Consideration of the parameters of space within the physical retail environment is essential in creating the shopper’s journey and maximising points of visual inspiration at every opportunity. Designing a visual merchandising concept or scheme is just the beginning of the process. This chapter identifies the complexities of initiating 3D production and installation in order to understand how to generate the optimum realisation of creative ideas within the selling space.
Historically store windows were designed to enable customers to view the retailer’s offer before entering. In contemporary retailing this comprehensive selling space has a more complex commercial context. Store windows can entertain, engage and inspire the consumers, helping them to build an association and relationship with the retail brand.
A window is like the cover of a book: the design, style, content and narrative should entice the viewer inside. When designing store windows the visual merchandiser needs to consider the message and how this will engage the customer or passer-by. Most retailers are aware that windows can be used as visual PR. It is also crucial to continue the window themes in store, which helps to create visual cohesion and project a clear brand message.
Access and size of window space are one of the first aspects to consider. Closed-back windows, for example, tend to have an access door hidden from the customer’s view. In some instances the back walls come away to enable access for large props, graphics or digital media.
The size of the window space is also critical in design and planning terms, whether the space is large or small, deep or shallow, high or low and how the display will be viewed: from the front, side, back or from multiple angles. Other factors include the placement of electricity points, how the window space will be painted and how it will be maintained.
The open-back window format allows the customer to see the interior of store from outside and equally, from the inside out. The main consideration for the visual merchandiser is that the products can be seen from a three-dimensional perspective. This format enables greater connection between the products and the retail space.
Closed-back windows are typical of traditional retailers, often containing theatrical schemes with backdrops, props and lighting that focus on the narrative. Larger retailers, such as department stores, may use this format to create sequential displays or design themes across multiple windows. Sequential windows showcasing a theme can tell a story in visual chapters.
Half-back windows tend to be used in smaller, speciality stores. Graphics are often hung in order to differentiate the interior space from the window scheme and the products, which are changed on a regular basis.
Corner windows gain more exposure as they are visible from two or more streets. Often the schemes are more complex because the viewing points and sightlines are in multiple directions; here, side views are just as important as frontal display.
These windows are set back from pavement view, so the viewer has to walk inside the arcade. There may be more emphasis on dressing side views as footfall is directional. Historically these types of store are small and narrow, so the arcade windows will be dressed to display the store contents.
Small display boxes do not cover the full height and width of the main fascia or store window; they may even be set aside from the retail space entirely. This format works very well for displaying smaller products, such as jewellery, and helps to draw the consumer’s eye to small details and intriguing displays.
Some retailers completely remove all window spaces to open up the full entrance space from the outside in. Such formats are often found in shopping malls or freestanding promotional spaces. The threshold space is immediate and can be used as a third window opportunity.
In some European and Asian countries it is possible to see outdoor-style windows in isolation from the main store. These form part of the journey to sale by confronting the shopper on the street. In this scenario, it is wise not to display expensive merchandise that is prone to theft and to consider how the shopper will view the scheme from 360 degrees.
Traditional window spaces tend to feature removable flooring that needs to be covered or painted after every window scheme change. The flooring is an integral part of the window preparation and it is usually removed, recovered or painted in conjunction with the rest of the window area preparation. Floor base panels may be cut to sizes that are manageable to lift in and out of the window, but do not show too many seams from the outside.
Lighting is generally hidden just above the window height unless it is unique and part of the overall window scheme. During each window change, lighting should be switched off, removed carefully and the individual lamps cleaned before they are reinstalled. Side lighting is particularly useful for windows that are high but shallow. Directional spot lighting is useful to highlight a particular focal point in the window.
It is quite common for customers to view a window scheme during installation so it is particularly important that every viewpoint is scrutinised in detail. When a potential customer passes by the window, particularly at a small independent store, they will hopefully look towards the newly installed scheme but perhaps also slightly beyond, so it is therefore essential to grab their attention by the time they reach the central point of the scheme. Larger retailers and department stores have the advantage of multiple windows, which manages this problem, but with smaller retailers it is important to consider the way the product is facing and to ensure that it is angled in the direction of the footfall or customer flow. Customers rarely approach a retailer face-on unless it happens to be situated opposite a designated road crossing, for example.
The window space is crucial for generating sales so it is in the interest of the retailer that these spaces are empty for the shortest possible time between promotions. Retailers will often use graphic images to disguise the installation of a new scheme behind and the installations are usually built at night. After the removal of an existing scheme, some elements may be stored and recycled for future use. Once a scheme has been removed certain checks need to take place before the next scheme is installed:
Merchandise removed from mannequins or placed in a window needs to be returned to the original departments. Fashion merchandise in particular needs to be security tagged and any kimbles or other tickets need to be reattached.
