By Andrew Smith, Retail Consultant and Author of Retail Innovation Reframed | OCT 13, 2021 | BLOG

Retail is merchandising. No matter the medium, the blend of art and science that is uniquely crafted for every individual brand has always been at the heart of great retailing. How much art vs how much of science has always been driven by brand purpose, who you are and what you sell. These made up the core elements of your store and defined the principles by how your team sells. Up until the last two decades, shops have served one purpose, it was the home of the transaction. The place where retailers balance product, price, proximity, placement and all the other ‘Ps’ we get taught in the retail school of life. But the internet changed everything, perhaps most largely the role of the store. The internet solves for convenience, but there is always more to shopping. As consumers adjust their value calculations including what, when and where they shop, each brand needs to have their own existential reflection about the role of their stores and how they work, but perhaps nowhere is most important to have this reflection than in the way we merchandise.

The merchandising renaissance.

Prior to our world being turned upside down by a global pandemic, retailers were already debating in boardrooms and presentations everywhere about what to do with their physical stores. But as we exit COVID19-restricted life, people have shifted their behavior even more toward looking for experiences. This can come in the form of a vacation, going out more, or in store experiences. Consumers are looking to find something new to discover and share. This means that the efficiency gains we saw with trends like cookie cutter designed stores, simple fixtures, and focusing on transaction over experience are at an end. Instead, we need a merchandising renaissance. A return to the art form that pulls together product in a story that is engaging, exciting. However, the big trick is going to be how brands choose to define it themselves. How they work to discover their own secret recipe for the new role of stores rather than just listening to some industry article that says, “the latest trends in merchandising every retailer must have”. Like all good art, it must be unique, individual, and thoughtful crafted. Finding your own version of the renaissance must be taken from three areas:

  • Your brand purpose – why you exist, your brand personality, and the reason your customers feel attached to you as a brand. This is often confused with something altruistic. It might be that, but most of the time it is something unique to your organization based on its culture and founding. Disney is all about entertainment, Nike is all about helping every athlete. Every little detail in their physical experiences is built with that purpose acting as the guide.
  • Customer drivers – who are your customers, what are they looking for but also, what can you create on top of that based on how your brand fits into their context. Like the famous Henry Ford quote “if I’d asked my customers what they’d want, they’d have said a faster horse”. Go beyond understanding just what they want but be creative and inventive by taking in your brand and their life in context.
  • Business drivers – Nowadays a store has to be built with so much more than just the shopper and their transaction in mind. They need to be distribution hubs, have experiences built not just for the core shopper but the gig worker who is shopping on behalf of the customer. They need to be showrooms, they need to be return hubs, service or support centers. If we try and fit all of that in the way we have been doing things, it won’t work. What was once a simple transactional sales environment, is not a complex hub of experiences and operations, and that means it needs new thinking. What got us here, won’t get us there.

Imagine wandering the Main Street or your local mall and being engulfed in different brands sharing their stories. They have become the physical manifestation of a brand’s experience and personality. This is not just about keeping up appearances, this is the key to future growth. Whether it is an existing retail network being refreshed, or a new retail network being created for a brand that was born digitally, this can only be achieved if we rethink the core role of visual merchandising to align to that as well. The chief artists of the brand’s story in the physical form.

Running toward the fire.

We have let visual merchandising become almost a performance management metric, as opposed to the storytelling blend of art and science it once was. Stores get told where to put stuff, they do it (even if it doesn’t make sense) and send the photo back to get the green tick of approval. Few brands have cracked the ability to tell their brand story in unique environments at scale. Those that do, have done so by focusing on the tools needed to do it. Tools that allow for multiple shapes and sizes, for localization and individualization. Tools that open up communication between the frontline teams and those who support them centrally.

As retailers everywhere face into running toward the fire of this crisis/opportunity, the role of stores will shift and customers will get better experiences as a result. This in turn will bring more shoppers out, buying and exploring locally, and being immersed into brand’s personas in ways they want to share. More brands born digitally will hit the digital growth ceiling and look to physical to acquire more customers and in doing so, create new and unique experiences will keep this design disruption going. As we enter post-covid retail where consumers are hungry for experiences, those with the inbuilt capabilities to support this new role and focus of stores as storytelling experiences, will be the ones who exit the price cutting death spiral, and enter a new phase of growth.

How will you evolve your visual merchandising to deliver unique store experiences? Start with simplifying the process

By Andrew Smith, Retail Consultant and Author of Retail Innovation Reframed