NEW YORK — Consumers are drowning in a retail sea of sameness, but some display firms and store designers say now they’ve come up with new ways to breathe visual life back into stores through mixed media techniques, such as flowers in chrome boxes and signs combining photo imaging with 3-D letter forms. Also playing a prominent role will be branded in-store shops with uniform design elements.
Here’s how five executives from separate segments of the visual display and store design industry view the market and the retail theater.

Elevations Inc.
Like today’s value-driven consumer, retailers are seeking well-priced, low-maintenance items when it comes to decorative accessories, props and other merchandising tools to enhance their store environments.
“Our retail customers are under the same time constraints as their shoppers,” notes Bill McHenry, president and founder of Elevations Inc., a San Francisco-based decorative accessories firm. “There are fewer store employees to do the trimming and the cleaning.”
Despite the rough retail environment, McHenry says his business is up this year and he’s reinvesting in the company, which in May opened its first home store for consumers, Matter & Sense, at 138 West 25th Street.
“As a decorative supplier, it seemed a natural for us to do a home store,” McHenry says. “It gives us a chance to see what consumers are buying and who’s buying what. There’s a niche emerging in upper Chelsea for this kind of store.”
Elevations will open a showroom next to the store, to coincide with Visual New York-Store Concepts ’96, where it will also operate a booth. Elevations provides an eclectic approach to decorative products, with mixed media such as floral arrangements in chrome boxes, for example, and varied themes including contemporary and traditional props, accessories and furnishings in a single selling space.
At the December market, roughly 100 new products in four categories from Elevations will bow for spring 1997: florals, fixturing, presentation tables and graphics. “We tried to tie all of the offerings to a theme of understated elegance, items representing quality and longevity, rather than the flashy opulence of the Eighties,” McHenry says.

Mobius Inc.
“It’s a giant turf war at retail,” observes Tracy R. Ellis, marketing director of Mobius Inc., the 23-year-old fixture and display resource based in Eugene, Ore.
“Brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s and Ralph Lauren/Polo want to sell across their product lines in a given door, but retailers haven’t necessarily seen it that way,” says the supplier, who will highlight themed or branded shop concepts during the December market as one solution.
However, some department stores have taken real estate from less productive areas to make space for larger shops housing megabrands, notes Ellis.
“These retailers are asking for fixturing that conjures up the mood or theme of a hot line,” he adds. “It demands the integration of several shops with different focal points [scattered around a store] into one cohesive area.”
Mobius’s clients seeking shop concepts, says Ellis, demand on-time installation of reliable fixtures and displays, floor plans to generate traffic flow and effective product locators. Signs, color coding, graphics — even clear sight lines — are critical, Ellis emphasizes. “If a shopper can’t locate or easily get to a particular area, then a concept shop to collect a brand’s varied categories doesn’t make sense.”
In his view, brands such as Levi’s, Hilfiger and Lauren pulling together several categories in a megashop have the right idea. For example, the more than 850 Levi’s concept shops Mobius designed, engineered, fabricated and installed in 1995, typically have seen sales double; one door rose from Levi’s sixth best in sales to the top spot. The shops pull together denimwear for petite, junior and misses’ customers.
The company’s clients also include Ralph Lauren/Polo, Benetton, Estee Lauder Prescriptives, Nike, Eddie Bauer and The North Face. Mobius will open a permanent Manhattan showroom for the first time, located at 138 West 25th Street, in December.

Niedermaier Inc.
Displays detailed with modern materials and multimedia touches are the focus at Niedermaier, the Chicago-based supplier of fixtures and mannequins.
“As the new century approaches, we feel a need to develop displays that are futuristic,” says Judith Niedermaier, president. “We’re interested in new shapes and materials — it’s about making consumers take note.
“We will do a lot of work in steel with contemporary lines,” she notes, explaining that if the company doesn’t come up with new concepts, it isn’t going to realize growth in a mature apparel retail climate. Business has been lackluster over the last couple of years, she adds, predicting a slight sales gain for 1996.
New for coming seasons, for instance, will be a sleek, all-steel dressmaker form, with some versions offering a lamp shade that lights up where the form’s head would be.
Also in the works is an updated T-stand presentation with a sculptural treatment “to look something like a rocket ship” to create visual interest.
Additionally, the company will work to create multiple layers of product interest, using audio media to convey music, art to create additional visual impressions, and possibly interactive media.
“I think the multilayer wrinkle is key; the trend has to be to create excitement,” Niedermaier says. “There’s only so far the accountants can take the apparel business. Unless we put the passion back into merchandising fashion, business isn’t going to pick up.”