It is particularly important that adequate preparation time is given to the installation of a new scheme and careful planning prevents or at least manages potential delays. The following points should be considered as part of the preparation:
Using and handling mannequins in commercial environments is a key skill for visual merchandisers. The selection of merchandise that mannequins will wear is usually decided at a head office level in larger corporate organisations. In smaller organisations, it is possible to take responsibility for selecting the merchandise, and this should be in line with promotional activities and seasonal trends.
Mannequins come in many human-like forms and historically of course have changed styles according to the latest fashion trends. The majority of mannequins are now made of fibreglass, which is not particularly sustainable, so research is being undertaken by a variety of companies around the globe into production of mannequins in a variety of materials.
The figures themselves have usually been modelled from one or more men or women but they do not tend to be anatomically ‘correct’. Rather, they are moulded to form an aspirational image of how we could appear if we were younger, slimmer and taller. Ultimately, the purpose of a mannequin is to sell products, so they must show merchandise at its best, and communicate the latest trends in fashion.
Styles of mannequins change according to need and should be selected to work with the particular brand values of the company. For example if a brand with an industrial ‘look’ were to select realistic and glamorous mannequins with wigs and detailed makeup it may contradict with the type of brand they are, instead they may favour a far more generic or vintage feel to their show their collections to their best advantage.
The range of availability of types is quite phenomenal and many companies have an extensive archive from which to draw on. The final finishes and body shapes can also be adjusted or developed according to the range of merchandise being sold. We have grouped the various types that we have identified as below:
Fashion future collections are the ranges of mannequins that capture the essence of the here and now and are usually based on real celebrities or personalities who encapsulate the Zeitgeist of the moment. These figures are usually a full-bodied mannequin sprayed in a natural skin tone with handmade wigs and make-up and designed to have a realistic image of the person that they have been modelled from.
While most mannequin suppliers have whole ranges of figures to choose from, the majority used by retailers tend to be of the Caucasian variety. Figures reflecting Black and Asian ethnicities are produced by mannequin companies, but these are not always readily seen on the high street.
Retailers who want to project a quite generic figure through their use of mannequins often opt for a mannequin which is presented facially in an abstract way. Abstract mannequins were used quite extensively throughout the 1980’s in retail but gradually fell out of fashion although they are gradually becoming used more as pieces of art or to lead in differentiation.
Mannequins that are not actually used to present clothing but covered in perhaps smaller products such as multiples of props or food, for example, are referred to as abstract product mannequins. They are still mannequins but are used creatively to illustrate a retailer’s product range in an unusual and exciting way.
Male mannequins tend to be produced with the stereotypical male physique in mind. Some figures can be fairly muscular and therefore some products do not work well with them, particularly men’s formal suits. Some figures can also either appear either Neanderthal or effeminate so the best solution is always to use figures that are simply formed and designed.
Mannequins do not always need to have a realistic head with fully recognisable features and heads can be removed at the manufacturing stage or a more generic mould of a head and added to simply give an impression rather than appear realistic.
Depending on the fashion brand, many retailers opt for bust forms rather than a full bodied mannequin which may fit particularly well with the type of brand they are. Bust forms are cheaper than mannequins and with the option of articulated arms and hands these are a very versatile ‘vehicle’ to show product from.
On occasions fashion retailers may not use any mannequins at all. The merchandise itself is prepared and presented as if a person was wearing it creating the illusion of a figure or ‘invisible man’ scenario.
A hybridised mannequin is a mannequin that has been placed in the wrong position or deliberately in a position in which it was not intended to be. While this is not always a terrible visual merchandising offence, it does make mannequins look quite odd.
As with ‘abstract product’ mannequins decorative mannequins and bust forms are often used purely as props. Figures can be painted, covered in materials such as mosaics or vinyl and support the overall theme of an installation.
The selection of fashion merchandise for promotion is often a collaborative process between departments, with creative directors detailing promotion information in advance. This could include seasonal, publicity or special promotional activities that need to feature concurrently with advertising. Particular features of the merchandise can be noted and highlighted within an installation. Any accessories such as shoes, jewellery and so on, will also be selected to build on the narrative.
The mix of core lines or everyday items with high fashion products to achieve different looks. This technique works well to build a wardrobe range customers may have at home, encouraging them to mix and match product options from a wider selection.
It is particularly important to be aware of the key trends when selecting women’s fashion items. Good communication with buyers, merchandisers, marketing and PR departments is critical, as is reading the latest fashion magazines, newspaper articles, blogs, watching fashion media and, wherever possible, attending fashion week shows. Knowledge of fashion itself cannot be underestimated, and this should include an international fashion perspective.
High-quality fashion products usually require little preparation although steaming and/or ironing where appropriate is crucial. A well-manufactured garment should not need much pinning on the mannequin, but should it be required it must be discreet and out of view. Mannequins should be grouped and positioned towards the main footfall. Mannequins that have the ability to be placed in multiple positions make the job a little easier but should never distort the product itself.
