Byline: David Grant Caplan / Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Most New Yorkers claim it’s easy to spot a visitor to the city. The giveaway isn’t necessarily mispronouncing Houston Street or supping on breadsticks and salad at Olive Garden’s Times Square outpost — it’s standing on a sidewalk and looking up in awe at anything that’s more than two stories tall.
Tunnel vision-prone Manhattanites, who charge down avenues with little regard for anything beyond their peripheral vision, pose a problem for visual merchandisers whose job it is to divert pedestrians’ attention from streets to stores.
Yet they’re making an effort — not only in their traditional street-level window displays, but also at higher altitudes in a rapidly increasing number of cases. Macy’s Herald Square flagship just installed a jumbo flat-screen television on the second floor of its Seventh Avenue and 34th Street corner that broadcasts commercials for its fragrance offerings, Banana Republic has tested vertical merchandising at its Chelsea outpost for men’s wear on Eighth Avenue, and H&M has added a European aesthetic to the city with the type of upper-level window display commonly seen in pedestrian malls in Paris, Amsterdam and London.
The retail revolution on Fifth Avenue, a top shopping destination for tourists, has also seen an increasing number of stores over the past five years with vertical displays, including the elaborate monolith facades of Versace and Gucci, Brooks Bros.’ nearly transparent glass exterior and the new Louis Vuitton store that looks like a two-story townhouse.
As the saying goes, the only place to build in New York is up, but creating impacting visual displays above the street-level fray is proving to be an endeavor with particular challenges to this city.
One key difference from European capitals is that in New York, many stores are reluctant to show merchandise in their upper-floor windows because of a natural tendency to remain focused at the street level. Retailers said second-story window displays lend themselves to promotional posters, not traditional clothed mannequins, since posters often feature eye-grabbing images and can re-instate the brand’s image. In addition, the appreciation of a garment’s detail is often lost when placed in an upper-level display.
Legendary window dresser Simon Doonan of Barneys New York likes the looks of second-floor window displays, provided they are “purely graphic and simple.”
“The minute you try to merchandise product in them, it tends to look like mud,” he said. “If an ad is au courant, that’s a very good way for a store to go. If a company’s advertising doesn’t lend itself to this venue, it’s probably not very good advertising.”
The trend is more prevalent on heavily trafficked areas like West 34th Street, where Dr. Jays, H&M, The Athlete’s Foot and Labels for Less are making the most of their space. At the same time, Coach, Cole-Haan, Givenchy, Gianfranco Ferre, Eileen Fisher, Jaeger, Cerrutti and Enrique Martinez are among the Madisonites using their upper levels for displays.
Dr. Jays, an 18-unit chain, plans to shelve the fixtures showcased in its second-story windows at the West 34th Street store by mid-April, said Marc Sutton, chief of operations.
“We’re thinking of now putting very large pictures up because merchandise is very small when you look up,” he said. “If you do large pictures, they catch the attention [of passersby] much more easily.”
Sutton likened the positioning of posters in upper-level windows to billboards, but without plunking down the going rates.
“We want them to look up and we want to catch their attention,” he said. “With the rising costs of billboards in the city today, this is a very good way of advertising for us and the brand.”
Like Sutton, Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” sees similarities to billboard advertising.
“The second-story window is picking up from the revolution or the re-invention of the billboard, which is the simple fact that while our eyes may be aging, the connection between our eyes and our brains is getting increasingly more sophisticated,” said Underhill. “Therefore, I can, in a second-story window, get a message across that may be hip in a way that maybe I couldn’t do 10 years ago.”
Underhill, managing director of the New York-based market research and consulting company Envirosell, said retailers are free to be more “playful” with second-floor displays, since they are not the primary contact between passersby and the store.
“It’s subject to more experimentation and it’s something where you can say something up there conceptually that plays well from a distance, but it doesn’t have to play to everyone…it can be racy,” he said.
Case in point: the backside shot of a woman lounging in fishnets and strappy sandals in Sergio Rossi’s second-floor windows on Madison Avenue.
The company aims to give pedestrians a glimpse of its current ads, but many shoppers enter the store asking specifically for the shoes shown in the windows, said Maurizio De Giordis, general manager.
Like other Madison Avenue retailers, Sergio Rossi shines a spotlight on its second-floor displays at night to try to make nightcrawlers pause. That often prompts women to visit the boutique the following day, De Giordis said.
Sergio Rossi uses second-floor displays in all of its 17 stores around the world, including a unit that will bow in Costa Mesa, Calif., this spring, De Giordis said. There are also plans to use them in new locations in Dallas, San Francisco and Ball Harbour, Fla., which should open later this year.
