Visual Merchandising 101: Shore Up Sales With High-Converting Product Displays

Introduction to visual merchandising

When walking into a typical retail store, you'll likely notice tidy, curated product displays that visually highlight their items for sale. Those products aren't arranged that way by accident—the merchant is using visual merchandising best practices to help the products sell themselves.

Essentially, your retail space has to be your most productive and most efficient salesperson, and visual merchandising employs the art of optimizing your retail store and product displays for maximum revenue. 

Yes, the discipline requires a sense of aesthetic, but it's also a science—visual merchandising is a tried-and-true strategy with results you can replicate in your own retail store. 

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However, it's also important to recognize that the field of visual merchandising encompasses a lot of distinctive retail design topics. Best practices cover everything from creating effective window displays to the eye of prospective customers, to the signage you put up and your store layout, and much more.

Not sure how to get started with visual merchandising? Just keep reading—here, we'll tackle the ins and outs of creating effective merchandising displays in your store to catch your target customer's attention and get them to make a purchase.

Visual Merchandising: Begin With Your Target Customer In Mind

Knowing your target customer inside and out will help tremendously when creating effective visual merchandising and product displays. We don't just mean familiarizing yourself with demographic data like customers' ages, income, and education level, but digging a little deeper into their psychographics and behaviors.

In other words, don't just target individual customers—also examine their lifestyles. You can begin doing some of this research by combing through customer data on your point-of-sale system (those order histories can reveal so much!). 

For example, popular retail brand Abercrombie & Fitch has done an effective and controversial job targeting their ideal customers: 18 to 24-year-old All-American "cool kids." This Reddit AMA by an A&F employee is full of insights about how the company created its design and policies based on what they know both about their target customers and more importantly, their parents. 

Find Some Inspiration for New Product Displays 

Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to wait around for a brilliant visual merchandising idea to hit you. Instead, there are a number of invaluable resources available in the form of blogs, boards, and more. Some of the ones we recommend checking out are the following: 

Remember that People Have Five Senses, Not Just One

It can be easy to focus on just creating visually stimulating product displays and forget about the other four senses. But the secret to an engaging and immersive shopping experience is to create a multi-sensory experience, or what's known as "sensory branding." Let's take a closer look at how you could go about doing just that:

  • Sight: There are an endless array of visual cues you can play around with to communicate your message. From using colors for their psychological triggers, to leveraging lighting, symmetry, balance, contrast, and focus to direct and control where a customer looks and for how long. It's one of the fascinating components of visual merchandising. 
  • Sound: The music you play in your retail store has 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. On the other hand, playing top 40 communicates that you want teenagers in your store. 
  • Touch: This one's probably the easiest to get right. Retailers just need to remember to give customers the ability to touch, feel, and try out whatever it is you're looking to sell. 
  • Smell: Believe it or not, there's an entire science to what's referred to as "scent marketing," with several studies and real-world case studies of global brands like Samsung, Sony, and Verizon applying it to their advantage. 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. 
  • Taste: This can work magic if you happen to be in the business of selling consumables. Giving customers the ability to sample products before they buy is the equivalent of letting people try on clothes—it's a highly effective best practice.

Show, Don't Tell

Before people purchase something, they typically want an idea of what it will look and feel like. To accommodate this need, you can set up your product displays so that shoppers could envision your items in their own home (or wearing them, in the case of apparel).

For example, the sales floor in furniture stores is set up with product displays that make it easy for people to envision how the same products would look in their own homes. Kitchenware stores have their merchandise displayed like it might look in a normal kitchen, and so on.

Another prominent way apparel retailers do this is by creating policies that require their sales staff to wear the clothing they're selling. And of course, the most tried-and-true example of this would be the mannequin and body form, which you can style with all your latest products.

This tactic gives prospective customers an immediate point of reference. And when customers can envision using your product, they're more likely to purchase it.

Group Like with Like

Grouping products with other similar items will give your customers additional reasons to buy more items from you. But grouping products also has a more utilitarian justification: It saves shoppers time. They don't need to wander around your entire retail store trying to mix and match things or do a price comparison. It’s one of the reasons grocery stores will put dips right beside their chips, or peanut butter with jams. 

You can also think of it as creating categories. But you don’t need to limit your creativity there: you can also create “groupings” within categories. That means having merchandise that might be the same color, price, size, or type together.

The Rule of Three

In creating displays, most visual merchandisers will often refer to the rule of three, which means that when creating a product display, try to work in sets of three. Based on how you’re arranging your products, you’ll want to have three of them side by side instead of just one. For example, if you were arranging things by height, you’d have items that were short, medium, and tall. 

Our eyes are most likely to keep moving when we’re looking at something asymmetrical because when we see some symmetrical or balanced they stop dead in their track. The Rule of Three will keep your customers' attention longer on your product displays.

This also alludes to the "Pyramid Principle," where if you have one item at the top, and all other items “one step down,” it forces the eye to look at the focal point and then work it’s way down.

Let Light Dictate Mood and Attention

This again ties into engaging your customer’s senses (see above) and guiding them to experience different moods and emotions based on your store’s lighting. Whether they feel like they’re in a nightclub, a fashion runway, or right at home will depend largely on how you decide to use lighting.

Using spotlights to highlight certain products is also a surefire way to direct attention and make sure people pay attention to your top products.

For more information on how to use lighting to highlight your product displays and visual merchandising, read our guide to retail lighting design.

Don't Forget to Change It Up

Remember that when trying to optimize your square footage for the most sales, a scientific approach of formulating a hypothesis, executing on your idea, and then testing for results will put you in the routine of trying out new ideas and sticking with what works. 

With these tips in mind, go out and give these visual merchandising tactics a try to see for yourself how you can increase sales through product displays.