Accessories must be appropriate and complement the overall look. It is worth remembering that most mannequin hands do not move and attempting to attach a handbag or umbrella, for example, will destroy the overall appeal. Mannequins with articulated hands are limited in their availability and may not be appropriate to the brand image. Expensive jewellery is usually shown within an enclosed, secure environment.
The best quality handbags are usually selected as part of a current trend or promotion. It is important to remember that the outside face of the merchandise should be shown, as this is how it would be carried or worn.
Lingerie is usually presented in a sensual way that highlights fabrics and seasonal or fashionable colours. Specialist lingerie departments and stores are often designed to create an intimate, gentle atmosphere with emphasis on feminine qualities. Life-sized mannequins or bust forms are generally used in a smooth finish. Textured or covered figures should always be avoided.
Stockings and tights are usually displayed on leg forms and used in a repetition format to show the variety of available tones and designs. There are of course opportunities to explore different, more exciting ways to display this kind of product.
Hats are not as extensively worn today as they were in the past, and are usually reserved for special events such as weddings or the races. Fixtures for this type of product do not vary extensively, and head forms are generally used. Sunglasses are often placed within high-density fixtures in repetitive rows, broken up with the use of mirrors and brand promotional material.
There is less flexibility with shoes as they are essentially small product items. Preparing shoes for presentation is particularly important, as the customer will often scrutinise them in detail. Every item needs to be free from marks or defects and finishes such as suede need to be carefully brushed.
Women’s footwear tends to be more varied than men’s and can be divided generally into particular ranges, such as eveningwear, casual, fashion, work shoes and so on. The visual merchandising should take into account how these will be presented and the strongest solution is within its category of end use.
It is particularly important to display tailoring as it would be worn. Full-bodied mannequins are generally used to show the product, and any details such as buttons or pockets, to their full potential. Men’s mannequins tend to have a 38-inch chest and 30-inch waist and stand around 6 feet tall. The mannequin should be carefully selected: some figures have muscular arms and chests, which can make formal wear look out of shape. Trousers are nearly always shown in conjunction with men’s jackets.
The majority of men’s shirts are visually merchandised using high-density fixtures and supported with the use of bust forms. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of forms on the market; those with articulated arms and hands work well, adding movement and interest to what can otherwise appear to be a fairly unexciting installation. Men’s shirts vary in their cut and style and there may be particular details, such as cufflinks or a brand logo, which can be featured as part of the installation.
Men’s underwear, including t-shirts, are best shown through the use of full torsos or lower torso forms sat in or on top of fixtures. Socks are often visually merchandised through the use of foot forms in a repetition format to communicate availability in a variety of colours.
As with all fashion merchandise the best way to show ties is as they would be worn, i.e. in a knot and merchandised with formal shirts with collars. In promotional terms it is always a good idea to keep in mind special events, such as weddings, or appeal to the target market where formal wear is a necessary part of working life.
As with women’s shoes, it is good practice to prepare shoes for presentation, polishing if necessary, to show the product to its best advantage. The shoes should be laced appropriately, with laces untwisted and tied neatly or tucked inside. The instep of shoes is generally placed away from the customer view, with only the exterior shown. Men’s shoes do not generally have enormous variation in colour, style and texture and can appear monotonous en masse. It is worth considering how this product can be made more interesting with the use of seasonal or promotional props and graphics.
Sportswear tends be light, colourful and often heavily branded or linked to a specific sports personality or event. Sportswear is also often displayed to highlight particular properties such as its ability to maintain body temperature, anti-slip properties or recycled fibres. Some brands offer customisation options such as personal identifiers and colour variations.
The principles for adult fashion merchandise equally apply to the selection and preparation of children’s wear. Back-to-school promotions, which start in summer in the UK, are one of the main seasonal events. It can be a challenge to present this sort of merchandise, which tends to be dark tones, in an interesting and exciting way. Beyond the necessary school uniforms, children’s wear needs to offer child as well as parent appeal and the use of fantasy and excitement is often critical in selling these types of products.
If the merchandise is an item of clothing, then the appropriate size for a mannequin or bust form should be selected. Depending on the brand, most ranges of mannequins are produced between a UK size 8 and 10 or 14 for a larger figure.
Depending on quality and cost the merchandise is then either ironed or steamed. Luxury fashion items should always be steamed to remove any creases from packaging and transportation. Less expensive merchandise that creases easily may require both steaming and ironing, although care should be taken with a very hot iron and it is important to check the fabric and care labels.
