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Hearth & Home May 2017

Summer Classics Home, Highland Park, Illinois.
Photo: ©2017 AJ Brown Imaging.

Artful Merchandising

By Mark Brock

Having, or finding someone who has, the skill to make your store and products enticing to consumers is the best way to increase your business.

Merchandising Defined
“In the broadest sense,merchandising is any practice that contributes to the sale of products to a retail consumer. At a retail in-store level, merchandising refers to the variety of products available for sale and the display of those products in such a way that it stimulates interest and entices customers to make a purchase.”

— Wikipedia

Kolo Collection has received more than its share of recognition. Through its two specialty retail stores in Atlanta, the company has garnered eight Apollo awards, numerous other awards for excellence, and feature coverage from media outlets that include The New York Times and Southern Living magazine.

While many factors account for Kolo Collection’s success as an outdoor living retailer, a comment by a recent customer encapsulates the essence of what makes these stores exceptional. “Wait!” the shopper exclaimed. “Is this an outdoor furniture store?” In those few words, this delighted consumer identified one of the many secrets to success for Kolo Collection – artful merchandising that transforms the company’s showrooms into dynamic lifestyle vignettes that inspire customers beyond what most other stores can do.

“This isn’t just a furniture store. It’s outdoor fashion,” says Kolo Collection co-owner Greg Martin. “We’re creating a unique environment not only here in the stores, but also at homes, restaurants, and with our many other projects by putting together products from more than 20 wonderful manufacturers from around the world. We want to always keep it fresh so we’re continually looking for something new to add to our collection.”

Hill Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photo: ©2017 Christian Giannelli Photography.

The Power of Artful Merchandising

Specialty retailers across the U.S. are discovering the power of artful merchandising to build brand image and, more importantly, increase sales. Retail research has documented that merchandising affects approximately two-thirds of all sales, and that each 1% of sales invested in merchandising has the potential for generating increased sales of as much as 10%. With these statistics in mind, specialty retail outlets that look like warehouses, with row upon row of patio groups, should soon become a thing of the past.

David Meeks, director of the Casual Furniture division for Outdura fabrics and a veteran of both residential and casual furniture sales, sees two factors coming together that are leading specialty retailers to rethink how showroom floors should look.

“Over the past several years furniture and fabric manufacturers have been driving consumer demand for better quality and better looking outdoor furnishings,” he said. “Retail merchandising in many instances is playing catch-up with product and fabric design sophistication, but a growing number of retailers are doing an outstanding job of supporting these design-oriented performance products with creative merchandising. The outlook is bright for specialty retailers who can take advantage of these trends, with showrooms that engage and inspire customers by creating stories around the products they offer.”

Kolo Collection, Atlanta, Georgia.

Kolo Collection Leading Merchandising Innovation

The driving force behind merchandising for Kolo Collection is Michelle Larrabee-Martin, co-owner with her husband, Greg. With a degree in design from the Art Institute of Atlanta, Michelle brings vision to how she wants customers to experience Kolo Collection.

“It’s all about the experience – a journey,” she said. “We want our customers to walk through the entire store to not only see what’s here, but to discover what else is here. Through merchandising, we draw our customers’ eyes throughout the store; they often walk through the store a second time because they’re afraid they may have missed something. We invite them to discover everything, and if we find that there is something people are missing, we move it or change the way it’s displayed.”

Michelle has developed invaluable insights into great merchandising.

  • Use solid colored fabrics for cushions rather than patterns that can distract a customer from the elegance of a frame design.
  • Make changes to merchandising on a regular basis so that customers want to return often to have a new experience each time they visit the store.
  • Lighting should be bright, music soft and scents inspiring.
  • You can sell some items from a catalog, such as dining, but other items, such as deep seating, must be experienced.
  • Mix and match items from different sets.
  • Make your customers comfortable, inspire them, and you win.

“We listen to our customers and we look at the numbers every week, which helps guide our decisions on how we merchandise,” she said. “Good merchandising makes you stand out from the competition. You’re selling a vision, a dream, and through your merchandising you inspire your customers and move them along to a purchase.”

Pam Danziger.

Merchandising – It’s All About Creating an Experience

While the essence of merchandising for specialty retailers is the tasteful arrangement of furniture and accessories, the concentration should be on the shopping experience you’re creating, not on the arrangement of pieces. No one appreciates this fact of life for merchandising better than Pam Danziger, author of “Shops that POP!,” a book about and for specialty independent retailers.

