For Part II of our discussion, “Putting the ‘Visual’ Back in Visual Merchandising” we are chatting with Kristin Lauer. Kristin is a seasoned expert in visual merchandising with over 25 years of experience. She began her career at Filene’s, Bloomingdale’s and Barneys — where she worked under design icon Simon Doonan — and later opened her own studio, Blue Potato Installations in Boston. Kristin holds an MFA in sculpture from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute and most recently worked as Global Creative Lead/Visual Merchandising at Bose. She continues to work as a consultant, designer, mentor and lecturer and is an adjunct professor at Massachusetts College of Art & Design (MassArt).
Here, Kristin talks about her roots in fine art, how visual merchandising has changed through the years and offers advice on staying relevant in the field.
Q: How does your background in sculpture influence your work in visual merchandising?
A fine art background is incredibly valuable to the work we’re producing as visual merchandisers. Having fine art skills, like sculpture or painting, is the secret to the sauce. Sculpture enables me to understand how things are pieced together or built. It has made me better at engineering installations for stores.
Q: How have you seen the role of the visual merchandiser change throughout your career?
I think about how many big names were started in windows. Andy Warhol made a living designing windows. Rob Rauschenberg made his money that way, too. Watching how Barneys would make the career of a previously unknown artist in a very short amount of time because their work was featured in the windows on 17th Street is an amazing testament to the power of a great retail display. Window design is part spectacle, part street art and it still launches careers today. Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi and Isabel Toledo all got started by that moment in the window.
Today, visual merchandising is all about analytics. We can track the entire customer journey through the store to fully understand each touch point. We have the capability to see how long a customer lingers at one spot. Knowing how a particular display performs is vital. Even the nomenclature reflects that. We don’t really call it Visual Merchandising any longer; we call it Customer Experience.
Q: Merchandising the Barneys window takes a special skill set, but how do you create a customer experience in the toothpaste section at Target?
The thing that works really well is when a retailer is clever at using low-cost, expendable materials in fresh ways. Take Starbucks. They’ll use something as simple as paper to an unusually beautiful extent, like laser-cutting it to resemble lace. It’s a low-cost material, but they’re executing it extremely well across all 15K+ stores so that it’s a consistent experience. Trader Joe’s uses chalkboards and interesting calligraphy to turn their POP signage into something special, and they’re able to execute it perfectly. To me, the bigger piece of it is how retailers use mass-produced, inexpensive materials in an extraordinarily unusual way. It’s really all about the materials and the execution, because if the execution isn’t pulled off, it doesn’t matter what you’ve made. The success of a program ultimately falls on whoever installs it.
Q: How important is communication between HQ and stores?
Retail is working on increasingly shorter timelines and if the communication piece is broken, it’s incredibly tough to execute plans correctly. Without communication, people in the field don’t get the support they need, and more mistakes are made. By the time you figure out what you did wrong, it’s too late. The stores that are doing a really good job of execution have better communication at the point of installation. Those stores are gaining immediate feedback, and HQ can edit and control what they’re looking at.
Q: What kind of impact has social media had on visual merchandising?
There’s a sense right now that if something isn’t buzzworthy, then it’s irrelevant. Everyone wants to create an environment where people are taking selfies and posting them on social media, and that’s not easy to do. Visual merchandisers need to be future thinking because things get stale fast, and we all know that a static store means death.
The artist Yayoi Kusama is a perfect integration story for this social media moment we’re in. Kusama is a 90-year-old Japanese artist known for large-scale sculptures covered in dots. In 2012, she designed the 5th Avenue Louis Vuitton (LV) windows. It was a dramatic installation with tentacle-like sculptures and every surface was covered in red-and-white dots. The windows received such a huge amount of buzz that LV then created a Kusama store-in-store, carrying over the red-and-white dot concept into the physical shop. The merchandise itself was Kusama-licensed LV bags featuring the same red dot motif. Fast forward a few years and now Kusama is at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston with an installation of one of her famed infinity mirror boxes. It’s a completely immersive display — filled with tentacles covered in dots — through which people walk, taking endless selfies in a really cool environment. Her installations have ultimately become a huge social media sensation.
So, it started with art in a window, which had resale and commercial potential. Then the art became a concept shop and got so much buzz that everybody who came to New York went to the 5th Avenue store to take a selfie (and buy products from LV too, of course). Now she’s able to work inside a fine art museum and what does she create? A selfie environment.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing visual merchandisers today?
To reach the current generation, you have to do more than catch people’s attention. Brands are expected to have a world view and be socially responsible. A good example of this is Puma, which uses re-purposed shipping crates for their pop-up store. Converse builds lighting fixtures out of their dangling, recycled sneakers. Timberland helps customers plant trees. And bigger merchandise rollouts with shorter timelines mean that people working in visual merchandising need to understand globalized production timetables, and design for cross-cultural sensitivity. If I’m designing for China, I must be aware not to use the color white during the holidays.
Q: For someone breaking into the field, what are the most important skills to have today?
Having a working knowledge of a range of design platforms and being able to move fluidly and seamlessly between them is crucial. Problem-solving and pivoting within the design process is crucial. (Plan Bs are mandatory.) Being a good negotiator and an infectious seller of ideas is important because you need people to buy into your ideas. Personally, I have found it valuable to be able to talk up and down the chain, from the guy on the loading dock who’s handling your materials to the CEO.
Q: What advice do you have for visual merchandisers to help them stay relevant?
Get out of the office and look at different spaces. Try to really be present in those places you admire, especially if it’s a new concept you want to understand. Go into stores that you think are doing a good job and try to emulate some of those practices without copying specific ideas. Learn to analyze why designs “work” and then put your spin on it.
Don’t get complacent. See everything! Talk to people! Experience the world! Strive to find different perspectives and experiment with different lenses.
Visual merchandising should be like working in a laboratory where you experiment with different materials and ideas and aren’t afraid to fail along the way. There are a lot of inexpensive materials you can use and reuse in unique ways if you’re clever, and this will allow you to move quicker through resets. Make 10 solutions in three-week cycles and see what happens. And don’t be afraid to take risks and cook up new ideas.
To continue the conversation in the coming months, we’ll be talking to seasoned visual merchandisers and space planners about the biggest issues they encounter in the field today and the role technology plays in the future of merchandising and space planning.