How to Use Store Merchandising to Navigate Recession and Uncertainty

Jul 21, 2023

In this episode, we speak with Joe Baer, the founder of Zen Genius, a visual merchandising and events firm. In the past, we’ve worked with Joe to create amazing guides and videos on merchandising for the ASD Market Week community.

In this interview, Joe Baer talk to retailers about:

  • Bridging the in-store experience to the online experience
  • How showrooming is making a comeback to help with supply shortages
  • How visual merchandising is getting grand in order to inspire purchases
  • Getting creative with how you use your space
  • Holding events and educational classes in your store
  • Partnering with local vendors to create seasonal popups
  • Creating non-traditional sales to move overstocked and past season merchandise
  • Finding fun ways to tell new stories about merchandise that just isn’t moving

Macala (00:02):

Hi everyone, this is Macala, and I am back today for another episode of Let’s Talk A Little Shop on behalf of ASD Market Week. Today I have with me one of our community favorites, Joe Baer. Joe and I will discuss merchandising, making your inventory work for you during a potential recession, and making some really cool stealth revenue strategies. Joe, reintroduce yourself to the audience.

Joe Baer (00:35):

Thank you Macala. So excited to be here and hello everybody out there. I am Joe Baer, from a company called ZenGenius, and we are a company that specializes in visual merchandising, special events, and creative direction. Celebrating our 23rd year, the company is built on visual merchandising practices. I realized that was a gift I and others had; that we could bring to help other retailers support visual merchandising efforts.

I am excited because I’m also on the editorial advisory board for VMSD magazine and the vice president of special events for PAVE Global, a wonderful nonprofit organization. I’m also on the advisory board for the Master of Retail Studies program at the Columbus College of Art and Design.

Macala (01:39):

Wow. You have added some big credentials since our last conversation. I can’t wait to see how the insights have evolved too. Let’s start with the current economic climate. What do you see in retail? What are you sensing and how is that impacting what you’re advising retailers to do in terms of in-store, merchandising, and design?

Joe Baer (02:08):

It’s an interesting world for all retailers of all sizes, big and small. So many of the challenges we faced not only this year but over the last couple of years with supply issues, staffing issues, challenges with foot traffic in the store, and how customers are involved with so much online shopping. I feel like a lot of what we’re doing is taking a fresh look at some of the stores we’re working with and visiting, throwing out some of the old rules, and looking at it with a fresh perspective.

What do we do when we have empty shelves when we’re experiencing supply levels? Or what do we do when we have too many SKUs in the store, and we’re overstocked? Do we call on some of the basic visual merchandising techniques we’ve used over the years to solve some of these areas?

The other thing is just understanding the different options customers have, the different channels they have to shop now, and embracing that as much as possible. Understanding how we can connect the in-store experience to the online shopping experience and how we can do that.

We’ve been experimenting at ZenGenius, and we launched a new store. It’s a small 2000-square-foot boutique called ZenGenius Marketplace. It’s giving us a fresh perspective on how to drive foot traffic, how to communicate to the customers and understand who our own target customers are. We can also take these learnings and apply them to the clients we’re working with.

Macala (04:07):

Joe, let’s start with merchandising when supply levels are low. Many retailers have done their best to show up, know who their suppliers are, and get things in. What have you advised, if some of those best sellers haven’t come back in stock yet? How can they get creative in how they’re showing things to cover the bareness?

Joe Baer (04:36):

There are many things you can do, but one of the things as visual merchandisers, we’ve always relied on is great storytelling and what some companies are doing, is show roaming. You may not have that product in stock right now, or a limited quantity in stock, but you can still use the space in your store to help tell that story. You may bring in more products, set up a larger display, or even an area for a demo, interaction, or special events.

You have to be creative with your space, and you can’t forget that these are your best sellers; you still want to give them a moment in the store. The way we’re learning to shop now, we just have different options. We could buy something in-store, or buy something online and pick it up in-store. We could have it shipped to our home or office; there are many options.

Macala (05:45):

What about when they have too much of something on the floor, and they need to move it? What are some tips for creatively displaying that merchandise to entice someone to take it home with them?

Joe Baer (05:57):

We have always relied on sales, especially for the last 10 to 20 years, the sale has become an essential driver for foot traffic. As a visual merchandiser, I always dive into the numbers and understand what my best sellers are. Looking at what SKUs are not moving, being conscious about what SKUs are taking up space, and finding a fun way to tell a fresh story about those products that you believe in.

What can you do to rethink them? Do you move them to a new location? Is there additional signage? Then the products you feel like you don’t have space for; how do you move through them? Do you have a fun sale? Do you do something unique?

