The Art & Science of Visual Merchandising [Inside the Evolution of Retail]

Pose the question “what is visual merchandising?” to a retailer today, and the response will likely be somewhat different than the answer to that same question several years ago. That’s because the retail experience is evolving.

In years past, visual merchandising strategy consisted largely of displays, fixtures and signware designed to attract, engage and motivate a customer toward making a purchase — part of a retail experience that could be described as transactional.

However, now that the customer is empowered with so many more shopping options than ever before, you are much more likely to hear retail designers talk about the increased importance of customer experience — and to hear the new nature of retail described as experiential and aspirational.

(See some traditional examples, as well as some next-generation visual merchandising techniques and strategies, in the sections below.)

The Art & Science of Visual Merchandising & 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 definitely some math and psychology involved, too.

“Retail merchandising is an art and science,” according to enterprise business website Regarding the artistic component, “Visual merchandising applies to everything from the exterior of your retail store to the well-lit entryway all the way through to the well-placed furniture, fixtures, and promotional displays. It helps create customer value by making the shopper journey efficient, unique, and memorable.”

When it comes to the scientific component: “Decades of customer research, driven by the overwhelming economic importance and growth of the retail industry, arm retailers with actionable data for effective merchandise strategies and best practices.” The growing complexity of the retail environment includes challenges posed by digital commerce, non-stop social media commentary, globalization of retail markets and shoppers empowered with hand-held supercomputers called smartphones.

The history of visual merchandising is one of beautiful displays and installations, and that emphasis on eye-catching visuals is as important as ever today. And, yes, the idea is still to influence shoppers to make purchases.

But now, brands and retailers are more focused than ever before on delivering positive experiences that inspire brand loyalty and that, ideally, transform today’s shoppers into tomorrow’s lifelong customers and brand ambassadors.

Visual Merchandising Techniques and Strategies


Aspirational Retailing

Closely connected to the concept of “customer experience” is the idea of using creative visual merchandising to deliver an “aspirational” effect — that is, inspiring shoppers to imagine using the product, wearing the article of clothing, eating the tasty treat while having a memorable time with friends. Highly creative displays and installations are still a key goal of visual merchandising, but the difference now is that there is much more likely to be a reason behind everything a visual merchandiser does.

The Increasing Role of Technology

Technology is continuing to revolutionize retail. Today, merchants are using advanced point of sale systems and handheld devices that empower sales associates to provide a smoother, more personalized in-store customer experience. Other devices and systems enable them to collect and analyze data and then deliver actionable insights not only about shopper behaviors, individually and collectively, but also about the effectiveness of actual displays.

Rather than paying for expensive advertisements that might attract one type of customer but be ineffective for others, retailers are leveraging technology in “a new paradigm that promises them reduced marketing costs, more targeted marketing opportunities, and the opportunity to deliver a true omnichannel experience for shoppers,” according to a Visual Merchandising Guide at

Extreme Personalization

Many of these principles go hand in hand. For example, technology and data collection are fueling new innovations when it comes to uniquely personalized merchandising strategies.

“Retailers are realigning their visual merchandising strategies towards capturing the needs, aspirations and lifestyles of individual customers by using the latest analytics tools to capture consumer data and visual merchandising software applications to deliver targeted and personalized product recommendations,” according to “By capturing data on individual consumers, retailers can target them with visually merchandised outfit and product offerings that are most compelling for them.”

Appealing to All Five Senses

Tickling the senses has always been a piece of the visual merchandising experience; just think of that candy store sending sugary scents throughout the retail space and the entryway to lure customers and whet their appetites. But appealing to all five senses has become even more important than ever; today it is one of the most critical aspects of retail because of the opportunity to create aspirational customer experiences. The ability to appeal to all five senses is also one of the key advantages that merchandisers have in the brick-and-mortar environment when it comes to enhancing the brand experience they offer to their shoppers.

Smell is a fast-track to the system in your brain that controls both emotion and memory — two very prominent factors behind why we choose one brand over another,” according to Shopify.

Letting customers taste a featured product is another strategy being updated by merchandisers. “This can work magic if you happen to be in the business of selling consumables,” according to Shopify. “Giving customers the ability to sample products before they buy” also creates an opportunity to engage them in a conversation.

The music or sounds that merchants choose to play also have “a profound but subtle effect on how your customers behave in store. Depending on who you’re targeting, you can slow people down by playing more mellow music, causing them to browse,” or vice versa.

Studies show that many shoppers like to hold items before buying them and may actually favor feel over appearance. Retailers can connect customers to that sense of touch by unpackaging select boxed items and inviting shoppers to interact with them.

