Visual merchandising: creative ways to stop traffic in retail

Visual merchandising is all about creating a retail environment that appeals to the target market. Attractive ambience and design, clear product grouping, eye-catching displays and other traffic-stopping POS materials will all increase the chances of shoppers making an impulse purchase.  

The fashion industry probably has the longest history of visual merchandising; fashion store merchandisers are known for designing some exciting and innovative window displays. Because the fashion target market is ’captive’ once the shopper enters a branded fashion outlet, efforts  were traditionally directed at the window display to get shoppers to step inside. And indeed, 37% of fashion shoppers surveyed admitted visiting a store more often because of enticing window display design.

Product References

More recently, with increasingly less loyal shoppers, it has become important that the entire retail outlet design, as well as any window merchandising, is a visual reinforcement of the overall brand experience. And it’s no longer only the concern of the fashion industry, it’s something that all retailers are paying attention to – from supermarkets to DIY stores, pharmacies to department stores. Once inside the retail outlet, the competition for business changes from store level to brand and product level. The main beneficiaries of heightened footfall will be those brands that use the most impactful visual merchandising elements in store to reinforce their brand messages. "If you catch their eye, they’ll stop and buy!"

The fashion for disruption

Cardboard cut-outs and standees are great visual merchandising tools for disrupting shoppers throughout the store, as well as for window displays, and a field merchandiser deploying these creatively is an effective way to grab attention and drive sales. Brand manufacturers can also capitalise on other creative POS materials, such as posters, mobiles or Drop ’n’ Pop totems, all of which are designed to call attention to sales promotions and make them more effective. Merchandisers have a wide range of items available to them for signposting, complementing or adding a theatrical touch to ’normal’ product displays. The design of these merchandising items can also provide additional communication space for explaining products or new usage occasions. This can be invaluable when promoting non-intuitive products that require additional explanation. Likewise, products that by design are unsuitable for standard off-shelf display – due to their size, weight or nature (like frozen or chilled foods) – can still be promoted within and outside the category to raise shopper awareness. As they don’t hold product, cardboard cut-outs are obviously not a direct means to sell products. They are designed to grab shopper attention through eye-catching shape and colour, and they may include multisensory features. Typically, cutouts use brand testimonials or film characters to act as visual hooks; although giant pack cutouts can also be effective for products with a distinctive shape. 

Aligning visual merchandising with the brand

Around three-quarters of shoppers check out promotional displays just before making their purchase, according to a consumer survey conducted by Ipsos Observer in 2014. This survey confirmed the pivotal role that visual merchandising plays in purchase decisions in store. The more closely aligned visual merchandising is with the brand, the greater the emotional connection shoppers will feel to the brand whilst inside the retail outlet. Creative ways of linking POS material to packaging design and brand personality help to add consistency to overall brand communication. Foils and premium finishes such as embossing can be used on visual merchandising materials to align them with the brand more closely, prompting shoppers to recall brand packaging. Drop ’n’ Pop totems using creative imagery from ATL media campaigns can also remind shoppers about the brand messages and related emotions that they have experienced outside the retail outlet. This consistent reinforcement helps to deepen the relationship between shopper and brand, driving long-term brand loyalty as well as the desired short-term sales.

Aligning visual merchandising with the shopper

Although a shopper is the one who buys a fashion item, a toy or an item of food, he or she may not be the end consumer; so it’s important to understand shopper needs as distinct from consumer needs. Shoppers are often not looking for individual products, but for solutions; a work shirt for their partner, a healthy dinner, a child‘s birthday gift, or ingredients for a crowd-pleasing barbecue. Making a product appealing in retail is all about focusing on target shopper needs, which may be best met through merchandising that focuses on clear education, new usage occasions or offering alternative products. To succeed in retail, the best visual merchandisers showcase brands in a creative way; the latest fashion is for telling the shopper a story. Cleverly designed pallet decorations (toppers, wraps, cladding etc) can be a great way to communicate a story about a product or group of products, whether they be inspiring shoppers to try new pasta and sauce combinations to enliven a family dinner, offering the perfect combination of back to school essentials to keep children happy at the end of the summer, or providing shoppers with all the ingredients and accessories they need to design the perfect party cocktail.

