Designing store windows: It is the idea that counts

Interview with Karin Wahl, expert in retail product presentation


She is bubbling over with creativity: Karin Wahl, a professional visual designer of store windows and sales floors. She seems to find a story for every product to stage it and catch the interest of pedestrians passing by a store. That’s why this interview is also quite intriguing …

Foto: Karin Wahl

Karin Wahl helps retailers to create an attractive store window

Ms. Wahl, you conduct visual merchandising workshops and train visual merchandisers. From your perspective, what’s the most important objective a store window needs to achieve?

A store window should entice pedestrians to stop and look. They say, if someone stops longer than nine seconds, there is an 80 percent chance, he/she will also enter the store.

How does the store window accomplish that?

By piquing someone’s curiosity. “Storytelling“ means to tell a product’s story, to play with it and think of what fits with it. A great example of this is the “We Built This City“ store window in London you showed me. I instantly want to leave my house and go there. You see pigeons and bricks and think, “Wait. What is this actually about?“. I also get to sneak a peek into the store and think, “This is so creative, I want to go inside“. What I find especially appealing is the simplicity and simultaneous allure.

Store Window with doves on bricks

"We Built this City" is a huge souvenir shop at Carnaby Street, London

How do you calculate the costs to redesign a window display?

Retail window design does not need to be expensive. It all depends on the scope and the materials. Do I only need small odds and ends or do I need to see a wholesaler and buy certain decorations? It’s all about the idea. You should expect to spend between 200 and 300 Euros for materials and 300 to 400 Euros for the decorator. If retailers want to design their own window displays, they need to allow for more time. In the case of “We Built This City“, the bricks need to be bought and stacked. This would definitely take one working day. So you need to determine whether you take on the work yourself or hire a professional to do it.

Can you measure how much value a well-designed window display adds to a store?

I am not able to explicitly state how many sales retailers yield from the presentation. But if they are professionals, they know they need a cleaner, a designer and they need to invest money for the store to be successful. This is 24-hour advertising – and cheaper than any ad!

What are some problems retailers fear of encountering in visual merchandising?

In my experience, that depends on the industry sector. Booksellers for instance often have a difficult time. I guess they don’t think people need inspiration. And yet pedestrians that originally had no intention of coming into the store, can absolutely be enticed to buy. Bookstores would actually have an easy time to find themes. Every book already provides the story.

That already sounds like some great ideas …

Just imagine: you stage a book like “The Perfume“. The things you could do with that! Or you want to promote a book on grilling. I place a grill in the window with some charcoal and matches, the book right next to it and a sign that says, “We have some hot products for you“. It’s that easy. It could inspire a pedestrian to bring the book along to a grill party as a small gift.

Strawberries in a plastic cup with bottles of whipped cream

The last strawberries of a day presented in an EDEKA market in Germany - from retailer with love

Can you share some anecdotes on successful merchandise displays?

I was very amused by a retailer who placed a chocolate Santa Claus in his store window in August with the caption, “I’m first!“. That’s exactly how an eye-catcher works. And that’s also how I communicate with my customers. Or here is another example from an EDEKA store in the evening at a quarter to eight. Only one basket of strawberries was left in the entrance area by the produce section. One associate gave some thought to it and sprayed a heart made of whipping cream around the basket. Isn’t that lovely? And it says so much: the care in handling the products also reflects the store’s high level of care in handling customers. If I see things like that, I will always choose to come back to this store in the future.

What role does light play in retail window dressing in your opinion?

Light is a core element in retail window dressing. Retail’s one natural enemy – especially during the summer months - is the sun. Then there is not enough light in the window. You need to illuminate the window even more. Per running meter, I believe you need one wide flood light that provides general background illumination and two to three spotlights that accentuate the highlights. There should also be track lighting on the ceiling to be able to spotlight different products.

Just don’t go to a home improvement store and purchase a lamp for ten Euros! You should invest more money than that. It’s better to ask a lighting engineer about the different options that are available.

Bricks hanging down the ceiling behind the window

Things hanging down the ceiling can already be seen from far

What’s your take on LED lighting?

There is a lot happening in this area right now. At this point, there are various luminous colors that have very different effects on different products. It makes sense to attend a lighting seminar to learn about these differences and options.

What are some other ways to call attention to merchandise?

The distance effect of items that hang from the ceiling is much greater. If everything is on the floor, my back hurts from looking at it all. You can also see this in “We Built This City“ and your example of the lilies of the valley. However, before they install ceilings, architects often don’t get in touch with us. They install beautiful smooth ceilings where nothing can be hung up. In this case, you might be able to work with magnets or mount curtain rails to be able to put up signs.

Store Window: flowers hanging down the ceiling

Molton Brown created this wonderful store window

How much of the store should be visible through the window?

There are three options: department stores often prefer the closed option where you cannot see the store through the rear wall. Obviously, this gives designers many great options. Then there are open display windows with a view into the store. This lets the customer see how big the store is, what’s available, how many people are in it and what the ambiance is like. It also allows customers to overcome any inhibitions. The drawback is that the products in the display window are being ignored because you can see so much of the back area. My recommendation is, therefore, to create a kind of partial rear wall, for instance, by draping a piece of fabric behind the major products to draw the attention to them.   

Inside the store - with souvenirs from London

Inside the store - with souvenirs from London

Last but not least, how do I know if my display window actually works?

By taking time to sit on the other side and observe the people that walk by my store. Where do walk-in customers come from? Where do they stop and look? Do they actually stop and look? Afterward, I can arrange and present my merchandise accordingly. I can approach the store from afar and immerse myself in it. Or I can ask someone to honestly observe and take notes on how the store affects him/her. An objective opinion is worth a lot.

Autor: Natascha Mörs; EuroShop
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