Retailers strive to delight shoppers’ sense of sight with creative displays throughout the year, but this is especially so during the holiday season. In the Big Apple, for example, big-name storefronts and interiors are transformed into dazzling sensory displays designed to capture the spirit of the season, create an emotional connection and sweep onlookers into a sort of retail winter wonderland.

Keeping Things Fresh

Many large retailers are now striving to give customers a fresh look every time they come inside the store by regularly changing out large installations that are intended to wow shoppers.

However, there are also several ways to keep things fresh on a smaller scale — particularly with the use of graphics and signware. Nowadays, technology enables retailers to change out even prominent signware with ease, especially now that more retailers are using digital visual displays. Additional options for keeping your displays fresh include going for a softer feel with versatile fabric signware or drawing some extra attention with internally illuminated LED lightboxes.

Tried and True Visual Merchandising Ideas

Technology. Customer experience. Aspirational merchandising. Complementing the new trends in the world of retail are traditional visual merchandising display strategies that have stood the test of time, often with a new twist.

Inspire Shoppers’ Imagination

Think big. Tell a story. Create a sense of adventure. Invite shoppers to stand in front of a display and say, “wow.”

An example for an adventure sports retailer might be to create a display that features a steep rock-climbing wall in a wilderness setting, dotted with imaginary “climbers” sporting the latest gear and fashions, or even roasting marshmallows over a campfire. That’s just one example; bet you can think of s’more.

Creating larger-than-life displays that invite shoppers to imagine themselves experiencing an adventure is an important way for visual merchandisers to help create affection for the brand and build a relationship with the retailer.

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. Outside of strolling through Manhattan’s Times Square during the holidays, one of the best ways to find inspiration and ideas is to browse images of window displays on sites like Pinterest.

Products in Motion

Hey, that animatronic mannequin running in super slow motion in the window of a Philipp Plein boutique in Amsterdam sure is kind of mesmerizing. Plus, it gives onlookers a sense for how the clothing looks in motion.

Visual merchandisers know that motion catches people’s attention. In traditional retailing, simple motion effects could be created by, for example, using a fan to cause a pretty dress to blow in the “breeze” or setting up a toy train display to entertain younger and older onlookers alike. Today, technology offers a palette of more sophisticated possibilities, such as the futuristic jogger seen in the video.

Video Merchandising

If a shopper is curious about a product that is somewhat unfamiliar, what would make them more likely to buy it — squinting to scan 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.

Curated Displays

This is another example of the power of using visual merchandising choices and techniques to tell a story. Picture a museum curator, and imagine the thought and deliberation that goes into the positioning of each piece within a related collection, as well as the strategy behind creating focal points to draw the onlooker’s eye.

A curated display is typically one that features related items thoughtfully presented in a way that invites visitors to slow down and immerse themselves in the retail experience. In such displays, the idea of curation includes not only the products you choose to feature, but also your selection of fixture, display and signware components.

Don’t Hide the Price Tag

When a customer is interested in an item, one of the first things 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 are selling expensive goods to people for whom money is no object).

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.

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. Giving shoppers room to breathe helps create a retail environment that feels relaxed and well-organized rather than hectic or chaotic. The more relaxed people feel when navigating your space, the more time (and hopefully money) they’ll spend in your store. Creating visual merchandising displays that are less cluttered can also help you draw attention to select products.

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 — one Los Angeles-based visual merchandiser created a buzz at a fashion trade show by introducing mannequins with digital screens instead of faces. As always, Pinterest is a good place to browse for creative ways to catch the customers’ eye, and capture their imagination, using retail mannequins.

Get Creative

Your inner artist might enjoy working with different materials to fashion a unique display. Origami, papier mache, 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.

How Working with a Visual Merchandising Partner Can Help

Now that the evolving art and science of visual merchandising has changed the game, many retailers find it extraordinarily helpful to work with an experienced custom fixture and signware partner to help create a fully integrated retail experience that:

  • Designs merchandising and visual systems for personal and aspirational displays
  • Has the resources to integrate and leverage technology
  • Understands sensory experiences for shoppers, and that retailers need to regularly offer something new for them to see and experience

For example, Visual Creations (VCI) combines decades of experience manufacturing custom displays, fixtures, millwork and signware systems for some of the nation’s best-known brands and retailers.

There are many advantages to partnering with a company that is both:

  • A manufacturing partner for your retail furnishings, signware and more
  • An industry thought leader at the forefront of retail industry trends, technology and best practices

The VCI team (including its signware division, Rose Displays) has developed an advanced understanding of how to integrate all of the aspects of retail experiences — fixtures, lighting, sensory strategies, technology, graphic messaging and so much more — in ways that complement your brand at various touchpoints in store.

We love talking with clients about strategies for capturing your customers’ attention, stimulating their senses and immersing them in a memorable shopping experience that builds affection and loyalty. Contact us today to start a conversation.

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