“Many retailers mistakenly think that if they put it all out there and give shoppers a wide range of products to select from, that will make them buy,” she said. “But in the case of retail merchandising, more is actually less. It’s easy to overload the shopper with options, creating confusion that then typically results in delayed or no decision-making. Customers are more likely to walk out of the store frustrated, rather than delighted.”

Danziger recommends that specialty retailers focus on carefully curating a selection of different furniture styles at different price points. With fewer pieces on the floor, shoppers have more opportunities to interact with the pieces, and this approach also creates an opportunity to accessorize settings with flowers, pottery and throws.

“It’s critically important to shift out one set of furniture with others on a regular basis,” Danziger adds. “If a setting isn’t moving or drawing shoppers, the retailer needs to replace it with another look. Too often retailers set up merchandising displays that become ‘fixtures.’ Rather, they should keep things moving around and changing up since shoppers, especially regular shoppers who are the best customers, are programmed to notice something new in the environment. They overlook stuff that they have seen before.”

Ed. Note: On a panel discussion many years ago, designer Richard Frinier made the following comment (and here we paraphrase): “Specialty retailers should move half of the products they have on their showroom floor into the warehouse. Then they should romance each remaining group as if they were individual jewels by using sheers, color and lighting. Their store should become a retail version of a designer’s showroom.”

Joe Ruggiero.

Here’s An Idea for Adding Design Expertise

Joe Ruggiero is one of the country’s leading home décor authorities; he not only designs signature lines of furniture and fabric, but also works with specialty retailers across the country during inspiring special events. From his travels, Ruggiero has identified one of the essential elements needed for effective merchandising that may be missing at many retail locations, and he has a solution.

“Many specialty retailers are not able to include professional designers on their staffs, which is an important element in great merchandising,” he said. “One way around this challenge is to invite designers from the local community to come into your store, create inspiring vignettes and take part in special events. This approach gives the designers exposure, brings new customers into the store, and helps to elevate the store’s quality of merchandising. It’s a win for everyone.”

Ruggiero envisions specialty retailers sponsoring designer events every spring just as the busy sales season begins. Designers taking part in the promotion can offer seminars and personal consultations that result in business for the designers and for the stores.

“The greatest challenge that I’ve seen at specialty retail is stores that never change – the patio sets become fixtures in the store,” he said. “In order to sell, you have got to inspire and motivate the consumer, and you do that through merchandising that creates excitement and that’s based on design expertise. We should all begin to think of merchandising more broadly. It’s not just how you arrange furniture sets, it’s the entire store experience including events and seminars. Make your store a destination for shopping.”

Great Gatherings, Fairfax, Virginia.
Photo: ©2017 Hoachlander Davis Photography. Judy Davis Photographer.

Summer Classics’ Bew White Advocates Better Merchandising

One of the strongest advocates for improved merchandising at specialty retail is Bew White, CEO of Summer Classics Home. Great merchandising should have one singular goal in mind, he says, which is encouraging customers to linger in the store, which typically translates into more sales.

“When someone walks into one of our stores I want them to say, ‘I love this store; I don’t want to leave,’” White said. “All of the master retailers are good at this, and it’s a great opportunity for the patio store segment.”

Summer Classics creates an environment for lingering through a thoughtful process of staging every aspect of a store, from the outside appearance to how the staff is dressed and greets customers. Most important is how the furniture is displayed inside the store, with a full range of accessories, a variety of fabrics in each setting and ample space between sets.

“While merchandising in the patio store segment has improved in the last decade, most stores still display multiple sets with little or no decoration, and sets are typically displayed very close together,” White said. “Customers decide very quickly whether they think they can do business with you and whether they like your store. If you are not hearing, ‘I love this store’ many times over, then you are doing something wrong.”

White sees investments in merchandising as a do-or-die proposition for specialty retailers who are competing with the Internet and Big Box stores.

“The biggest hurdle to effective merchandising for most patio retailers is the lack of willingness or ability to invest,” White said. “The reality is that without effective merchandising, your store will lose market share and you will lose sales. Plus, good merchandising really doesn’t cost as much as you would think.”

White has several recommendations for how specialty retailers can enhance their merchandising without breaking the bank account:

  • Use a wide range of accessories to create lifestyle settings.
  • Limit the number of sets on the floor (if you show five sling chairs, you’ll encourage the customer to buy the cheapest one).
  • Take advantage of coordinating sets of fabrics with solids, patterns and stripes.
  • Make continual changes in the store set-up, including new wall and floor coverings at least every five years.
Marcia Blake.

