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The Ultimate Guide to Visual Merchandising for SMB Retailers

Ryan Gould
Ryan Gould

Visual merchandising can be extremely effective in driving in-store purchases. If you are a SMB retailer, learn how to create an effective visual merchandising strategy.

Done well, visual merchandising is one of the most effective ways to boost in-store sales. Alluring or visually arresting displays can tempt casual passersby to enter your shop, linger once they get there and purchase items they never even knew they wanted.

Memorable displays can entice them to share images of your shop and your products on their social media accounts, and keep them coming back to see what you'll show them next. Artful displays can enhance your store's brand, whether you sell rugged off-road gear, elegant stationery or anything in between.

Let's take a look at what makes visual merchandising sing. 

The basics aren't exciting, but they're also not optional

First and foremost, effective visual merchandising is about making sure your shop is clean, organized and well stocked, because no matter how amazing your product displays are, no one will notice if the whole experience is off-putting in general.

Have you ever walked into a store where chaos reigns? We all have, at some point or another. In retail, that's one of the most common missteps store owners make, and it can be a costly one. Almost two-thirds of people surveyed by ServicesChannel for its annual "The State of Brick and Mortar Retail Report" have recently (within the past six months) walked out of a store because of its physical appearance or disorganization.

If you bait and switch – if an expected or showcased product isn't in stock – about 30% of consumers will either leave the store without purchasing anything or will buy the same item elsewhere. And a dirty bathroom will scare them away for good – 20% or more of shoppers won't return once they've encountered one.

Giving customers what they're looking for

Let's assume you have that basic blocking and tackling taken care of, and that you're stocking, cleaning, and tidying up throughout the day. What's next? Accommodating the types of shoppers that will enter your store: those who know exactly what they want (the buyer on a mission), those who want to touch and/or try things on (the experientialists) and those who just enjoy browsing.

Your visual merchandising needs to accommodate all three. Even the most casual visitor is likely to leave your shop with something – Statista found that more than 40% percent of purchases made by those ages 18 to 64 were impulse buys, and it was close to half for the youngest buyers.

The opportunity to showcase merchandise is limited only by your imagination. You can use a wide variety of retail displays to highlight products, cross-merchandise and prompt a last-minute purchase at checkout.

Whether your store is large or small, there are retail displays that enable you to make the most of every space, from the floor to the countertops and the walls to the ceiling, with all three types of customers in mind. 

How to appeal to the 3 types of shoppers

The buyer on a mission

Since this type of customer knows exactly what they want, give it to them easily and conveniently, but make sure they pass some other tantalizing, complementary or just flat-out-useful items on the way.

If you understand the products your customers buy the most, you can take advantage of that information and use visual merchandising along the path of traffic to introduce products they may not have considered before. Tabletop displays are mobile and can be placed wherever you need them to be, using acrylic risers, display boxes, and other retail displays to vary the height of different products and organize them conveniently.

Mix in signage displays to add visual interest, enhance your brand or just provide useful information. Take care not to be overly intrusive – you want to attract their attention, not force them to navigate their way down an overly crowded aisle. Remember, they're there to get what they need and go. Your job with visual merchandising is to make sure they do so with just a little something more in hand. Point-of-sale displays near checkout are also a good way to entice this type of customer into a last-minute purchase.

The experientialists

Much has been made of the customer experience, but in this instance, I'm talking about giving people the ability to examine the merchandise up close and personal, whether that means feeling the glaze on a set of hand-thrown dishware, leaning in to smell the roses or feeling the weight of the fabric in a pair of jeans.

For this type of shopper, consider all five senses: touch, smell, sight, sound, taste (as appropriate, of course, for what is it you're selling). If you were in their shoes, how would you want to interact with the merchandise? Retail displays come in all shapes and sizes, and those made of acrylic can be customized to suit just about any need.

To add cachet to any object, consider placing it on a floor pedestal that naturally sets it apart from the rest of the items in your store. Countertop trays and freestanding dump bins make items accessible while corralling them neatly. For the experientialists, the visual is just part of the merchandising, but be sure not to make it difficult to pick something up without knocking something else over. A lush or complex display can be beautiful, but forcing someone to paw through it is annoying and makes the occasional break or spill inevitable.

And if it's something they'll want to try on, make sure you have the right sizes in stock and a place to do so.

The browsers

This can be one of the most fun types of shoppers to merchandise for. You never know what will catch their fancy, so you have carte blanche to create a visual merchandising display featuring anything you want, from the next thing in tech to silk nighties. Use it to introduce new or hot items in your store, and rotate the display often to keep these casual customers coming back for more.

Browsers are experientialists' kindred spirits, so make sure they have the opportunity to fully explore what you're displaying, and give them room to linger so people aren't constantly brushing past them. Delicate or expensive items can be displayed in locking acrylic countertop boxes or wall-mounted pedestals that give them a full view of the merchandise inside at eye level. Signage displays can be used to provide product information while creating a visual barrier for contemplative evaluation.

In-store shopping is still king, despite all the online hype

For small business retailers, the allure of in-store shopping remains strong. The "State of Brick and Mortar Retail Report" mentioned at the outset found that 86% of people still buy half or more of their goods in stores. For Gen Z, the pull is especially strong compared to their millennial or Gen X cohorts.

Research done by Kearney into retail trends found that members of Generation Z like to shop in-store, because it gives them the opportunity to disconnect from social media and the digital world they're immersed in 24/7. That's great news for SMB retailers, and it makes effective visual merchandising all the more powerful. Plus, those same Gen Zers will eventually get back online and share what they like with others.

Dive in and get your visual merchandising displays popping. More in-store revenue awaits.

Image Credit: Lyndon Stratford / Getty Images
Ryan Gould
Ryan Gould Member
Ryan is known for taking complex marketing and business challenges and developing solutions that simplify processes while driving customer outcomes and business value. He also thrives on guiding Elevation teams toward execution of strategies that help companies succeed in new verticals, while staying true to core values and brand integrity.