Don’t standardise…visualise!


September 7, 2009

By Manish Pareek
Progressive Grocer

Food retailers are investing in a war on the senses

Food and grocery retailers are leaving no stone unturned to gain the loyalty of the spoilt-for-choice consumers. One bad experience and poof! The loyal shopper is gone for good. Not only does this imply assuring good shopping experience every time a consumer enters a store, but also retain them by ensuring an impressive visual treat for them.
You get only one chance to create the first impression. This impression would either create a happy loyal shopper or would eliminate their chance of ever stepping into the store again. A store that projects a differentiated image and branding definitely gains in the long term.

And with the retail scene heating up in the country, only merchandise and the brand name of the retailer store would not help eliminate the competitors. Instead, more attention and fine detailing needs to be done in terms of designing the store and visual merchandising inside the store.

In the information-laden consumer world, shoppers are increasingly asking for better and newer products. Most of the times, the customers are more knowledgeable than the store employees. Thus, raising the bar of what retailers and the store employees need to know. What is the way to know the mind of the customers and capitalise on it? The answer lies in Visual Merchandising, which is taking retail experience to a different level.

Why VM?

For many food and grocery retailers, strategies based just on price have been rendered ineffective as big players have mastered the “mass” end of the marketplace with scale management and better efficiency. Traditional levers of competition, such as assortment, service and customer and market segmentation, which were once differentiators, are no longer the buzzword. More and more store owners are placing extra emphasis on interior design which has progressed from the shop-fitting to entertaining and inspiring the customers, and hence providing added value to the store.
Customers respond both consciously and unconsciously to visual clues when they visit a store. Marketing books repeatedly make suggestions about business imaging and creating a brand. Even a news print needs to be visually appealing in order to entice readers to read it. Visual merchandising is an artist method to ensure that merchandise sells faster. It’s a tool to appeal to the visual senses of the customer. It is downplayed element which is gaining popularity nowadays with the introduction of self-service in retail stores. There is increased emphasis on store layout, building, fixtures, equipment, colour displays, silent communication tolls, and window display. In-store displays have taken the art of retailing to a higher level.

Visual merchandising pushes impulse buying. Devangshu Dutta of Third Eyesight opines, “Impulse buying at the cash counter with small stores is only possible if the cash counter is around 15 to 20 sq.ft. If the density of the stock at cash counter is low and well-arranged, then impulse buying can be well-reciprocated by the customers.”
How does VM help?

1. Publicises the business
2. Publicises the product
3. Lays a foundation for future sales
4. Builds prestige
5. Educates the public
6. Supports popular trends
7. Harmonises pure business inter¬est with aesthetics
8. Arouses Interest
9. Creates Desire
10. Causes Decision to Buy
11. Takes Advantage of the Highest Profile Location
12. Directs and Redirects Common Customer Traffic Patterns

Where to start from and where does it end?

VM begins where the customers connect first with the store – the exterior of the store. Tjsi part sets the tone for a shopper’s experience. This effect may become secondary over time as other aspects of the store’s environment take over and leave lasting impressions than a store’s exterior. But exterior of a store design cannot be neglected as it is a billboard and the first communication point, at least during the initial visits.

Samar Singh Sheikhawat, VP Marketing, Spencer’s Retail Ltd, shares, the outside and therefore the retailers need to understand that the store interiors also play a vital role.”

A good in-store design creates atmosphere, helps establish store branding, and guides people through their shopping experience. Creating the right ambience inside the stores and store designs are indeed part of the total communication process with the customers. The small F&G retailers do have space constraint within the store many-a-times but creating an inviting entrance or an appealing frontage is definitely possible.

The retailers can use the following outside features as the initial VM tolls such as

• Signage
• Window Display
• Entrance

It is seen that many retailers still under use the element of store exterior. But from the signage to the smallest item in the window, the store front should be considered as a strategic marketing tool, which acts a good branding.

The Signage

Signage, not only highlights the name of your business, but it also adds visual beauty to the street and streetscape. Signage is a direct indication of the store’s image. Using it as a tool for customers walking down the street, motorists stopped in traffic or patrons of public transport, who may only have a few seconds to scan the line of shops on the street is the call. Sheikhawat says, “A row of well-maintained, unique and at times ‘whimsical’ signs adds a lot of character and personality to any shopping strip. It always pays well to be a bit peculiar. But the F&G retailers in India, to a certain extent know and have used this to a good knowledge.”

