The Marco View of Small Retail Merchandising
Merchandising is an art. Understanding how humans experience traditional forms of visual art can provide solid principles for merchandising. Growing up, my mother’s enthusiasm for art shaped my vision from a young age. I loved discussions on how elements of a painting could be ordered or emphasized in ways to create narrative.
In business, brand is the narrative. Merchandising, marketing, and the sales script are the entrepreneur’s equivalent to an artist’s color palette, choice of form, and style. I recall studying focal points in galleries, shutting and reopening our eyes as we listed aloud where our eye fell first, second, etc. This practice lead me to understanding how important the visual path of a consumer is.
Pay attention to the visual path.
When merchandising for non-convenience retail- a shop where efficiency isn’t of primary importance as it is in a pharmacy or a grocery- the key is to create a space where the eye does not stop. The more time a customer spends looking in your space, the more likely they are to become invested and, ultimately, make a purchase.
Above all else, avoid stopping the eye when a customer first enters the space. We want to create a big picture experience with customers before they notice details.
Successful shops, both large and small, tell great stories. Ikea’s showrooms draw us into the economic simplicity and stress-free lifestyle of clean, minimal design. Local retailer Where They Roam in Edwardsville, a child-oriented home goods store, gives design-loving parents a narrative of how a grown-up taste for quality can co-exist with a desire to provide comfort and child’s sense of imagination.
The single biggest mistake that I’ve seen in new retail is ot investing in enough items to visually fill the space. Volume and diversity of product is essential in convincing the customer that your shop is worth exploring. The problem is a visual one: lack of product creates unattractive negative space that gives the impression of sparse inventory. An unplanned stop in the visual story and the eye will stop on that gap. If this happens within the first few seconds of walking in the door, it will be difficult to draw your customer back into your narrative.
In addition to creating a continual visual path, the pattern of of that path is also important. When creating a painting, typically an artist focuses on a particular subject. The viewer’s focus is on the subject, jumps to non-focal point areas and back to the subject- using the non-subject areas of the painting as context for framing the subject. This means that even a viewer who is not interested in the subject can look at the painting very briefly and still walk away with its most basic idea (“That’s a painting of an important rich man.” “That’s a painting of the birth of Christ.”).
Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring is an excellent example of a piece of visual art with a single focal point.
In retail, we want the eye to do the opposite when the customer is first observing the shop. Create a visual path that with a pattern that bounces off regular intervals from a series of graded focal points before finding an area at attracts specific engagement.
We want to create retail in which the eye has a similar pattern to Kandinsky’s Composition 8. The painting does have a major focal point (upper left hand corner) but a series of smaller focal points are also present. The eye connects these many points in order of priority with even smaller objects that create movement and fill the space.
Here are ways to translate this principle into your merchandising:
Plan on stocking 30% more product than you think you need.
The single biggest mistake in independent retail, especially new retail, is not investing in enough items to visually fill the space. We underestimate just how many things- and the variety of things- needed to create merchandising that convinces the customer your shop is worth their time.
Create layers and dimension
Depth is important. Mix between placing core merchandise on the front/eye level to attract initial attention and placing it in “out of the way” areas. This funnels attention deeper into a display or towards another area.
Color, texture, size, and emotional response all exploit contrast. Contrast creates interest. Accent a single, unusual large item with an asymmetrical grouping of standard items to one side. Heighten the experience of common stock items by placing them near or in context of more exciting items.
Don’t ignore height
Your most frequently purchased products will be at eye level, but leaving inappropriate amounts negative space near the floor or of ceiling creates the risk of stopping the eye. Plants, large focal items (we had to taxidermy mounts), fabric, rugs, visuals of how smaller products can be assembled or displayed, etc. help fill in and create an illusion of fullness.
Selecting product is easy once you’ve:
Keep these things in mind while selecting product to increase your success:
Follow the 20/60/20 rule of product price range
Determine the average amount your customer spends per item in your shop. 60% of your product range should fall within that average amount, while 20% should be less than that (typically upsells or impulse items) and 20% should be “large ticket items” that are above this range.
Seek out small, unique impulse purchase items to fill time at check out
Plan your displays and design around “focal” items
When purchasing or curating items, keep in mind how unique or “one off” items will fit into your display. Large, expensive, or unusual items may not sell fast but they are important for creating interesting context for more saleable SKUs.
Remember your secondary market
After defining your target market, reach out into secondary markets with crossover items.
In Bourgmont, we planned the shop to be a masculine giftwares store for the holidays. We focused around men who enjoy natural history. However, the Alt Market (all gender identities who enjoy oddities, identify as pagan, or generally think of themselves on the fringe) also enjoy natural history products. Squid tentacles in small antique glass vials appealed to both and became a natural bestseller in the shop.
