Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Visual merchandising is more than display, more than decor.
Everything a customer sees, from windows to dressing rooms and cash registers, even employees, sends a message. That message, picked up very quickly by today’s customer, will make her stay and buy, or walk out the door.
With competition from every corner — department stores, discounters, specialty chains — image is everything for specialty stores.
“Today, everything is visual, interactive and instantaneous for the never-satisfied customer,” said Lynne Schwabe, president of Lynne D. Schwabe & Co., a retail consulting firm, who presented a visual merchandising seminar at the August market. “We have to be more aggressive than ever to get their attention.”
Before a store can send a message, however, it has to know what the message is, she advised. As simple as it sounds, many stores don’t have a strong idea of what they want to convey. Stores like Hermes, Gap or Victoria’s Secret all instantly evoke an image. Specialty stores should strive for that same instant perception, said Schwabe. Understanding customer demographics, through yearly surveys, can help.
Unfortunately, many specialty store owners have to do everything themselves. They often have little money, advice or resources, and are confused about where to turn. A top idea source is other stores, said Schwabe, who advises owners to send salespeople out with cameras during down time to record great visuals. She suggests constant observation, and regular visits to New York’s SoHo for cutting-edge ideas. Markets and trade shows are also good sources, including gift shows, even for stores that do not carry gifts.
“Be aware of everything that attracts attention and try to figure out why,” said Schwabe.
Another source, the Visual Reference Library, offers a free catalog; call 1-800-251-4545. Be creative in finding people to help — local drama and art teachers, for example. A mural or background done by local school kids will draw every mother to your store, said Schwabe.
Retailers should pick a theme and a color idea and stick with them, carrying them through ads, windows and dressing rooms. Found objects such as rocks and branches, and items from yard sales and flea markets work well on tight budgets.
Sometimes one single prop can communicate a message; for example, a store might tie a huge red ribbon around its exterior at the holidays. Locally owned specialty stores can easily ingratiate themselves into communities. Tie in with events — graduations, balls, sporting events — to convey the message, “We are one of you.”
Although there are no hard and fast rules, Schwabe offers a few generalizations.
Neutral walls let the merchandise speak, and encourage customers to stay longer.
The most important place is the area opposite the front door.
Create focal points throughout the store and highlight them with lighting.
Establish a zigzag pattern of focal points that move the customer, like a pinball, to the back wall.
Use walls for display.
Make merchandise easy to find, and never feature something in a window that isn’t in stock.
With determination, imagination and a lot of hard work, specialty retailers can create an image that rivals the big stores’. Below, two retailers explain how they make their stores inviting.
My Friend’s Place, Nashville; Jennifer Isaacs, owner.
It’s hard enough to keep one store looking great. Jennifer Isaacs, an admitted obsessive perfectionist, personally handles all visual merchandising for six — in Nashville; Bowling Green, Ken.; Charleston, S.C.; Atlanta, and Sarasota and Naples, Fla. Isaacs changes the look of each store at least six times a year. She visits each store once a month, and is on the phone and fax every day to stay on top of each store’s image.
“If something is not selling, it’s because it’s not put together creatively,” she said. With better-to-bridge merchandise, Isaacs’ goal is to “make merchandise look more expensive than it is. You can’t put a $250 sweater on a plastic black hanger.” She displays sweaters on heavy wood tables with oxen pulls, made by Mexican craftsmen.
In her travels, armed with a throwaway camera, Isaacs looks for unusual architectural pieces to use for displays. For example, a window screen in the Atlanta store had been a hospital window in Europe.
Isaacs shops architectural antiques stores, flea markets, yard sales and even raids her own home.
“We were without a dining table for six months because I used it in the store,” she said. “I also brought in my daughter’s bicycle and put a mannequin on it.”
The walls are neutral and the merchandise is almost all monochromatic — black and browns for fall/winter, and whites and creams for spring/summer.
“Everybody says color sells in the South, but it never has for me,” she said. The monochromatic look gives a wonderful unity to the store, and it’s carried out in displays that include unusual gifts. Large candles in fall colors, dried flowers and topiary plants, heavy stone and wrought-iron fixtures and large balls of rope, all add depth. Everything is for sale, even the heaviest pieces.
Isaacs is a stickler for details — burned-out light bulbs, dead plants and dust balls are all pet peeves. She even mixes her own potpourri.
“I go to department stores and everything out there looks the same,” she said. “We’re constantly upgrading, trying to stand out among the sameness.”
P.Zazz, Atlanta; Jackie Morgan, owner.
“I’m an expert on how to do a specialty store with no money,” said Jackie Morgan, owner of P.Zazz, an 11-year-old specialty boutique. “I opened this store with $30,000. I learned to use ladders and a lot of spray paint for displays, and added things all along as I could afford it.”
Ladders are great, she said, for displaying a total look — a layered outfit, accessories, shoes — that tells a story. “I call these displays my ‘silent salespeople,”‘ she said.
An old frame on an easel, filled with silk moire fabric, displays accessories. And glass cubbies are a cheap, unobtrusive way to display sweaters, she said. Morgan said lack of money encourages, rather than stifles, creativity. She began with activewear, but developed a theme and honed an image over the years — eclectic, predominantly Southwestern, soft, woodsy, rustic — that is reflected in merchandise and throughout the store. Oil paintings, home accessories, pottery, western-inspired horseshoe lamps, floral arrangements and glass jars all carry out the theme. Dressing rooms are like “little Southwestern cassitas,” she said, with adobe walls, artwork and a Sante Fe blue sky on the ceiling.
“We decided five years ago to commit to the theme, rather than having it be just part of the store,” she said. “People know what to expect, and they come here for that.”
Morgan still does everything herself and tries to encourage salespeople to be creative. “A lot of specialty store owners are insecure about visuals, but you can’t be intimidated. You have to just do it.”

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