Window Displays

A good window display enhances communication of the product, brand and image. Samar Sheikhawat says, “The window can communicate a viewpoint or trigger an emotional response, giving the customer a reason to enter he store. Stores only have a few seconds to get the customer’s attention. So use it to the best of one’s ability.
What is the most interesting is that this does not always have to be a costly affair. Use of the simplest items can make for a dynamic statement and aid in the sales of product. It is better to have balanced merchandise in the window display and props should not consume more space than merchandise.

The Entrance

The way one welcomes guests at home, the same way create an invitation entrance for the customers. The entrance to the store leads the customer to the store and merchandise. Stores with selling racks and table outside the store should always ensure the entrance is not blocked. Decorative tile work on the floor of the entrance could reflect the image of the store or simply add character. Adding greenery, for example, a topiary tree on either side of the entrance will effectively ‘frame’ the entrance to the store.

“Every business house and businessmen knows why merchandising is important and a good merchandised store will be worth its weight in gold as it will inspire, excite, educate and stimulate the customer, resulting in healthy sales and ongoing patronage,” Sheikhawat says.

For the entrance the smaller size players (around 200 to 400 sq ft) should aim fro inviting counters if entry of customers into the store is not possible. At the counter it is better to keep products that are close substitute or complimentary to the main product with the main product (how would a retailer know which is the main item in every shopper’s basket???). But he counter should not be clogged with excessive products.

How to connect with five senses?

When placing a VM plan into reality, some of the factors to consider are attracting the five senses of Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch and Taste. Visual is the first factor in getting the customer to come in – are the colours, brightness, size, and shapes friendly or will they turn the potential customer away?

Devangshu Dutta comments, “Sight, attractive display of the product with colour will facilitate this sense to be utilized to a good extent. And a well-lit store is a delight to walk into and make sure the prices are well displayed as well.”
The aural element plays a key factor. Does the background music playing matches the product? Is the pitch of the music comforting or annoying? Does the store have a fresh, clean smell to it or does it give the impression of a seldom visited store? Is the air temperature comfortable for the majority of the clients?

Smell, open product display for that of spices or prepared food is good. It is better that they are fresh and well laid out in front of the counter or the display section. The smell of the store as well needs to be fresh so use a light scented air freshner regularly and also cleaning the floor with a scented lotion will keep the surrounding clean and fresh.

In lifestyle retailing, peppy music in the stores would drive the sales whereas slow music there would be a bit odd. But soothing music, on the other hand, in spa would be perfect. The ambience of a small store, which cannot have clear zoning in their stores, can drive the behavior of the customers.

Touch & Feel is the most important amongst the five sensory marketing basics and is widely used. Every F&G retailer, whether big or small, organized or unorganized, uses this element to let the consumer judge the freshness of their stored products. Majority of kirana stores uses this sense to boost up the sales.

The sense of taste should be given utmost importance. For instance, letting the consumers taste the samplers when they are buying packed foods, will help drive the sale. Or in the case of cheese, let there be samplers so that they can taste and select the type of cheese they would need.

Sheikhawat of Spencer’s shares, “At any store for a good VM, the store design, in-store communication, feature displays, and merchandise presentation – all play synergistic roles in connecting with the five senses. Lighting, for example, should be tried for retailers who have the option of space and investment. The small retailers can have well-lit shelves and counters with bright lights at the top and fading lights as they move down the counter or shelf. Allow customers to comfortable read product information with good lighting inside the store.”

He adds, “Figure out VM hotspots in the store and create dramatic feature displays, whose themes are consistent with what store aims to serve the customers with, at these hotspots. The merchandise presentation on these hotspots will allow customers to conveniently touch and feel or taste the products. Edutainment signs and posters should be used in strategic places around the store and engage the customer at the point of sale.”


It is a good idea to research what each colours associate mentally to most shoppers. For instance, Wal-Mart is widely known for using blue accents. Because of the colour choice made by Wal-Mart in the beginning years, mot shoppers identify the blue with this huge retail chain. This has created a feeling of familiarity for the shoppers.

There are more factors involved in design and environment planning than just painting the walls of a store. Depending on what the store is attempting to express to the customers will help to solve the correct colours for the products one is selling. Colour zoning is also well used for identifying certain areas within the store. Colors can also help in leading a person, with eyesight or reading problem, find the ay inside the store. Dutta says, “There should be not too much of mix and match or colours in one store. The changes should take place according to the product sold, the time of play and the locality as well.
“Even developed markets have different shades of color in each store depending in the area they are operating in.”


