For Part III of our discussion, “Putting the ‘Visual’ Back in Visual Merchandising,” we are chatting with Anthony Perrotta. Anthony has worked with specialty brands, including J. Jill and Alex & Ani and is currently with Kiel James Patrick based in Rhode Island. While at J. Jill, he developed and implemented merchandising and fixture planning for 300+ retail locations. Prior to joining J. Jill, Anthony was with Alex & Ani where he had a strong involvement in the new store set-up process, store planning & retail marketing. Anthony is a rising leader in visual merchandising who has grown up on technology and found his joy for merchandising thru photography which has had a strong influence on his designs. He holds his B.S. from Johnson & Wales University in Fashion Merchandising & Retail Marketing along with attending the University of Tennessee for Interior Design.
Here, Anthony shares his perspective on both the artistry of brand storytelling and the importance of keeping up with today’s latest technology.
Q: How does your background in interior design and photography influence your work in visual merchandising?
Visual merchandising is all about blending the visual and the physical together. Photography is visual. Interior design is physical. Things like mapping floorplans and visual awareness come naturally for me because of my background. While photography has given me a deep understanding of composition, interior design has exposed me to digital programs like AutoCAD, Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop, which have all been integral to my career.
Q: How have you seen the role of the visual merchandiser evolve over your career?
Technology matters now, more than ever. When I began, it was very hands-on. Development of floor sets were created in mock stores, where we were using a physical space to design merchandising layouts. Now it’s more about creating digital renderings of the various merchandising solutions to be able to move faster to meet customers’ expectations. We are developing planogram-style visual guidebooks and trying to find ways to showcase the full breadth of visual displays in stores digitally. The goal for every visual merchandiser is to move customers through the entire store, so no matter what kind of retailer you are, it’s all about figuring out what the key drivers and key items are that draw customers toward the back end of the store. For customers, retail is more than just about shopping, it’s about the discovery of products throughout the store.
Q: What challenges did you face in creating and implementing planograms for stores like J. Jill and Alex and Ani?
We worked on merchandising guides that went to 300+ stores where thousands of associates relied on them. The challenge was to make planograms easily understandable for store teams. Imagery and rendering in planograms have become increasingly important to the successful communication of merchandising intent. They ensure the consistency of the brand voice from store to store and provide a visual presentation for each merchandising story.
Visual merchandisers are storytellers of the brand. At J. Jill, we met with the product designers to get an idea of where their inspiration came from. Then we took that inspiration and decided how to apply it into the physical space. For example, we did one campaign with a southwest feel last March. The inspiration was all about the Arizona wild flats. We took a desert color pallet and motifs and built a window display using those elements to reinforce that story. Inside the stores, we added raffia-woven baskets as props to infuse the interior with depth to bring the campaign to life. Storytelling is the cornerstone of visual merchandising. It helps create a value proposition, a point of difference, and connecting products to a brand’s mission.
To execute the plan in-store, we made the merchandising guides available digitally to help communicate these plans more efficiently. I’ve worked at brands that used digital planograms on iPads, and at brands that used paper planograms, and found the compliance was far better when store associates used iPads because the information was more readily available to and navigable for associates. A lot of other retailers use paper guidelines sent through email that must be printed. When stores received the paper planogram sometimes information was outdated because promotions changed, or the product wasn’t available to be merchandised.
Q: If you could come up with your ideal solution to solve the problem of the paper planogram, what would it be?
Get rid of paper and make it all digital!
I’m younger and grew up with technology, so digital planograms are second nature to me. Interestingly, at J. Jill a lot of the store associates are older women who might not be as technically inclined. So, there’s more of a learning curve to get them comfortable with the technology at the beginning. Once they got a handle on it, they easily understood how it made their lives a lot easier. They didn’t have to flip through binders page-by-page, and they could zoom in on the picture to get a better view.
Offering training modules and in-store support made the associates more comfortable with the shift and I think it can work for other retailers, too.
Q: Do you have an example where communication failed between HQ and the field that could have been avoided with the use of technology?
I’ve seen in the field where HQ may fail to report visual updates to all stores or perhaps rely on paper copies of the updates. Paper copies may get lost or damaged, or stores may never receive them. When you don’t offer these updates on an intranet or via an iPad or Surface Pro, stores miss out. As we know, visual updates are important for maintaining presentation while providing direction to stores based on sell-through. They also redirect the focus of the collections or product assortments. I’ve seen other companies mail updates, causing for delays and miscommunications along the way. Stores may not get the full picture, both figuratively and literally.
So, making the visual book available via cloud or digital platform eliminates confusion and strengthens communication, which enhances the presentation. In addition, having photos and files digitally accessible allows for better graphic representations of the updates. Associates can blow up the imagery at the swipe of a finger to see details that may otherwise be missed.
Q: Does merchandising for specialty retail require a different skillset than for big box retailers?
From a technology standpoint, both require that you have knowledge of software programs (i.e. Space Planning, InDesign, Photoshop). Big box retailers spend more time on the space planning side analyzing SKU assortment by fixture and wall sections, whereas your specialty retailer is more focused on a visual theme to drive a campaign for promotions and product launches that change on a consistent basis.
Q: What kind of impact has social media had on visual merchandising for you?
Social media helps make competitive shopping online a lot easier. I used to physically go out to other stores and look at their displays to see how we could elevate our presentation. Today, you can do this virtually on social media channels to stay attuned to trends and move quicker in the marketplace.
LinkedIn is also a great source of visual ideas. Visual merchandisers love to share what they’re doing and showcase what’s happening in the moment. The whole idea is to stay on trend, but to interpret in your own way. For example, greenery was having a moment last year. Everyone was investing in putting fake or real plants into their store to make it feel fresh and bring it to life. There was a term that went around called “resimmercial” – it was about taking commercial spaces and making them look residential.
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.