Many customers are driven to look for a sale area or a clearance area in your store, but sometimes we don’t want them to focus on that. It’s better to save everything when you have a special event sale, a one-day-only sale, or a special weekend sale. Get in there, know your inventory, and your SKUs, and try to analyze them to understand what’s driving the business and what’s taking away.

Macala (07:30):

Joe, you continually mention stories and our brains are wired for stories. For someone not as adept in storytelling through merchandise, please dig a little deeper, telling them what that is and how they might leverage that in their own shops.

Joe Baer (07:52):

Visual merchandising is a part of storytelling. Visual is the creative part; these are the graphics, the fun, the wow, and then the merchandising is how you stock. The storytelling comes into the visual part of that; every product in your store has a story, and then you have to determine which of those stories you want to bring to life.

You can bring them to life through a display, add in graphics, use technology with the video, and help your staff with the words they’re using when they’re talking; there are so many things that you can do from a storytelling standpoint.

It excites me because it’s in our roots as visual merchandisers. L. Frank Baum wrote, The Wizard of Oz, one of the best stories, right? Everybody knows it was made into so many things; before he wrote that, he was a visual merchandiser.

Macala (09:05):


Joe Baer (09:06):

He started one of the first magazines about visual merchandising over 125 years ago. Celebrating the magic of window dressing and how to bring these stories to life around the products. I just love that we’re connected to that storytelling history and how we can bring that into the store experience, you know, with our tools.

Macala (09:37):

I’ve been visiting some of the ASD retailer shops during this holiday season. There is a trend where you continually want to be able to arrange things by color no matter what the season is. Why is color coordination more of a timeless merchandising tactic regardless of what time of year it is?

Joe Baer (10:12):

Color is so important; it makes us feel good. Colors evoke emotion, and from a visual impact standpoint, it’s one of our great tools to help create a visual statement that will attract our attention or draw us in. There are always seasonal colors, and they just announced magenta is the color of the year.

We levitate towards different colors by pulling things together; it’s pleasing to the eye and helps us understand what’s hot and what to focus on right now. The colors are wonderful.

Macala (10:58):

Joe, holidays are always a strong time to do the holiday-themed installation. Whether it’s Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Valentine’s Day; all those things. Are there any techniques for some secondary holidays that can be used in stores to drive merchandise around things that aren’t as predominant as the big ones I just mentioned?

Joe Baer (11:31):

It’s all connected. Look at your marketing campaigns, look at your assortment sheets, and try to understand what product you will be driving during that holiday. What do you really wanna focus on? How does your individual brand express this holiday, what are your special taglines, or what are your special colors? What can you bring to this holiday that’s not running out to the dollar store to get some decorations and then bring them in; what can make it unique for your holiday?

Also, pay attention to your target market, and your core customer base, and identify which holidays are most important to them. Nowadays, there are several national holidays almost every day, and if you look at your target customer, you could also start to look at some of those other holidays and tap into those.

Macala (13:02):

Joe, the secondhand market and resale is a hot trend right now, whether you’re a big or small brand. Patagonia is recycling its clothing and reselling it online on a dedicated site. I’ve also noticed that many smaller retailers have returned to vintage and antiques, whether it’s clothing or cool home goods, to mix into their new assortment.

Can you talk a little bit more about that? What you are seeing with incorporating old and new as a strategy for sales, but also, how do they work that into merchandising? Because that takes a bit of a craft.

Joe Baer (13:52):

I’m so glad you brought it up because it is important to all of us, for our future, and to pay attention to the resources and things we already have as it is a trend. I feel like so much of this trend is also being driven by future generations.

Every time I speak at a university or talk with students, they ask about sustainability. They want to know what we can do, so I’m celebrating it for all retailers doing it. Along with the brands you mentioned, H&M also did a wonderful campaign to start doing it. We’ve even been testing it with our own ZenGenius marketplace.

Macala (14:39):

Talk to me about that. If you have been doing that with the marketplace, how has that been playing into that location?

Joe Baer (14:47):

It’s actually doing really well. We’re calling it a takeover with the local vintage vendor, SoHud Collective, with a wonderful guy named Taylor. He’s got one of those cool buses he takes around to markets, and we’ve dedicated some space in our shop where he’s selling his vintage goods. We also have a section in the store where we have gently used event supplies that we can also sell in the store.

Part of the success is also the storytelling of this. Why are we doing it? Why is it important from a sustainability standpoint, from an appreciation of the things that we have? I’ve thrifted all of my life. I remember in high school going and shopping for the cool trench coat, and now you see a whole range of different levels of resale shops, high-end resale shops, vintage shops, and then your classic ones. Through the last few years, trying things and testing things is something that most retailers and businesses have had to do.

