Visual Merchandising: Creating an In-Store Experience

By Leslie Cunningham

Were quickly approaching a new era in a retail; customers are veering away from the shopping malls and big box retailers of the past few decades and returning to their roots, supporting small, local businesses. Corporate stores across the country are closing their doors, providing independent retailers with a huge advantage. Small businesses have always had the upper hand when it came to customer service, and that prioritization of service is even more important than ever.
There are unique, competitive advantages that came with a personalized instore experience.  Lets look at the facts:
       35 consumers try a new brand or company for a better service experience
       80% of Americans agree that smaller companies place greater emphasis on customer service than large businesses
       Almost 9 out of 10 consumers say they would pay more to ensure a superior customer experience
From the moment the customer walks into your store, the clock starts ticking and all of their senses are engaged for an excellent instore experience. Although excellent and engaging customer service is key to their instore experience, we mustnt minimize the importance of visual merchandizing to our customers.
Shopping engages all of our senses. There are a few inherent senses to rely on when creating a pleasant environment for shoppers:
Touch
The more time an item spends in your hands, the more likely you are to buy it. Physically holding products can create a sense of psychological ownership, driving musthave purchase decisions.
Smell
Baby powder. Coconut. Coffee. All of these smells trigger an emotion that takes us to our happy place. Rubber is the perfume of a bike store. There are many outdoor stores who have perfected that outdoorsinside scent. How does your store simulate my sense of smell?
Visual
How are you directing customers through your storewhats their road map? Grocery stores, for example, deliberately place the milk at the back of the store, forcing customers to walk through the entirety of the store and build their basket with unnecessary frivolities, all while on the hunt for the necessity. Getting the customer to walk all the way through the store allows them to see everything you offer them.  
Your store can either create interest, inspiration and excitement, or it can intimidate, confuse or overwhelm. The secret is a strong visual presentation.
A Quick Visual WalkThrough Guideline
Our customers are accustomed to walking into a retail provider and seeing all the signs of boredom. Retail as a culture has come to look like employees behind the cash wrap, talking in groups and pecking away at cell phones. Part of our opportunity in having an independent retail store is that we can create a culture of activity. By cultivating accountability and pride in your retail store, rather than accepting the new retail tenets of boredom and nonchalance, you create a more welcoming and enjoyable experience for your customers. We must always be prepared for our next customer.
In addition to making sure our employees look presentable, we should also ensure that our actual store looks prepared for the day and customers, as well. You should create a daily walkthrough list of different aspects of the store that should always be prepared. This should be done at the beginning of the day, throughout the day and at the end of the evening:

VM Daily Checklist

    Lights
    Dust levels
    Sock wall
    Hangers in right direction
    Fold clothes
    Hide tags
    Windows
    Mirrors cleaned
    Floors
    Carpets
    Mannequins
    Entrance area
    Cash wrap
    Fill in inventory
    Empty hooks
    Steam your clothes.
Our employees must always be doing something. Its not just that youre paying them to work; its that they should always be preparing for the next customer. If your store or your employees are sloppy, what are you telling the customer?
Its also important to make sure your store is easily navigated by new customers. Your customers have been trained by the grocery store, Target, WalMart and Lowes to look up in order to find their bearings. As a specialty retailer, it is critical for our store to have signs to show customers how the store is laid out. It’s already hard to come into your storewithout a name or sign thats immediately recognizableand you must cater to that unfamiliarity by making the store as easily navigable as possible. Your customer will become more frustrated when they can’t see the section they are looking for right away, and there is a higher chance that they may just walk out. 
Four Key Issues to Solve When Selling Apparel
Be consistent
Commit to creating your own, personal instore experience. First, establish and understand your brand promise. Once you know what that promise is, then you can build the culture in your store. This starts with your logo, fixtures, signs and even your hangers throughout your store.  Whatever you have committed to as your brand promise, make sure your store is telling that promise consistently. 
Eavesdropping 101
My freshman year in high school, I was taught the best sales skill of my life: Eavesdropping 101.  While this skill may seem invasive, when done properly it can have a lasting impact on your customers. This is a skill that bartenders and wait staff do incredibly well; they observe and listen to everything that is going on in their section and incorporate their findings into their work. Similarly, our staff should closely observe their surroundings. Where do people tend to go when they walk in the door? What do they typically land on? What are people talking about? How are they talking about the product? By truly listening to customerseven when theyre unaware of uswe can offer them the best service and products possible.
Dressing rooms, Mannequins and Flat Surfaces
In independent retail, we are in the highend apparel business. Dressing rooms are a nonnegotiable, and staff must be comfortable taking our customers to the dressing room. You can also use the dressing rooms as a practice arena; when we get new apparel in the store, for example, our staff ll be more likely to make a purchase. 

should be the first to try it on. Have staff meetings around your dressing rooms and take note of the lighting, the mirrors, the hooks and benches. If your customers (and employees) are comfortable in your fitting rooms, they

Highend performance apparel generally doesnt look good on hangers. Instead, use your staff, mannequins and flat surfaces to show the amazing features of the apparel youre selling. If you put a product on a mannequin or feature it on a flat surface, make sure you have plenty of product to sell. 
Staff attitude
Employee opinion is the number one hurdle in apparel sales. This starts with the owner; all too often we hear owners saying that they would never buy the product in their store at full price, but this way of thinking doesnt serve your industry or store well. Overcome the beliefs of yourself and your staff; your customers are there to buy, and you can easily sell these products.
Theres a Chinese proverb which says, A man without a smiling face must not open the shop.In our specialty industry, we often find that the most passionate salespeople are also the most introverted; we must teach and remind them to smile. Greeting our customers with a warm, welcoming disposition is absolutely integral to our success.
Creating an enjoyable instore experience is a multifaceted task, but once we commit to these different aspects of visual merchandising and employee training, running a tiptop shop will be a habit, not a hurdle.

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