Layout of a store is often set by the corporate headquarters so all stores in a retail chain look similar and help consumer connect with the store, no matter which location. Dutta adds, “The same layout for a big retail chain is sometimes possible as it depends on the availability of the property which is same as the previous one. But for small retailers it depends on locality and the demand within the locality. Formats will be different with each individual store and the layout will change from store-to-store based on the investment allocated to the outlet. Store design requires in-depth knowledge of your product mix and what your store needs to communicate.”

But the overall design of the store must create an atmosphere that encourages the shopper, to lower his or hers psychological defences and become interested in the merchandise offered. Everything is interconnected and design needs to reflect the intent of the business, as well as appear appealing to the shopper.


The right kind of atmosphere is created by the store and interaction with the customers. The interaction between, the store employees and shoppers’ creates the overall feel of the store. Each retail store in a chain has a different atmosphere. But for smaller retailers there is rarely a concept of chain of stores but they can still create a better atmosphere as the owner deals directly with the customers. The customers prefer taking the suggestions of small organized/unorganized F&G owner more than the employees at a big retail store, which is definitely a major plus for the small players.
Store display, floor layout, traffic flow

Having promotional displays of higher value in high traffic areas of the store is good and the same holds true for enticing the impulse purchasing of lower value items. Additional service displays are best located in low stress locations such as post-check out kiosks. Devangshu Dutta cautions, “But be careful of offering displays that are too well-structured. Studies have revealed that displays with too much organization create a lack of trust and interaction between the customer and the display.”

Individual retailers: display space is of utmost importance. Small retail stores do not assure easy access to the merchandise, because of their size, whereas larger formats have the option of open displays and they use it to the fullest. Customer access beyond the counter is important and closed counter doesn’t help. In the developed and high income areas there is a lot of change and the retailers (whether organized or traditional) are influenced by the population there in.
As well-planned floor layout will effectively maximize the retail space for greater return. A much more careful arrangement of fixtures and display racks form and influence the footfall. The smooth flow between the low and high traffic areas is better for the store as are easy access, visible aisle-ways and suitable aisle patterns etc.

Any store attempting to save room by adding shelves that are too high for the average consumer will turn customers away. Crowded or narrow aisles will also leave a negative impression on the client.

Sheikhawat articulates, “It is important to communicate the brand’s identity, the features and benefits of the product range in every way and at every square inch possible. At Spencer’s, we convert negative spaces inside the store to positive ones by actively indulging the customers with well-positioned feature displays and compelling edutainment materials that attract them, pique their interest, and impel their decision to purchase.”

Are they doing anything wrong?

Both Sheikhawat and Dutta are of the view that VM in F&G segment is new for everyone in India but very few players are using them. So there is still a long way to go before they master this art.

However, there are some common errors which are confused with visual merchandising which are:

Common Errors

• Too much merchandise
• Too little merchandise
• Display changes too slowly
• No display budgets
• Lack of an underlying theme
• Too many props
• Inappropriate props
• Displays changed too seldom
• Lack of attention to detail
• Errors in applying the principles of display

The largest component of retailing is visual. But the biggest visual challenge is to constantly monitor the store’s appearance by viewing it differently. So, every single day marks a brand new start for the retailers.


So how can retailers entice the customers to enter their stores?

Devangshu: “In that case we are looking at the silver magic bullet – which does not exist. So it is up to the retailers to look at their stores with a new eye every time. Keep upgrading the store with a new innovative idea, use the store area available and not make the areas congested with excessive products for a big display, rather have a better display with minimal products of high sales value.”

Samar: “To the contrary, I think that a lot of inroads have been made by F&G retailers in improving the overall ambience and character of their stores in the past two years. We have definitely taken store design and visual merchandising as an important aspect of our 360-degree brand experience. Synergizing brand and product communication from outdoors and in the stores is an effective tool for us.”

A store owner has a lot of homework to do, when designing is done, to endure success. Every element should be selected carefully to match the products being sold and what the store needs to communicate. Ergonomics also must be positioned in the acceptance for success. When creating the selling environment, the owner should be able to make a positive statement about what the product they are selling that will excite the shopper

One can understand that a lot of effort and planning must be incorporated in the VM elements to create a successful retail store. Direction must be clearly be focused at the overall need of the store. Investing in design and environment changes just for the sake of investing without any comprehensible motive will only lead to long-term failure. Overall, the final decisions are still made on what each owner thinks is beneficial for their store.

There was a time when a retailer could simply rent a building, put a product in that store and be successful. But that is history – today the choices abound. It is a more competitive retail environment than it has ever been before. Store design and visual merchandising is emerging as the most successful distinguishing factor for a retailer. Now, is the time.