Note: We've updated this with a new post that covers the biggest visual merchandising trends of 2018. To read the new post, follow this link!
Visual merchandising is a subset of retail merchandising that’s part art and part science. As a result of this dual nature, it seems to be constantly in flux, adapting to changes in taste and technology. For brands in brick-and-mortar locations, staying on top of visual merchandising trends is one key way to get ahead of the competition. While you may know your target customer inside and out, the fact of the matter is that consumers continually expect more.
A poll conducted in May 2015 revealed that 82% of US corporate executives said that customers’ expectations of their company were “somewhat (47%) or “much” (35%) higher than they were three years ago. To retain loyal customers and capture new sectors of the market, brands should check out the five trends in virtual merchandising described below and implement those that make sense for their product offerings.
1. LED Lighting
In-store lighting has always been an important aspect of visual merchandising, but recent advancements in tunable white lighting and LEDs have armed brands with new and increasingly subtle ways of influencing customer experience. For example, stores can use tunable white light to highlight product displays or complement the light levels outside so that intensities like bright lights at night or poorly light shops during the day aren’t jarring for customers. Tunable white lighting can also allow brands to change the feel of their store after-hours in the case of hosting private events.
Brands have also begun to harness the power of LEDs. Since LED shape and execution are flexible, they can be used in stores in a multitude of ways, such as in grid formation to emphasize product displays or draping from walls to alter an ambiance. In addition, the advent of structural LED tubes has provided a way to create 360-degree diffused glow, eliminating dark patches and accentuating pieces of merchandise.
As a sturdy and low maintenance lighting option, brands have begun experimenting with embedded LEDs, which can be integrated into different store displays and are programmable. “As LEDs become smaller and more compact, and their outputs become brighter,” said Nelson Jenkins of Lumen Architecture, “it’s easier to integrate those sources into architectural details, like behind backlighting surfaces or cove cavities.
2. Going Digital
Many brands have begun to integrate technology into their in-store visual merchandising approaches, both because of the ease it affords employees and customers, and also because of the environment it creates: modern, sleek and high-end. Engaging graphics, colorful video footage and electronic flat screen displays work well together to create a consistent brand image around multiple product offerings.
Tablets have become popular as well from both a customer and employee perspective. Customers using them are able to quickly learn what a product is, how it’s used and why they should purchase it. Employees are able to move about a retail space with all the information they need at their fingertips.
Technology is changing the way visual merchandising takes place in that it allows stores to change their in-store content anytime they want. Digital displays can offer special price promotions one day and debut a new collection another day. They could even be tailored to reflect current topics in pop culture, or feature different types of merchandise at different times of the day. In addition, technology displays usually take up less space than physical merchandising props do, gifting brands with even more flexibility in their store layout.
3. Sustainable Decor
Many of the hurdles that have traditionally prevented brands from making a commitment to eco-friendly practices, such as an expected low-return on investment, are disappearing due to evolving materials and cheaper options. Most important in motivating the move towards sustainability, however, is that consumers have begun to demand brands that match their values. An increasingly competitive retail market only exacerbates the pressure on brick and mortar stores to bend to the will of the consumer.
Eco-friendly designs are being acknowledged not only for their long-term positive effect on a utility bill, but also for their ability to increase brand recognition and strengthen customer loyalty. Since most brands have online sites as well, it’s easy for customers to quickly search and read about its environmental commitment (or lack thereof).
Popular sustainable design practices include using materials such as reclaimed wood, regionally sourced substances, renewable resources and LED lighting. Retailers like Gatsby in Venezuela feature brightly colored ottomans made of neoprene that was originally slotted for landfills. The design firm hired to turn Gatsby’s commitment to green values into action, Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, told VMSD Magazine that the store “became a museum piece and provides an environment in which people want to take pictures and upload them to Facebook and Instagram and tell their friends ‘I went to this store and look at this cool chair’.”
4. A Focus on the Five Senses
Another way that brands have been differentiating their stores from the vast online market is through the use of visual merchandising that appeals to the five senses. When customers are browsing a site’s online product offerings, they are only observing the merchandise with their eyes. In stores, however, vendors can appeal to touch, hearing, smell and even taste.
Scent marketing is becoming more widely utilized as a result of research that connects smell with emotion and memory, two prominent factors behind brand choice. For example, the Lincoln automobile’s rebranding includes a new scent in showrooms combining green tea and jasmine. Musics has always played an important role in visual merchandising and branding as well, with stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister earning a reputation for their deafening playlists.
In addition, stores have begun utilizing interactive displays to attract prospective customers and engage with them. Shoppers should have the opportunity to touch and try out whatever is on sale in a store before deciding to purchase. According to a report compiled after the 2016 Global Shop event, multi-sensory user experiences encourage more comprehensive interaction with merchandise, and interactive elements let products speak for themselves. Even the sense of taste can be engaged by those brands who are in the business of selling consumable goods.
5. Mannequins With Personality
With the rise of ecommerce and online shopping, traditional brick and mortar stores have been forced to think outside the box when it comes to getting consumers in their doors. Mannequins offer one such option; they are a 3D perspective on clothing and accessories different from the 2D images consumers see online. In 2016, vendors have been experimenting with mannequins that are fun, relatable and real rather than simply a faceless vehicle for clothing. “The lesson for retailers is that the whole entire mannequin is the focus, not just the clothes,” Faith Bartrug, owner of Faith Bartrug Designs, told VMSD Magazine. “The next-generation consumers want to see a story, and the mannequin becomes part of the sell.”
In addition, mannequins are being crafted with personality. Some brands, like Zara and Kate Spade, showcase a twist on the typical, abstract mannequin. Black tape over one eye can make a mannequin appear to be winking, while removable red lips can dress it up for Valentine’s Day. Incorporating different materials, like metals and woods, has become popular as well. Stores are realizing that mannequins offer more than just a practical purpose, and are great vehicles for branding and engaging on a deeper level with consumers.
At the end of the day, visual merchandising decisions are a mix of scientific research, an eye for aesthetics, and good luck. Not every retail merchandising trend will be a perfect fit for every store, nor is this list of trends exhaustive. As long as you track the results of your visual merchandising experiments carefully, you’ll be able to easily ditch the practices that don’t work and stick to the ones that do.
This post has been updated for 2018! To read about the biggest visual merchandising trends of 2018, check out our new post here!