How to Build Professional Window Displays
10 Steps toward Great Visual Merchandising
Let’s say you’re in the market for a diamond necklace. You looked online and found two stores with the necklace you want; both at the same price. Both stores are on the same street and you’re walking up to the first one now.
Hmm... this store is not well maintained. Their dusty window if full of dimly lit junk: cigarette lighters, sun glasses, shoe shine brushes, cell phones. Necklaces hang from wire racks next to a selection of sun-bleached men’s ties. Somewhere in there is the necklace you want. Hmm... Let’s walk on.
The second store is also an older building but the window is clean. The glass reveals a panel covered in clean black velvet. Alone in the center of the window is a red velvet pillow on a table draped in satin. Three spotlights converge onto the pillow illuminating the necklace in a pool of brilliant light. There is nothing else in the window except a small card stating, “Talk is cheap.”
Where would you rather make your purchase? That’s the value of presentation in selling.
This example demonstrates how a little work, clean glass, a few yards of velvet and a few lights can affect sales. But techniques vary based upon what you are selling.
Let’s take another example. You’re at a party. A waiter threads the crowd with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Unfortunately, by the time he reaches your group there’s only one left. Five people gaze hungrily at the tray.
Ever notice that when there’s just one of something, it’s harder to accept? This is the law of abundance in reverse. You can see this same technique used to move merchandise in warehouse stores where there is so much of one item it’s easy to take just one. So you have to select the right approach.
Still, there are exceptions. An upscale grocery might create quite a stir with displays that treat single vegetables as if they were high-end jewelry. People would noticed. Move the velvet display into a grocery and swap out the necklace for a potato. Now it’s over the top. In any kind of marketing, a playful approach is hard to beat. This grocery concept would work because people notice the unexpected.
So without delving into actual composition, let’s look at 10 basics necessary for a successful display that anyone can do:
1. Put your most sensible foot forward
Selecting what to display is a strategic decision. What do you have in stock? What’s most popular? What will customers notice? Somehow the item you select to put on display must make sense for your business. The general formula is attract, interest and sell. Window displays attract and interest people so they will come into your store. Now they can talk to a sales person, try something on, or take a test drive.
2. Focus attention
Have you ever tried to persuade someone who wasn’t really listening? It doesn’t work.
People only have so much attention to give. Show a customer one product and you’re dealing with 100% of their attention. Show them two products and you’ve got only half as much attention on each. That’s called splitting attention. And the more products you add, the worse the math. Some store owners violate this principle hoping that something in the window will catch the eye. In practice, however, the normal result is to catch nothing at all. So little attention is available for any given item, the average passer by sees nothing at all.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with grouping related products together and selling them as a package. Restaurants sell complete meals, clothing stores sell outfits, tools are sold in sets. In the 1970s the concept was to “tell a story.” An example would be men’s flannel shirts positioned with bags of charcoal briquettes. While juxtaposed might be a display of summer dresses intermixed with red fire extinguishers. Several interpretations could be made of these two displays.
3. Mask distractive background
What else can the customer see through your window? If they can see into the store, you must ask yourself if this is going to enhance the overall effect or detract. Depending on the setting, this could go either way.
If viewing above and around the display is distractive, if it looks cluttered, use a backdrop of some sort to wall off distractions. Cover the background panel in fabric or display vinyl. This could be a large panel, or even fire-resistant seamless photography paper.
4. Keep it clean
A dirty or dusty window display lowers not only perceived value of the product, but also the integrity and control of store management. Five minutes with a feather duster can make a huge difference. Window glass is best cleaned before the display is done, using a solution of clear ammonia and water. Wipe edges with clean paper towels or newspapers.
5. Present the correct quantity
Now that you’ve selected an item and limited distractions, you need to decide how many products to put on display. This decision may pivot on price. Generally speaking the less involved the customer is in the purchase of the item, the more you may want to display a volume of the items on display. For example, a potato does not require a lot of thought on the part of a buyer, whereas an expensive watch does. So display only one of the watch, but offer potatoes in a huge pile.
Get your items off the ground. To put something on a pedestal or platform is to glorify it. Remember the old idiom about putting someone on a pedestal. You can cover a box in velvet or display felt, buy a plastic column from a display supply, or use a table. Never place items on the floor in a display. Make it special. Elevate.
And if you have multiple items in the same window, put some items on different levels to break up the visual monotony and make it more interesting.