Earlier this month, cheap-chic retailer H&M replaced merchandise displays with posters from its ad campaign in the second-story windows of its Herald Square location.
Janke Nystrom, display director for the Swedish company’s U.S. stores, said, “It will be nicer, it will be stronger+people will see it right away.”
H&M is right on track, according to Underhill, whose clients have included Federated Department Stores, Gap and Ann Taylor.
“H&M is a brand new player — it has to work hard,” he said. “It also needs to take advantage of any marketing opportunity it has.”
Paul Baglio, visual manager for Chanel’s U.S. boutiques, is also a fan of outtakes from ad campaigns being displayed in second-story windows, even though the company’s West 57th Street flagship does not feature such a display.
“Using graphics and ad images reinforces what people are seeing in magazines and in advertising,” Baglio said.
Although Chanel’s West 57th Street store has three levels, only the ground floor has window displays showcasing merchandise from the label’s ready-to-wear and accessories lines. Chanel has opted for upper-floor “showcase windows,” Baglio said, which offer a view of the store’s fine jewelry department.
“It’s really just to give a view of the ambiance with the chandeliers, the opulence with the coromandel screens,” he said. “It allows the customers to be able to see up there and let them know that something is going on and it’s something more than just ready-to-wear and accessories, because you get those from the ground-floor windows.”
Depending on a store’s location, second-floor window displays are not always effective, said Bagllio, who spent five years at Emporio Armani as visual manager for company’s U.S. stores, before landing at Chanel six months ago.
He also maintained it’s difficult for retailers to grab the attention of pedestrians when a store is located on a thoroughfare saturated with competing window displays, such as the case with Chanel’s 57th Street location.
“If it’s somewhere where you get a clear vista, then it definitely makes sense,” said Baglio. “Somewhere in the middle of 57th Street is a little tough.”
Second-floor window displays have long been part of Madison Avenue’s makeup, with art galleries starting the trend in the Fifties due to the limited amount of commercial space, said Bill Judson, president of Judson Realty, which is one of the street’s leading realtors.
Unlike other areas of the city where upper floors are difficult to rent, Madison attracts tenants that want to maximize their space, said Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District. It’s pretty pricy, after all, with the average commercial space starting at about $625 per-square-foot.
Knowing Madison attracts shoppers with specific destinations who “are not just wandering down the street,” retailers aim to make them drop in unexpectedly, Bauer said. Retailers also want to draw attention to their upper floors — a selling point with women looking for privacy while shopping.
Doonan of Barneys said not having street-level access can give a second-floor business an air of exclusivity.
Givenchy’s second-floor display at its Madison Avenue store has a definite impact on sales. It helps attract new customers, increases store traffic and gives shoppers direction, according to Hicham Benmir, sales associate.
When dresses were displayed on mannequins in the windows, shoppers went straight to the upper level expecting to find all the summer dresses there. The fact that Givenchy’s second-floor window is six-feet wide and three-feet high makes it easy to see from a distance.
Well aware that second-floor windows are only visible when one “stands across the street and cranes his neck up to see them,” Barneys thinks of them as secondary. The retailer uses its second floor for displays, but does not change them as often as its street-level windows or spend a heap of money on them, Doonan said.
But on Fifth Avenue, one of New York’s most congested shopping areas, H&M has found success with its expansive three-story window display at its flagship, Nystrom said.
“If I’m walking on Fifth Avenue, I can really see a lot of people standing looking up at our window,” he said.
Nystrom said the large multilevel window display — which he describes as a “fantastic facade” — allows H&M to highlight the season’s trends by featuring key items from the company’s assorted lines.
“I think in stores like the one on Fifth Avenue, you can have a great impact and you can give the customer more about the whole trend,” he said.
H&M has had a strong presence for many years in Europe, a region where Underhill said second-story window displays were “pioneered” in areas with “pedestrian-focused and pedestrian-rich environments.”
To increase the presence of it advertising campaign, Cole-Haan posts colorful oversized images of it in second-floor windows of its Madison Avenue, Beverly Hills and San Francisco stores, said Bill Zeitz, vice president of brand marketing. The concept occurred to him while seeing droves of pedestrians pass by the East 61st Street unit.
New ads are unveiled in the windows a week or two before they break in magazines. Current images showcase footwear and handbags from the spring line.
“It all goes back to our repositioning the brand as a fashionable lifestyle,” Zeitz said. “This is one other way to deliver the brand in that way.”
Since many of the brand’s customers are frequent travelers and travel is a theme for which they relate, Cole-Haan is speaking with Travel & Leisure, Departures and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as hotels, about potential tie-ins, Zeitz said.
He added, “Here is also an element of escapism in the ads that appeals to people passing by.”