The fashion for supersizing

Pallet-sized POS can greatly increase the visibility of themed offers from a distance. These are particularly effective when used in conjunction with product-bearing pallet displays; with the right design, several displays can be grouped together to form an island or train, with pallet cladding or other decorations unifying the group with an overall theme. STI Group specialises  in making these larger items easy for merchandisers to assemble and fill in store, increasing compliance and the impact on sales. Creative examples range from fashioning a mini football stadium, kitchen, train or bus in store, bringing brand-relevant emotions and desires to the forefront of shoppers’ minds. The beauty of this mrchandising approach is flexibility; with the right design, the number of pallet displays involved and the amount of decoration can be adapted according to the space available in store. Multi-product and cross-category promotions are perfectly suited to this approach. Equally in fashion are giant products, usually made from cardboard, which celebrate an instantly recognisable product. In recent years these have become increasingly popular as a way of drawing shopper attention to single product promotions and are quick and easy for a merchandiser to place tactically.

Maintaining shopper interest through change

Almost half of the female respondents in the Ipsos survey said that they had entered a retail outlet more often or had been motivated to buy something because of a window display. Three-quarters of female respondents were attracted by changing window display designs; in a world of rapidly changing fashions, this is not a surprise. These figures underline the importance of regularly refreshing visual merchandising as a way of attracting renewed attention. Often this is relatively easy for field merchandisers to do; by changing simple elements such as cardboard cutouts, for example, or simply moving creative displays from one high footfall area to another.

Using all the senses for creative shopper marketing

More than a third of Ipsos survey respondents admitted that they took a closer look at the promoted product if a window display design caught their eye with light, motion or another interactive element. Enhancing visual merchandising in this way helps to elicit emotions, activate shoppers and trigger impulse buys. Whatever retail fashions may be dominating visual merchandising trends at any one time, adding light, sound or motion to the design is likely to add the necessary element of surprise or novelty to disrupt shoppers from their planned journey through the store. Multimedia features can induce shoppers to linger in a retail outlet for longer; and the longer the dwell time, the greater the likelihood of a purchase being made. POPAI (Point Of Purchase Advertising International) studies agree, indicating that displays using motion can generate sales uplifts as high as 300%. Sound, light and motion modules may attract a higher cost than a POS solution made purely from cardboard, but when applied in creative ways these visual enhancements can still generate a significant commercial return. Clever integration into display designs means the merchandiser can still set up the unit quickly and cost effectively.

Try before you buy

Whether it’s for themselves or somebody else, shoppers generally prefer to know exactly what they are buying. The surge in popularity of sales promotion campaigns that allow shoppers to test or try out the product for themselves comes as no surprise, and it’s also a valuable way for bricks-and-mortar retailers to set themselves apart from online retail. Active sampling – staff handing out products as part of a promotion – has definite advantages over passive sampling, where merchandisers simply leave product samples accessible for shoppers to pick up. The current fashion for more active sampling allows targeted shopper engagement, during which product benefits can be clearly explained and shopper queries answered. The instant 'Ratz-Fatz' wall, a large format display wall, is a flexible visual merchandising element that is a great way to support sampling activity. Offering a large communication space for telling a vivid story, it is also quick to set up thanks to its individual components being connected with elastic bands. This can work well as part of creative instore theatre – possibly combined with cutouts and/or displays – as a photo opportunity wall, or alongside tester counters for sampling activity. For some brands, mere sampling is not enough; having staff present in store provides a golden opportunity to create a much more engaging and positive connection with the brand. Experiential brand marketing is often centred around striking visual merchandising materials and extends to retail events, photo opportunities and competitions, as well as active sampling and selling by brand ambassadors.


What kind of materials are used to produce visual merchandising elements?

Design may go in and out of fashion, but material is generally more predictable. Standees and cut-outs need to be very stable, so they are normally made of laminated corrugated board. Drop ’n’ Pop totems are made from cardboard. Pallet decorations, mobiles and other elements are likely to be a combination of both. Plastic, wood and metal can also be integrated into a design, especially where light, sound or motion are required.

When planning a campaign, how much time should I allow for producing visual merchandising elements?

That depends largely on the complexity and novelty of the visual merchandising elements planned. Simple, standard items, such as Drop ’n’ Pop totems, can often be fashioned within a few days of artwork approval. More complex or bespoke standees, cutouts and pallet decorations could take upwards of 3 weeks.  

Does STI Group offer small items such as wobblers, counter cards and floor stickers?

Items like these go in and out of fashion in retail, but our Print Management team can provide customers with all the retail merchandising materials they might need, from leaflets to floor stickers, through just one point of contact.

When does it make sense to use standees instead of product displays, or vice versa?

Standees are  highly visual and especially effective at grabbing shopper attention. They strengthen and promote the brand personality, and can tap into a particular emotion, trend or fashion. Stockholding displays offer additional sales locations in store and complement regular on-shelf product presentation.