7. Cover surfaces
What makes a better impression when receiving a present? Wrapped or unwrapped? Exactly. Cover stands, boxes, panels and platforms. Drape tables. Use satin, velvet, rich brocade or display felt (which comes in widths of 72” and is available in most fabric stores), or use glossy display vinyl (printed to look like glossy marble, metal flake or other showy colors). Vinyl normally comes in rolls about 51” wide.
8. Accent with light and shadow
To “stand in the spotlight” is synonymous with being the center of attention. When you light something brilliantly and cast its surroundings in shadow, you force attention onto the lit item in a dramatic and powerful way. The best practice is to use both light and shadow to make a display item “pop.” Painters of the Italian Renaissance called it “chiaroscuro” from Italian, from chiaro ‘clear, bright’ (from Latin clarus) + oscuro ‘dark, obscure’ (from Latin obscurus).
9. Use signage
The use of signage in a window display gives the chance to reinforce the purpose if tasteful and clever. You want your display to be as powerful as possible but since the ultimate goal is to sell there are times when the whole composition will benefit from a word or two. Or perhaps a brand name or logo positioned somewhere. In fact, there are times when the omission of the brand name would be sheer idiocy. Take, for instance, a series of window displays interpreting a new fragrance. Such a display would make no marketing sense without the name of the brand somewhere visible.
But in most cases, unless you have a really good idea for a sign, leave it out. As a comparative, advertisements sometimes include a tag line or slogan. Today the rule is, unless the tag line is spectacular leave it out! Like a bad haircut or botched plastic surgery, a mediocre tag line will do more harm than good. Many advertisers don’t understand this. “What’s our slogan for this campaign?” They think they have to have a slogan. Not true.
Perhaps one of my best tag lines was created for the Richard Nixon Museum and Birthplace, a rather challenging campaign considering I was never a fan. My grandmother was a political activist and an arch enemy of Tricky Dick. His name never came up without her saying, “Steve, that Nixon is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg!” In my research, I found that despite his many flaws, there was (I hated to admit) another side to the man. He accomplished some remarkable things. My challenge was how to promote the museum without whitewashing any wrong doing or violating my own integrity. So I wrote a series of headlines around the watergate scandal. My tag line was, “You don’t know Dick.” Very true. Very true.
The moral of the story, use signage (but only if it improves the message).
10. Add trim
Foliage, flowers, ribbon, a velvet pillow, rusty steel, a wicker basket... in the display profession, props such as these are called “trim.” Older dictionaries give a definition of trim as a, “decorative addition.”
In fact, it might interest you to know that for decades, a display artist in the apparel industry was called a “trimmer.” In the main, trimmers worked with wires instead of mannequins, making clothes appear to hang, float or fly in mid air as if by magic. They habitually added in decorative additions such as dried foliage, flowers, ribbon, and all manner of things to tell a story.
The word trim is used in the same sense as to “trim” a Christmas tree, meaning to add lights, tinsel and ornaments. In those days, if you said “I’m a trimmer” everyone in the apparel industry understood.
Can displays improve your business?
Those are the basics of display and I ought to know. With more than 30 years experience as a display artist and literally thousands of displays under my belt, I probably qualify more than anyone as an authority on the subject. I’ve taught people how to do it, delivered seminars and workshops, written articles and even a manual on the subject.
I started doing apparel displays while working at The Gap when I was 17. Their business improved so much that after only a few months, I was their Southwest Regional Display Manager. With a successful operation in the retail sector, I moved into the wholesale end of the apparel business and within a year I was probably among the highest paid (and hardest working) display artists in the world.
Since then I’ve mastered other creative fields but throughout it all I’ve remained active as a display artist. And in all those years, I never lost a customer to any rival.
What kind of return on investment can a display generate? Obviously it depends on the scope of the project. Hank Robinson, a new salesman for a shirt company, paid me $100 for a display in 1980. The next morning a buyer walk by, saw the display, walked in for a closer look and wrote out a $30,000 order. Not unusual.
In 1994, a non-profit organization needed to fund a new project. They engaged me to design and build a large exhibit to show what they were all about. The exhibit generated millions of dollars at a 5,000% return on investment.
History has shown that presentation has a direct impact on sales.
© 2008 by Steve Hall. All Rights Reserved. This work may not be reproduced in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, or other without written permission from me, Steve Hall, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. That does not mean I will not grant permission for reproduction, especially for student use; simply contact me first. I am easy to reach. Readers are invited to link to this page.