Landscaping is used to create a space hierarchy within a store by recreating the height order of a natural landscape, graduating from the lowest to the highest point. The customer’s view point leads from the fixtures at the end of the threshold, which should be lowest in height, such as tables (lakes), then built up on to feature or capacity fixtures (trees), which in turn lead the eye on to the merchandised back wall area with bulk or large capacity fixtures (mountains). This arrangement provides the best possible view of merchandise and store displays as the customer walks through the decompression zone.
Landscaping is used in theatre productions through stage design. A store window or interior space can be approached in a similar way, with the visual experience developing in different areas, created by controlled combinations of fixtures, colour, merchandise, lighting, props, graphics and surface material changes. Landscaping encourages customers to shop from the front to the back of the store, so fashion product should ideally be merchandised from floor to wall, rather than perimeter and floor separately.
Successful visual merchandising takes into account levels and accessibility to customers in order to create a ‘see it, like it, buy it’ scenario. A basic table fixture for instance, which is good for heavy merchandise or bulky materials such as denim and jumpers, can be viewed at waist level and the merchandise is within easy reach for customers to touch and feel; this is a particularly important part of the customer experience and therefore leads to sales. Items displayed at a high eye level in store are more likely to gain exposure as the end of a long sightline. However, smaller items placed at high or low levels are lost, and larger or more bulky items work better at lower levels.
To ensure the product is enticing and ‘easy to shop’, the fixture must be effective, well maintained and appropriately supported with key visual merchandising elements. Retail store fixtures tend to be a long-term, expensive investment, so design and choice should be appropriate for the type and density of product/brand. Selected fixtures must perform efficiently and effectively for as long as possible, so factors such as appropriateness, functionality, materials and style will be taken into account.
A well-organised layout of fixtures within a store design, whether it is an exhibition, loop or race-track format, will help to create an effective selling space. The fixtures should allow the customer to flow freely through the store and not block sightlines, focal points or create physical barriers. Because of this, fixtures often work best at differing heights.
Bulk / large capacity product fixtures Bulk or large capacity fixtures, as the name suggests, carry large amounts of merchandise within the retail space. Because of their size, these types of fixtures tend to be used at the back of the store to carry merchandise such as denim, shoes and trainers.
Conventional metal fixtures are the staple choice for most retailers. Brushed steel is the most popular finish today, compared to a few years ago when one would find many examples of a highly chromed, mirror-like finish in retail stores. Metal fixtures are produced as round rails in various formats, four-way fixtures and t-stands. All have adjustable height mechanisms to accommodate the varieties in length of fashion products throughout the year.
Gondolas are manufactured in a variety of materials; they act as a high/flexible capacity fixture, usually on wheels so they can be easily moved around a store. High-density merchandise, such as underwear, works particularly well on gondola fixtures, with opportunities to add images or shelves with bust forms and often storage underneath for easy stock replenishment.
Cubes are used to carry large amounts of merchandise. These types of fixtures are most widely used for denim, enabling the merchandise to be folded and placed in order of size, cut and colour, which simplifies product selection for the customer.
Tables are probably the most widely used fixtures in stores as they act as the ‘lakes’ within the landscaping techniques. These may be positioned just past the decompression zone to create opportunities for current promotions or around the retail space to break up the monotony of metal fixtures carrying bulk merchandise.
Fashion feature fixtures are normally designed to carry specialist or small amounts of merchandise that may be on promotion. These types of fixtures tend to be sprinkled around a commercial space and may contain items such as a pair of trousers, trainers, a variety of tops and perhaps a jacket, to go with the whole outfit.
With every high street brand vying for the customer demographic, differentiation is particularly important. The customer needs to recognise a brand and its signature of a particular space. Brand signature fixtures communicate such brand information and for this reason tend to be placed towards the front of the commercial space.
In order to create some form of differentiation and add interest to the store environment, many retailers are now using different styles of antique or vintage furniture such as wardrobes, cabinets and tables as fixtures. Brands such as Anthropologie do this exceptionally well, even offering the fixtures themselves for sale.
Some brands move a step further and combine antique or vintage pieces to create specialised fixtures. This might include the use of elements such as old-fashioned suitcases and trunks strapped together to form a fixture or old tables joined together at oblique angles to form one piece.
Some brands supply specific fixtures for their products to be sold in store. Duty-free areas are probably the best example of this, with fixtures that may contain images of the product in the form of a large graphic, brand promotions, video screens or celebrity endorsements, perhaps with illumination to enable the product to stand out. Brand specific fixtures enable the manufacturer to control how the product is displayed and therefore retain brand image.
Some retailers use grid walls and slat wall fixture systems along the perimeter space. Grid wall systems tend to be found in outdoor pursuits stores rather than fashion stores, although there are some that use these fixtures. Merchandise is hung on metal arms that hook on to the metal grid, offering a cheap and versatile system. Slat walls are a similar format, where the arms for the merchandise slot into grooves in the panels.