash wraps, display counters and work spaces.

Familiarize yourself on the different types of light bulbs – fluorescent, incandescent, halogen and CFL’s (compact flourescent light bulb). Identify the potential cost and weigh your options. CFL’s have a heavier up-front cost but they last a long time (5,000 to 10,000 hours), use less electricity and most come with a guarantee. Think green here – both the environment and your wallet!


Strategically Use Signage

Merchandise is now placed on your fixtures and on the floor. Hooray! Let’s communicate, educate and direct traffic with some signs. Up front, remember the windows? Promo decals are a clean and colorful approach to letting your guest know what’s behind door # 1. Take advantage of your vendor’s generosity here as those promo decals hammer the point home on what you carry… in a bright colorful lifestyle-laden message. Just don’t mix and match with brands.

Inside the store carry and reinforce the theme forward by matching the art, font, colors and message to tie the sales floor together. Make sure to develop a sign template to work from for consistency and to avoid confusing your guest. Invest in a laminating machine too. Added humidity will curl your signs quickly. Avoid handwritten signs at all costs! It’s hard to have a consistent theme and even though you can read your writing, not everybody else can. Trust me on this one – why do you think I am typing this?!


Become A Promotional Display Expert

You have your traffic pattern set and you know “where and what” to do with your promotional displays. What’s your display going to show?


    1. Similar product – This will educate your guest the depth of product you carry in a particular category. Could be souvenir shot glasses and coffee mugs, could be a collection of “green” organic tees from a variety of manufacturers


    1. Cross-Mix Product – Here you are mixing categories to show a breadth of merchandise; perhaps to support the “lifestyle” and boost multiple sales


  1. Branded – A promotion for a particular vendor and usually offer a cross-mix to show your guest all that the brand represents in your store

Gather up the merchandise and also think of some props to help tell the story. Get crazy here – witty, attention grabbing and eclectic. Set your theme to support a local event like a parade or music festival. Theme it out for a holiday sale. Use large items if you can – a bike for instance. Use thought-provoking placements like a mannequin form “shredding” on a surfboard for a rad summer theme in the top corner of a room or hang a Christmas tree upside down in the middle from the ceiling! It’s fun and saves valuable floor space! It will definitely catch your guest’s eye and they’ll tell their friends. Make your own props too – buy some brightly-colored bowls, turn one upside down and hot glue them together and fill the top for a nice touch. When setting your promotion display tables or walls follow a theme with your items, remember the following for organization and arrangement:


    1. Light to Dark


    1. Left to Right


  1. Small to Large

When placing tables make a positive impact with your walls. Don’t hide the walls. Instead use your table displays to draw the eye and focus the attention on the wall behind.


We can see your walls but is there a technique for placing product here? Yep – light to dark, small to large, left to right. You can achieve this horizontally or vertically.

"WallJust like table displays remember to keep your walls full. You don’t want blank, negative space. If you have a small area that just can’t be merchandised toss in a cool picture or frame a vendor’s logo. Use props around your forms on shelves.


Windows Are The Eyes To Your Store’s Soul

Let’s look at your windows again. As I mentioned earlier, the window is really your first chance to grab your guest’s attention. Banners and window-clings make a nice, clean statement and can help promote the lifestyle with impact, or they can draw customers in for a holiday sale. Leverage your windows with your vendor’s marketing budget – those windows can be a profit center!

I like to use windows for promotional displays where I can; same chance for impact here. Use props to tell the story. Take advantage of creating a scene or celebrating a local festival or other local interest theme. Again – big props are fun and whimsical. I love using a basic Weber grill for summer displays. Crack the top open and use the grill for a shelf, the warming rack for accessories like can cozies or ball caps and a cooler underneath full of tee shirts rolled into a tube like a can of your favorite beverage.

If you do go the “display route” with your window, remember to check it regularly for maintenance. Change the light bulbs, pick up the dead bugs, freshen a toppled prop and watch for faded garments. A rule of thumb is not to use red, orange or purple apparel that receives direct sunlight as it will fade in a matter of days. And grab that bottle of Windex and a squeegee and put them to good use often!

Conduct Regular Maintenance

Now that your store is set and your displays are done you need to create a maintenance schedule. It is critical to keep your store looking fresh at all times as everything your guests experience is a reflection of you. General housekeeping aside, train your associates to reload and recover your displays and floor stock. This will maximize your selling as your customer can’t buy it if they don’t see it! Refold and resize your promotional displays to avoid confusion – a clear presentation helps your guest zoom into what they want and eases them to the cash register. This is an ongoing and daily, even hourly process. You never know when a busload of tourists is going to come in and wipe your displays out, which is a good thing! Just make sure to fill back in.

Here’s a great trick: Take a snapshot of your wall sets, table displays and windows and post them, along with the planogram, behind the stockroom door or in a folder behind the counter. That way your staff can refresh from the visual and make it perfect each time.

Here are a few nice tables from my recent trip to the Mid-Atlantic.



The Billabong Store in Ocean City, MD



Freedom Surf Shop in Virginia Beach, VA


Tools and Supplies

To recap all the above, here’s a quick list of tools and supplies you’ll need for doing basic visual merchandising:


    • planner for sale dates, holidays


    • tool box, ladder


    • hammer, nails


    • phillips and flat screwdrivers, assorted screws


    • utility knife, scissors


    • penny nails, straight pins, t-pins, cupboard hooks, tacks


    • monofilament thread (fishing line), twine


    • binder clips or clothespins (“just say no” to loose clothing on a mannequin form)


    • tape measurer


    • pencil


    • two faced tape, velcro


    • zip ties


    • hot glue gun and glue sticks


    • folding board, folding table


    • spare light bulbs


    • glass cleaner, paper towels, squeegee


    • duster


  • steamer, iron and ironing board


By Steven Fisher

Steven Fisher is the Sr. Buyer Relations manager for ASD’s sister show Surf Expo and a veteran retailer with over 25 years in buying and merchandising experience.

Macala Wright

Macala Wright

Macala Wright is a writer and researcher who specializes in health, wellness, food, and farming. Her expertise has been published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and many more publications. When she’s not writing about consumer behavior or food, she can be found scouring for deals in antique shops or on the back of her horse. You can follow her on Instagram @Macala or visit

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