Visual merchandising may have taken a back seat for many years, but as retailers refocus their attention to the in-store experience, display is hot. Several retailers mentioned these efforts during the latest earnings season, speaking about the changes they were making and how they were resulting in increased sales.

Last year, Target chief executive officer Brian Cornell said the company planned to hire 1,400 visual merchandisers. It’s hard to believe that Target, the creator of designer collaborations, didn’t have mannequins in its stores until two years ago. Spokeswoman Courtney Foster said that the retailer added mannequins in 2014 and the items on the mannequins, on average, saw a 30 percent rise in sales versus product hung on the racks. Now Target has mannequins in 1,400 stores and more to come.

Cornell said during a conference call with Wall Street discussing the company’s second-quarter results that the visual changes were connecting with shoppers. The idea is that Target can pull together a look for the customer, tell a story and provide the merchandise next to it. The retailer tries out concepts and ideas in a test store in Minneapolis. If it resonates with customers, it gets rolled out to more stores.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. chairman and ceo Marvin Ellison said during a recent investor meeting that the company had been out of balance relative to the art and science of retail. The company was focused on the visual aspects of retailing, but hadn’t leveraged the store data to correlate to the display. Ellison said, “By understanding that in a given zip code, red is selling better than other colors, a store general manager can take that insight and put red in a prominent position on that fixture.”

The company has made several changes to its visual presentation. “A year ago, we would have mannequins, but they weren’t connected with key marketing statements,” said Katheryn Burchett, senior vice president of visual environment and corporate strategy. “We’ve rolled out a whole strategy around cross-merchandising. We put those completer pieces like a Liz handbag next to the display.”

Like Target, the goal is to have a selection of the product merchandise adjacent to the display so that the customer doesn’t have to spend time running all over the store trying to find the items in different departments to recreate the look.

Burchett also said that each presentation has an oversize placeholder with a description of the item on display and the price point. The company knows it helps if women don’t have to pull out readers to see what the card says. Customer experience surveys and sales are telling Penney’s that it’s working. “We feel like the changes have definitely paid off,” said Burchett.

Christopher & Banks Corp. ceo Luann Via said that with traffic declining the company has to give customers a reason to enter the store. It has to draw customers in from the mall and once they are in the store, make the floor easy to shop. The retailer has invested in fixtures that allow for more visual merchandising and racks that are easier to move, allowing for an easy way to freshen the floor at least every other week.

Christopher & Banks also has bought more jewelry bust forms to put on top of fixtures for accessory options. Via also said the retailer is using the walls for additional outfit suggestions and that customers have responded favorably. “We’ve seen a major increase in our average dollar sale,” she said. “We’ve increased our conversion.” She noted that by combining large sizes in the same area as missy sizes, the firm has seen 30 percent of its customers cross-shop between categories.

Clearly, visual display is getting more attention from ceos, including the likes of Urban Outfitters Inc.’s Richard Hayne. During the company’s second-quarter conference call, Hayne said, “We see a path to positive growth for the back half of the year with strong and relevant product assortments, including own brand, branded, collaborations and exclusives, relevant and creative marketing strategies, and easier to shop in-store visual merchandising setups.”

While technology exists through the form of beacons to determine if customers are lingering in front of the displays, few of the retailers were employing these methods. There were some small tests, but most of the companies said that increased sales were the best indicator of whether a visual grouping worked.

This renewed attention on visual merchandising is creating more jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that jobs for merchandise managers in the retail sector are projected to increase by 7 percent between 2012 and 2022. During the same period, employment of merchandise display workers should grow by 10 percent, according to the BLS.


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