The Ultimate Visual Merchandising Guide: 17 Display Ideas for Customer Experience


It may sound like a cliché to say that visual merchandising is both an art and a science, but it’s true. In fact, there’s probably some math involved too. So what’s the secret to transforming your retail space into one that creates a memorable customer experience?

For store designers looking to capture your customers’ attention, awaken their senses and immerse them in a wonderful shopping experience that builds affection and loyalty, we’ve compiled this list featuring 17 of our favorite visual merchandising tips.

1. It all starts at the window

Getting people to look at your window is the first step to enticing them to walk through your door. So consider offering an eye-catching surprise. What’s that woman doing walking a flock of flamingos in that department store window? Why, inspiring curiosity and attracting shoppers’ attention, of course!

2. Simplify the decompression zone

When customers wander into your store, they slow down near the entrance to transition from the outside world into the experience you’ve created for them. Display strategies for your decompression zone range from keeping the area entirely free of merchandise to offering simple, uncluttered displays of in-demand items. The theory is that “an effective decompression zone will subconsciously transport visitors from a distracted mindset to a calmer state, ready to embrace the actual shopping journey.”

3. Show merchandise in action

Which is more fun? A tent that’s folded up in a bag on a shelf? Or a tent that is set up, its zippered door hanging open with two sleeping bags inside and outdoorsy mannequins roasting marshmallows by a pretend campfire? That’s just one example; bet you can think of s’more. 

4. Eye on the calendar

Seasonal happenings make great jumping-off points for creative and timely displays, and not just at Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmastime. For example, Fourth of July merchandisers rolling out summer swimsuits might be inspired to blow up some brightly colored beach balls, suspend them from the ceiling and create a mini-scene featuring towels and sunscreen, flip-flops and shades.

5. Let there be lighting

Whether you’re using soft lighting or spotlighting, aim it where you want your customers to look. Spotlights, of course, can be used to focus attention on featured displays and merchandise. But also consider using softer lighting (with the source hidden, the beams bathing your focal point) to create a glowing effect.

6. Three of a kind

Nature loves things in threes; shoppers love things in threes. Why? Ask three visual merchandisers and you’ll probably get three different answers. But don’t be surprised if they all cite a belief that humans are wired to find symmetry pleasant yet boring, asymmetry more jarring and tantalizing. The rule of three in visual merchandising holds that “people are more visually engaged when they see a group of three items.”

7. Use all five senses

OK, technically the use of sound, smell and taste in retail display does not count as visual merchandising. Or does it? Smart designers know how to evoke the other senses using visual cues. For example, a display featuring dad flipping burgers at the grill can create taste sensations that trigger a shopper’s appetite for summer-themed merchandise. Just as mannequins arranged in energetic dance poses and equipped with headphones invite shoppers to imagine what they’re listening to.

8. Products in motion

Hey, that mannequin’s summer dress looks like it’s blowing in the breeze. Sure a clever designer has placed a fan nearby, but the effect is achieved. Motion catches people’s attention. This is true whether we’re talking about a rotating carousel filled with shiny objects or a toy train stopping traffic at the front window.

9. Video merchandising

If a shopper is curious about a product that is somewhat unfamiliar, what would make them more likely to buy it — scrutinizing the external packaging for information or watching a well-crafted, 30-second video that tells the whole story, right in-store? Manufacturers often provide such promotional tools; don’t hesitate to use them.

10. Offer an experience

From pizza bites to perfumes, displays that offer free samples are a time-tested retail sales strategy. The theory is that inviting customers to interact with products increases the odds of a purchase. Such displays educate and entertain — and examples are everywhere, from electronic games and sporting goods displays to in-store music listening stations. High-tech digital interactive displays take this idea to the next level.

11. Complementary product displays

The customer may have come in to pick up some sunblock — but if you create a strategic, visually appealing display, they may fill their shopping cart with beach products. The theory behind complementary product displays is also at work when we see pancake mix and waffle makers next to the maple syrup. Or when a bike shop decks out a mannequin with shorts, fingerless gloves, a helmet, hydration pack and Italian racing jersey.

12. Don’t hide the price tag

When a customer is interested in an item, pretty much the first thing they want to know is how much it costs. If you make them work to find the price, the odds of making a sale shrink faster than a pair of cotton jeans in a warm Maytag. Therefore, making this information easily available is imperative (unless, of course, you’re selling expensive goods to people for whom money is no object).

13. The Pyramid Principle

The idea behind building a vertical pyramid-shaped display is that the shopper’s attention will be drawn to the focal point, that key item at the top of the pyramid, and then cascade down from there, taking in visual information about each of the products in the triangular stack. The same effect can be achieved whether stacking items, displaying them on a wall or inside a fixture.

14. Simplicity beats clutter

It may sound like common sense, but the cost of retail square footage creates considerable temptation to cram aisles, walls and shelves to the max. However, too much clutter is not only unattractive, it can be overwhelming and confusing for customers. The easier it is for people to navigate your space, the more time (and hopefully money) they’ll spend in your store.

15. Get creative

Your inner artist might enjoy working with different materials to fashion a unique display. Origami, papier mache, helium balloons, feathers. Shells, driftwood and beach rocks. A tree branch for a clothing display instead of a steel hanging rod. Cinder blocks, rope, even barbed wire. Mason jars, bubble wrap, an old barrel. Vintage furniture, lamps and curiosities. Endless possibilities to flex your imagination.

16. Mannequins with attitude

Known for their ability to effortlessly personalize clothing and accessories, these “silent salespeople” have long played a vital role in retail visual merchandising. And they’re evolving. Recent trends include the use of more realistic mannequins. Plus-sized mannequins. Disabled mannequins. Buff, athletic-looking mannequins. And, of course, high-tech digital mannequins — a Los Angeles-based visual merchandiser recently created a buzz at a fashion trade show by introducing mannequins with digital screens instead of faces.

17. Where do I sign?

Strategic use of in-store signage enables you to deliver just the right message in just the right place. And now there are more ways than ever to convey key brand, product or navigational information — to tell your story. Fabric signware and illuminated light boxes to name just two. Of course, the next generation of digital signware is helping retailers harness technology to create in-store shopping experiences that wow customers and drive revenue.

-Jeff Hastings

Jeff is the Chief Marketing Officer for Visual Creations, Inc. A retail merchandising and marketing veteran, Jeff has over a decade of retail design experience, knowledge and insight from serving as the Senior Director of Retail Design, Director of Visual Merchandising and Senior Marketing Director for multiple retail and graphic companies across the United States.

Visual Creations/Rose Displays is a full-service provider of cost-effective, custom fixtures, furniture, millwork and signwareä solutions. With decades of design and manufacturing experience, VCI/Rose partners with leading U.S. retailers and brands to create memorable in-store experiences.

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