In a Japanese parable, the student of a master gardener has just completed caring for an area of the emperor’s immaculate garden. Every plant has been precisely trimmed. Each rock has been placed in the most pleasing way. Everything is in perfect symmetry and in perfect balance. The master gardener comes to oversee the final result. Reaching up to a low hanging branch of a cherry blossom tree, he gently shakes a few of the delicate blooms onto the carefully raked sand path. “Now it is complete.”
This parable demonstrates a critical element of solid merchandising for non-convenience retail:
Merchandising should invite interaction.
Just as not allowing the eye to settle draws the customer into the space, a display that invites the customer to interact with the product further invests them in your narrative.
While sight might be the first sense used to observe your shop, touch is the most powerful. The element of touch is the reason customers purchase something in a physical location over shopping online, and customers who handle a product are more likely to purchase. However, just as the perfect Japanese garden isn’t complete without a few errant cherry blossoms on the ground, customers shy away from disrupting display that is too sterile.
Here are some tips for creating touch-oriented merchandising:
Product packaging matters!As you choose product for your shop, keep in mind that ordinary items with excellent packaging will sell exponentially better- and for higher margins- than extraordinary items with poor packaging.
My favorite example in Bourgmont was a product line by the name of Duke Cannon. As a retailer, their most brilliant decision was to print the their primary text horizontally on one side and vertically on the other. This gave me flexibility in my merchandising. Plus, when given as a gift, it was always “right side out” no matter how it was wrapped or opened.
To our customers, Duke Cannon’s engaging copy was peppered with interesting facts (“manufactured in the same factory that supplied the GIs during the Korean War”), subtle irony (“twice the size of feminine bar soaps”) and engaging altruism (profits from the sales support wounded veterans). Nothing was easier than selling Duke Cannon’s bar soaps. Once a customer had their hands on the product, it made it to the register.
Use texture to invite touch.Using texture to compliment and contrast product invites customers to feel the differences. I enjoy using this concept when creating relationships between the display and the product. In Bourgmont, I used an assortment of dried beans to display small products with a hard surface. The smaller size of the bean was proportional to the product, but the contrast of a bean’s natural variation and organic roughness against a metal tin ornament or the sleek quill of a porcupine made the product stand out.
Use curiosity to invite touch.My favorite method of setting this up is by partially obscuring the product with the display itself. For example, one of our best selling products were small specimens from a local taxidermist inside antique glass bottles and vials. These products were pushed slightly down into the display so that about 30% of each piece was obscured. Every customer who who purchased one of these pieces spent time pulling out each bottle, revealing the mystery of each unique item.
Create the illusion that someone else has already touched the product.Again, customers may feel hesitant to touch a display if they feel they are going to “mess it up”.
In Bourgmont, we sold beard oil in three different scents. For display I stacked the multiple types of each scent in orderly rows- much like one would expect to see at a box store. The secret to getting people to pick the product up? Casually skewing just one of the the front bottles. The illusion that another customer had already handled the product gave current visitors permission to do the same. There was even an instance where a particularly tidy customer picked up the bottle to straighten it and ultimately purchased it after being caught by the copy on the label.
Scent, sound, and taste may also play an important role in merchandising the specific products your retail business. These senses are usually engaged by providing samples. If you have a business in which you are providing samples, make sure your methods are simple. Sample product should be easy to access, sanitary, and are not too bulky or messy as to prohibit a customer’s interaction with other product during their visit.
Good Maintenance Practices
As Christmas neared and the end of this tiny retail experiment came to a close, Bourgmont faced a problem. It is the same problem I see many retail spaces face near the end of the holiday season: dwindling inventory. Good merchandising practices allowed us to keep our seasonal shop looking full while product continued to sell out.
An ongoing retail store would have product in back stock- mitigating much of the problem. If you do find yourself in this situation, my best advice is to manage your negative space.
When product sells, make sure you cluster remaining items. Do not spread them out. If needed, fill in negative space with visual non-sale items that make sense within the scope of your brand. In Bourgmont, we used open cigar boxes filled with beans to display small wares. As larger pieces sold, I found more wooden cigar boxes to artfully stack and visually “fill” to avoid negative space.
Compressing remaining product into logical groupings can also be helpful. We started with our Duke Cannon product and our Tradesmen Beard Oils on separate shelves, with scents and product types within those lines being further separated and arranged. As product sold, it became more of a general Beard Oil and Duke Cannon section- merchandising remaining product as a cluster. In the end, they were combined to create an overarching “grooming” area with shave sets and other final shop pieces to fill in.
If you’ve enjoyed this article on our 230 sq ft retail experiment, make sure you check out the first article on Bourgmont where we break down the numbers for Bourgmont to show how a tiny shop can be turned into a successful part time job. The final piece in this series will cover sales scripts and how I was caught completely off guard by what customers wanted from me in their purchasing experience.