The Eye-Catcher: Visual Merchandising in Shop Windows

Have you ever been Christmas shopping in New York and seen how children and adults smush their noses against the shop windows while browsing? Then you have already seen the power of attraction and effect that brilliantly staged shop windows can have.

The first question on the subject shop windows is: Does retail trade even need shop windows anymore in times of online shopping, Instagram & co., or does it make more sense to invest the advertising budget into your website? This is a decision each business must make for itself. Certainly, both are part of marketing strategy. If the decision on having a shop window is a “yes”, then money, time and a consistent concept are necessary for an optimal effect, so that the window becomes a real eye-catcher to passers-by.

Three-Dimensional and Emotional

Brick and mortar retail clearly has the advantage when it comes to experiencing products with all the senses. Shop windows carry this message out into the pedestrian zone and are the first link in the chain of the decision to purchase. By using colours, lights and surprising ideas, shop window decoration attracts the gaze of passers-by and draws their attention to the shop and products. The actual sale happens in the shop – the shop window is the invitation to come in. 

From Storage Space to Marketing Instrument

A shop window is not extra storage space (even though it sometimes seems to be so), it is rather a shop’s business card. Based on the way the shop window is staged, passers-by receive information not only about the shop’s assortment, but also unconsciously draw conclusions about the retailer’s competence, exclusivity, modernity and individuality.

  • If the decoration tells a narrative, the observer perceives the shop and thus also the assortment as something special and fascinating.
  • If there are only a few products in the product window and the floor design and product carriers are of high quality, the wares come across as exclusive.
  • Many products and big price signs suggest mass-produced goods and low prices.
  • If dead flies and dust can be seen in a shop window and if the wares are clumped about, terms such as incompetent and substitutable come to our minds.

A shop window only lives up to its mission as a marketing instrument if the visual communication works down to the smallest detail. An internal or external designer for visual marketing can take over this task. If the task falls within a sales employee’s field of activity, a sufficient budget and anough time must be planned with, because half-heartedly designed decorations will most likely be a waste of resources.

Shop Windows Basics

To work effectively and for the composition to achieve an ideal effect, a shop window must have an optimal basis.

  • Floor: The floor is the “bearing element”, it is an essential part of the composition and must fit the theme’s colour scheme. Depending on the size of the shop window, wood or hard foam boards covered with foil or cloth are suitable. An inexpensive alternative is construction paper which can simply be laid on the available floor (however, the effect is less perfect and sophisticated).
  • Ceiling: A grid on the ceiling opens the possibility of attaching a poster, fabric or requisites at any position in the shop window. It ensures a long-distance effect and facilitates an optimal composition.
  • Rear wall: If the shop window has an entire or half-height rear wall, then it is a part of the composition and should be adaptable in colour. With transparent windows (without a rear wall), a thin length of fabric or paper can grant the eye a foothold and will draw the sight to the composition.
  • Light: there is a reason for the saying “let there be light”. A lighting system with adjustable spotlights moves the wares into pedestrians’ focus. The light must be on at all times during the day. At night, at least one spotlight should be on, as night owls tend to choose the brighter option on their way home intuitively. By also having the lights on at night, the shop window is, just like the internet, 24 hours a day “online”.

Composing and Decorating with a System

  • Nothing should be left to chance while doing the product composition. Pedestrians’ walking direction and achieving an optimal long-distance effect must be taken into account in the designer’s plans.
  • Individual products should not be scattered about, but rather grouped together. The empty space between the groups is crucial for the effect, since the eye can easily be overwhelmed when there is no empty space.
  • Decorative elements must be matched size-wise and in their amount (with small elements) to the shop window’s sizey. They must communicate the theme and be at eye level with the observer.
  • Pedestals and product carriers provide the appropriate height and structure.

Storytelling ensnares and sells

A designer has done a good job if he or she manages to make passers-by stop and look, astonish them or put a smile on their faces. However, a beautiful product presentation is not enough to do that. The decoration needs a visual story and loving, elaborate details. The wares must become part of the composition, and not be in the foreground completely. For example, if the products are notebooks and pens made out of wood, the “visual story” could be in the forest. Tree trunks, moss, a fox and an owl are parts of the story. Maybe an owl is flying away with the notebook and the fox is carefully watching the passers-by from his little hiding spot behind the tree trunk?
Or the products are part of a desk story? A white glazed wooden desktop on two pedestals, plants that are hanging from the ceiling or placed on the desk are additions that fit into the image of a trendy urban lifestyle.

Visual stories have a highly memorable value, since they are anchored into memory as a picture. The customer will remember the store when necessary and buy the product there instead of in the internet.

A Downtown Worth Loving and Living in

Urban parts of town are colourful, full of life and lovable. Cafés, green areas and shop windows invite to stroll around and linger, whereas streets without shop windows are dreary. The path through downtown can be tiring and boring if it doesn’t present one or another orchestrated highlight. Windows covered in signs and big “for rent” posters do not offer passers-by a nice shopping experience and are a big issue for city marketing and regional advertisement associations. Creative solution concepts are sought after. Shop windows are “the Pinterest and Instagram of the streets” when filled not only with products but also creativity and ideas. They provide entertainment and contribute to the cityscape. Therefore, each businessowner is responsible for having a shop window full of creativity and for bringing their contribution to an attractive downtown.

About the author

Sabine Gauditz is an expert in visual marketing in the retail sector. Since 1986, she has been designing and arranging sales-promoting product presentations for various industries and redesigning the ambience of retail spaces. Together with Hans Schmidt, she founded the visual marketing consultancy, Arte Perfectum, in 2002. Since then, she has been holding seminars and workshops and offering in-house consultancy services.

Would you like to learn more about Visual Merchandising?

Expert knowledge, practical tips for retailers and the latest industry developments. Stay well informed at all times with the Insights-X newsletter.

I am interested as a: