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Visual Merchandising for the Artistically Deprived and the Financially Handicapped


What’s in a title? You can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s the content that’s important.

We have all heard these lines in the past, but without a doubt the title of this article which is also the title of a program that I do as webinar, keynote and workshop is far and away the most talked about and requested title of the 28 various programs I do. So what does that have to do with running a store or addressing the visual aspects of a retail store?


visualComing from being an active retailer for 25 years, while writing, publishing and speaking for 15 years, the similarities are profound. Your customers are judging you by your visual presentations-- from your store windows to the threshold area to the traffic flow to the placement of the cash register to the colors that are used and to the interior advertising, aka signage you employ. Your title is your store name and the associations the customer relates to your business.

As for the content in the retailer’s case, it would be the total inventory and it is not nearly as important as the title or cover (your name/logo and the displays you present). What good is the greatest inventory in the world going to do if the windows are dirty, unkempt, or unappealing and the interior displays are non-existent? The bottom line is they are not going to buy if you can’t get them into your store. The same rules apply to websites but we will save that topic for another time.

Getting back to the title of this article and why it appeals to you, it exaggerates a necessary part of a retailer’s job and captures the feelings and attitudes of many retailers. No, you don’t want to spend a lot of money on visual merchandising; it’s one of those expenses we are always trying to cut because it is considered by many as a discretionary expense. The stores that really get it realize that it is a mandatory expense to retail success.

The other part of the title, the artistically deprived, hits home because we can be successful retailers and business people without that fashion flare or sense of style. The successful retailers recognize those challenges or deficiencies they have in their artistic skills and are smart enough to hire people who are good at it.

Let me address the balance of this article to all of the artistically deprived and financially handicapped retailers like myself. This is for the people who understand the importance of visual design but are not talented and don’t want to spend a lot of money and time on worthless props or expensive fixturing (oops – I guess I showed my bias here by using the word worthless). Here are 10 tips that can help you make your visual presentation more effective and not cost a lot.

  1. Customers don’t bend, stretch or reach. We have to display merchandise to make it easy for the customer to touch and examine. However, read point #2.
  2. Where the eyes go, the feet will follow. If the design is eye-catching enough, you will see how customers will be drawn to the display and might even stretch or reach. They will do that if – read point #3.
  3. Color is king. If merchandise is placed by color or if the background the merchandise is on is coordinated with the right colors, it will compensate for poor displays. Just look at a presentation of towels in a big box store. It’s the color that sells you and not the product. Do not lose sight that a background color can bring together different types of merchandise. A store that has all yellow or white background with shelving that is the same color can make the merchandise pop.
  4. Change for the sake of change is good. Very rarely can we say that. We have all had experiences moving merchandise from one side of the store to the other, just exchanging places where merchandise is, and customers make comments, “Hey, you got a lot of new merchandise in.”
  5. When customers come into the store, they will naturally go to the right. As a store owner you need to know that. If you want them to go to the left, you must have a strong display to bring them there.
  6. The most important part of your interior design and display is your Threshold Area. That’s the first 10-15 feet where the customer first enters the store. I believe the Threshold Area should be comprised of the elements in point #7.
  7. A display of the type of merchandise the store is best known for is #1 – a display of some type of promotional offering to demonstrate price sensitivity would be #2 and finally signage that welcomes and highlights upcoming events.
  8. Interior advertising and signage – this is the most under-utilized tool in retail today. Signs are not just sale signs. They consist of the points in #9.
  9. Informative signs can give direction or tell the store’s policies. Selling signs offer price incentives or descriptive sell words, like new and different. And entertaining and educational signs captivate customers when they are in the store.
  10. The best sources for great window design people are art students who want to create work for their portfolios. The best prop to use is foam board which is a pressed smooth Styrofoam that can be shaped, painted and is lightweight and can be stored with very little space

These are just a few ideas that can make your store visually exciting and economically prudent.

Copyright 2014, Matthew Hudson & Rick Segel are award-winning retailers and authors of over 20 books on retail, sales and marekting 


I'm very interested in this topic. Do you have any good book recommendations? 
Thank you very much :)
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 5:57 AM by Saioa
As retailers, we can never have enough new ideas on how to display merchandise. Sometimes we forget to change up displays as often as we should and something like this is a great reminder. I like to hear other retailers tips on a great display.
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 6:58 AM by Jennifer
Thanks for another great article Rick! I have been procrastinating in stepping up my game in this area and this is a reminder that this is just an important element. For Saioa, I purchased the ebook, $100 Displays for Under $100, from Linda Cahan. The PDF version of the book is $25 and the print version is $39. There are many ideas in her book that I plan to use for my store. I hope it's appropriate to refer to her book here. Just Google her name and you'll find her website.
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 9:19 AM by Cindy Cook
I will be presenting a workshop to local retailers on this exact subject in a few weeks. I plan to copy this and give it out if that's alright with you. I can't tell you all the stories I could share like a bakery that consistently had dead flies in the front window, the beautiful clothing store that had dead flowers in pots outside the door, the retail store with 37 posters and signs covering its windows (yes, I counted), a Christmas display that was still up in late Feb., counters that are so cluttered the customer can't put the merchandise down to pay for it, aisles so tight that you bump into displays...okay enough. The best advice I think I give is to ask retailers to go outside, walk toward their storefront and REALLY LOOK at things. Peeling paint, bad lighting, old signage, debris on the sidewalk - everything. Now look at display and ask if it conveys your business' identity and the message its sending. Once in the store do all the same things - every single day. Many store owners and managers park behind their business, enter through the back door and NEVER see what the customer sees. Amazing but true! Thanks for another great post!
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 9:49 AM by Linda
Need a good reference book for creating displays.
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 10:20 AM by Wanda
Before opening my store I was a Visual Merchandising Director for many years. If I had to share one display tip that I taught stores day in and day out it would be this: 
"Center it, don't spread it" 
When you create a display- create a focal point-- don't spread the display across the entire area (a shelf, table, window, etc.). Centering the display and leaving negative space on the edges draws focus and creates impact rather than diluting it. 
Next time you spread product across a shelf leaving gaping holes throughout- close up those gaps and center it. Try it- really works! 
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 5:17 PM by Joan
A great magazine for visual merchandising and store design is VMSD. The website has tons of photos, display and fixture sources and the subscription is reasonable (or free?)!
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 5:29 PM by Joan Schnee
Great post, lots to think about
Posted @ Tuesday, April 05, 2011 10:55 PM by Richard
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