Norwood Oliver Design Associates
Norwood Oliver, president of the commercial interior and exterior design firm bearing his name, works in an industry he’s not exactly enchanted with.
“Stores all look the same, between the whites and the beiges and the woods,” he says. It’s that residential look that’s become all too familiar, and now, says Oliver, many stores are “mired in boredom,” while malls copycat each other to death by seeking to excite customers with the same-looking marble floors and tall columns.
“There’s not much room for creativity,” Oliver says. “That’s bothersome to me.”
He’s designed stores for Neiman Marcus, Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field’s, as well as restaurants, hotels, offices and casinos, and he is working on the Bellagio Hotel Casino, opening in Las Vegas next fall, among other projects.
Oliver seems most critical of large department and specialty stores that have developed “a formula for a very, very high quality of mediocrity,” but he says some specialty stores are breaking out of the mold.
He admits one of his clients, Orvis, a sporting goods and accessories retailer, is “not exactly innovative.”
“But it has an identity, an image, a look. That to me is important,” Oliver adds.
Orvis stores, generally 3,000 square feet, have an “Adirondack” vintage, country-store look, achieved through cherry and pine beams, floors with random pine planks, loose fixtures with bark details, outdoor vignettes with hickory fences and a lot of accessorization, including wall coverings. “There’s a cabin-feeling. You feel comfortable,” Oliver says, adding that the excitement in retail is happening at small stores.
Moschino, located on Madison Avenue near 68th Street in Manhattan, is “way out,” Oliver says. Loaded with sight gags, wacky clothing and colorful display, “it titillates my senses.”
“It’s the kind of retailing that says: ‘I am not afraid to try something different. Let’s make a statement.’ I walked away with a smile on my face,” he says.
“If you walk into the Disney store on Fifth Avenue, it’s like being inside a cartoon. It creates an ambience, and you begin feeling like a little kid. That’s the kind of thing retailing should be doing.”
He also describes The Forum Shops, a high-energy 24-hour mall at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas with Roman architecture, employees dressed as gladiators, a ceiling fresco that changes through the day and statues that move and talk as “one of the best solutions for retail.”
“You feel as if you are somewhere you’ve never been before,” Oliver says. “It may be hokey and somewhat vulgar, but it turns on the customer. They feel festive and feel like turning loose a little money.”

AdMart International
Photo-imaging, combined with three-dimensional letter forms, is among the treatments to be featured by signage supplier AdMart International at the Visual New York-Store Concepts ’96 show in December.
The photos could reflect any aspect of life, conveying a mood to apparel shoppers or communicating a more literal message about the product being merchandised, said Jeannette Davis, president of the company headquartered in Danville, Ky. Nautica, for one, has begun using AdMart’s photo imaging system with raised dimensional lettering on signage in some of its concept shops.
Also stepping into the spotlight at the upcoming market will be the diversity of materials available in AdMart’s signage, lettering, logos and graphics, from foams and plastics to vinyls and laminates, including mica, metals, colored Plexiglas and reflective mirrors.
Although AdMart has widened the range of materials it is offering, Davis stresses that it has become increasingly important for retailers to display apparel in shops that are uniform in the look of their design elements.
“Especially in the expanding global marketplace, labels like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Clinique are seeking a consistent look so that no matter where in the world the consumer spots the product, it’s merchandised in the same manner,” says Davis. “It implies reliability and quality.
“We’ve been working to achieve this uniformity with clients over the last couple of years and expect to see a growing emphasis on this need going forward,” adds Davis, who counts Klein among the company’s accounts.
AdMart recently has expanded its own worldwide marketing effort, inking a distribution pact in Brazil with a company based there called Datamaker. It joins the roster of AdMart distributors in Singapore, the Philippines and the Netherlands.
In addition, AdMart is trying to get distribution deals going in Slovania and Mexico. In December, a Slovania-based firm named Studio Art Line may visit the U.S. to talk about a possible deal with AdMart, Davis adds. Moves to build a distribution network in Mexico are in earlier stages.
Davis forecasts that within a year, most commercial art will be received on discs and noted AdMart already sends most of its art to clients this way. Also, the entire catalog of the 27-year-old firm is on the Internet.