Macala (16:19):

Tell me a little bit more about the marketplace you launched. Why did you do it? What kind of goods are found in the store and what are you learning in general? Share the story of the marketplace.

Joe Baer (16:32):

It’s always been a dream from when we started ZenGenius. We always wanted to have some kind of retail component. Also understanding the inventory that we have from doing visual merchandising projects and special events projects. Our inventory was growing with unique props and supplies for parties; events.

We wanted to use this inventory that we had and figure out what the product life cycle is. When we get something in, how long do we use it? Then, if we move it into the store, how long does it stay there; what’s the life cycle to keep things fresh?

We were able to launch it during the pandemic. When business changed, our events went down. Basically, 99% of the events were canceled, and most of our retail projects stopped other than some of our clients that were within the range of necessary business.

We’re thankful for that, but we had some time on our hands and tried our best to keep our team employed and keep business, so we thought now was the time to shift. We built a retail model, tested it, did some special sales, and developed an e-commerce link. So as a part of our design offices, we decided to dedicate a certain amount of square footage to this retail boutique. We’re learning, we’re growing, we’re evolving, we’re selling. A lot of what we’re focused on are creative gifts.

Macala (18:34):

Tell me about those.

Joe Baer (18:36):

Candles, clever gifts, our wellness category; smudging is really good, local artist collaborations where we’ve been collaborating with local artists. We’re in a community called the Short North, which has a lot of small boutiques; one of the great neighborhoods.

We’ve put together souvenirs where we’re testing different, unique souvenirs. It’s also a chance for many of our, what we call our “Zens,” our visual merchandising freelancers that do a lot of our projects, but so many of them have their own talents or products that they’re working on. It’s also an avenue for some people to sell goods in the store. We have some custom cutting boards that we’re doing from a local artist. We have some artwork, and we have some fun t-shirts.

Joe Baer (19:43):

It’s also a showroom for us. We are a visual merchandising company and a special event company, so having the marketplace is also an opportunity to show how we’re merchandising the goods and pulling the stories together. It becomes a training ground for us, with some of our team.

Macala (20:11):

Are you holding events in the space as well?

Joe Baer (20:14):

We’ve been doing a seasonal market where we invite vendors, take over a part of our parking lot and a part of our warehouse in the back, doing a curated assortment of around 20 vendors usually, and they’ll bring tents. It helps to drive foot traffic, and it helps us to see what vendors we want to carry in the store.

A lot of times, we’re buying from the vendors that come to the show, and it certainly drives foot traffic into our store. We’ve also done other events; small trunk shows, artist openings, and hands-on things like wreath making where we’re doing wreaths in the store. We had Santa there for the market this year, which was also a special event where we invited people in. So many opportunities there, and we’re just tapping into them.

Macala (21:22):

Have your clients and the retailers asked you to do different services for them? Has there been a new revenue stream you were able to create because you can be so flexible and fluid in what you have to offer now?

Joe Baer (21:44):

We are developing an additional revenue stream, and we’re seeing a little bit of that right now. Our clients are businesses hiring us for visual merchandising and special events, but we know they have creative teams. When we’re designing products; we’re keeping them in mind. We’re thinking about team gifts that people might buy for their teams.

I would say we’ve also had the most success in some of the basic merchandising tools; risers, and display tools for the store. We designed a new product and just received the patent. It’s called Flex, and it’s just a very simple merchandising tool that helps you display small packaging, signs, and things like that.

It is helping us develop new revenue streams; from our customer’s standpoint, they appreciate that we’re learning. It’s an experiment for us to understand consumers a little bit better and to understand how to drive foot traffic better.

Macala (23:29):

Joe, in this time of economic uncertainty, what is the number one piece of advice you would give to retailers regarding their store merchandising?

Joe Baer (23:40):

Number one is to be resourceful and creative.

Macala (23:48):

I love it.

Joe Baer (23:48):

When money is tight, we pay more attention to the things around us and get creative. Look and see what you have, look in the back room, and look at materials with a new fresh eye. You may have 200 hangers or boxes or something back there, brainstorm that; get creative with that. What can you do to turn that into a wow, something unexpected, that’s going to get people’s attention? If I had to pick one thing, that’s what I would say. Be resourceful and tap into creativity.

Macala (24:38):

Joe, thank you so much for being on this podcast episode.

Joe Baer (25:10):

Oh my goodness, Macala, thank you.

About ASD

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Macala Rose

Macala Rose

Macala Rose is a writer and researcher who specializes in health, wellness, and consumer behavior. 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 with her on Linkedin at or via