Why Visual Merchandising is so Important and How Independent Shops are Nailing It

Image by Jared Bautista
Image by Jared Bautista

“You have to do all sorts of things to make a stream of pedestrians into an audience”

Now that the streets of busy cities are brimming with cars and foot traffic we no longer stop to admire window displays. But what does it take to attract the eye to a window and when was the last time that you actually stopped to admire a capturing window display? Is there a store that forever lingers in your mind? Or do you find that windows are often crammed with mannequins that look like they’ve seen better days? The answer is quite simple, to survive the harsh climate of the retail demise, first impressions are crucial.    

Yet there are independent stores within our towns and cities that do not have an infinite budget to spend on advertising and visual merchandising. But it is these independent retailers that are the beating heart of any community. They provide that unique factor that allows you to rummage through stores and pick out one of a kind vintage pieces; pieces you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. The regular retailers on the high street have become quite monotonous in terms of window displays, and now more people are exploring what independent retailers have to offer. It is these stores that now need to make an impact upon the high street. There is already evidence of independent retailers creating emotive window displays that tell stories without draining the budget on expensive props.

Instead of looking to the more established independent retailers, I decided to explore the streets of Manchester and do some window shopping. Immediately after spending 15 minutes in Manchester, I quickly realised that a large sum of the vintage retailers resided in a small cluster. This increases the competition to entice passers-by in to their stores. The first store that I came across was a vintage clothing store called Cow, needless to say I was fascinated before I even stepped into the store. Supervisor Emma discussed with me her thoughts on the importance of window dressing: “you need to encapsulate high street fashion” she said, to diffuse the stigma that vintage clothing is old and second hand. By doing this, it places independent stores in a better position with chain retailers. Emma explained how they would visit other chain retailers to see what was trending and bring that into their own store: “on Monday we went around to Topshop and Urban Outfitters to see what was trending, we tried different colour schemes to what was on the high street to give it a little bit of an edge”.  Visualisation, a good eye for styling and some repurposed props is usually all it takes to create that eye catching window, “we always try to go for it and not hold back” Emma said. Looking into the window it was clear that this was true. The main window contained a sand covered floor whilst the side window boasted a mason jar installation. Those who walked past the store glanced through the windows in curiosity with a sense of intrigue etched onto their faces. 

It is safe to say that window dressing has become an essential tool in communication for the retail trade. This importance has been highlighted further by some recent topical surveys, which suggest that we are now walking faster in cities. We are no longer willing to stop because we all have somewhere to be. You could say the era of a sign boy is very much over, but is it really? After I left Cow I wandered further down and came across a young man named Kevin, a sign boy for the vintage clothing store The Junk Shop. Whilst looking very trendy, he directed passers-by to the store. It was fascinating to hear what he had to say about garnering the attention of the public and directing foot traffic to the store. He explained how enticing people in through windows is especially important for The Junk Shop because “it’s a really independent vintage clothes shop, everything’s handmade”, he also went on to say that The Junk Shop “really rivals big retail brands which have really simple corporate ways of looking at things”.   

Windows are like the covers of books, everyone will judge the content of the store by the shop window. With The Junk Shop, it felt as if I’d been transported into a treasure trove of different vintage items from the 60s and 70s. Whereas in Cow the vintage clothes were generally pieces that could be incorporated into current trends with a vintage edge. By styling a window correctly it can help convey the ethos of the clothing store as well as cultivating the image of the store.

If you think about what a window holds you may just think of it as an art form. This is evidenced by Bergdorf Goodman in New York, these shop windows emulate history as well as the mood of the time. Hoey, who joined Bergdorf Goodman in 1996, stated that window dressing has been ‘in Vogue’ since the 20th century and that “the 1930’s were interesting because there was a lot of surrealism. In the forties, windows tended to be very patriotic [with] World War II. The 1950’s windows were very soigné.” Bergdorf Goodman windows have become a tourist hotspot. “We play many roles putting these windows together,” Hoey said. “Opening a window is a bit like a premiere. We try to get people’s attention by putting on a show. You have to do all sorts of things to make a stream of pedestrians into an audience. It’s extremely ephemeral. It’s very of the moment”.

Thinking about Bergdorf Goodman and their vast success made me think about some of the stores I visited in Manchester, the potential for each store is vast and by looking at the windows I could see exactly what each store had to offer in terms of clothing and style. Although the stores I visited were all tucked away into the streets of Manchester, each store was brimming with people sifting through the racks of clothes. There’s something special about shopping at a vintage store, whether it be the uniqueness of the items or the sense of affinity you feel to that store because it’s in your home town. Needless to say my window shopping experience helped me to uncover some hidden gems.



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