Create a Design Center Within Your Store

Marcia Blake is the Merchandising manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, the makers of Sunbrella brand fabrics. She travels throughout the country, working with specialty retailers to help improve their merchandising practices and to increase their fabric knowledge and design expertise. Blake is seeing an increased emphasis on merchandising by specialty retailers, including the creation of design centers within many stores.

“A great first step for any retailer who wants to improve their merchandising is to walk into the front of the store and try to imagine that they’re a customer,” she said. “Are you being greeted with an experience that makes you want to move on further into the store? Are you creating excitement so that a customer wants to move around and see everything? The goal is to create an experience and everything matters, from background music and scents to visual merchandising.”

Specialty retail stores have an opportunity to become valued home décor planning resources for customers by creating Design Centers within their overall merchandising scheme, according to Blake. Fabric sample books and furniture catalogs can be concentrated in the Design Center where store personnel and professional designers can work with customers to create an outdoor setting that is unique to that customer.

“A retailer who does a great job with merchandising is going to create a better customer experience; they’re going to get referrals to friends and family and they’re going to sell more product,” Blake said.

Richard Frinier.

Merchandising Brings Designer’s Vision to Customers

As one of the industry’s leading home furnishings and textile designers for three decades, Richard Frinier spent more than 20 years at Brown Jordan overseeing Product Design, Marketing, Advertising and Merchandising before starting his own creative consultancy where he designs and licenses signature furniture and textile collections, many of which are sold in more than 80 countries. His deep appreciation for merchandising transcends its primary objective of promoting sales.

“Visual merchandising defines a specialty retailer’s brand and invites visitors into the store to see, feel and touch the heart and soul of the brand through a range of beautiful products you have selected for them,” he said. “A store’s approach to merchandising reflects aspirational and inspirational lifestyle choices and can use every aspect of visual merchandising to reflect these important elements in what is likely one of a retailer’s largest assets – their store.”

Merchandising should be driven by stories and themes that can originate from many different sources, ranging from the changing seasons to travel destinations to architectural styles, Frinier said. Most importantly, retailers should recognize that merchandising is an on-going process, not a one-time activity, and the best merchandising encompasses many different techniques that will keep customers in the store longer and returning more often.

“Design with enough space around the furnishings and accessories. Pull them away from the walls to show all sides of the pieces,” Frinier said. “Thoughtfully merchandise the backs of sectionals and deep seating, as this is often the view you see when inside of a home looking out. And remember to take advantage of the entire height of your store’s spaces. Trees, umbrellas and canopies keep your space from looking like a warehouse.

“The idea is to create overall visual interest. You don’t want people walking in and out like they are in a line on a ride. The eye should be drawn to a focal point, and when they arrive at that focal point it positions them so they see another set of focal points, ideas and inspiration.”

Other opportunities for exceptional visual merchandising include the use of graphics to create a sense of mood, openness and dynamics. Digital technology is driving this area of visual inspiration in both print and video presentations that make an emotional connection with people.

Frinier emphasized the importance of the total experience encompassing the atmosphere, tone, feeling and character you create to appeal to the lifestyles of your target audiences. Lighting, the sound of water, and background music all create a welcoming and relaxing ambiance.

“Merchandising also inspires your staff by creating an enjoyable and rewarding place to be, and by informing and educating them on how products can come together for customers,” he said. “Sales and design areas must also be inspirational because these are often key areas where you interact with customers. Design these spaces to be organized and professional, yet always welcoming and inspiring.”

Sign of the Skier, Toronto, Ontario.
Photo: ©2017 Alex Lukey.

Successful Merchandisers Love their Jobs

When you talk with people who are responsible for merchandising retail stores, the one thing that stands out is that they love their jobs. Successful merchandisers have a passion for the science and the art of creating a retail space that is both inspiring and comfortable. Creativity and curiosity are essentials; so too is the ability to turn on a dime. Specialty retailers would do well to look for these qualities in the individuals assigned to merchandising.

Stephanie Everett, who is the buyer and merchandiser for casual furniture for Emigh’s Outdoor Living in Sacramento, California, certainly epitomizes the qualities of a successful merchandiser in a challenging setting. Emigh’s encompasses more than 12,000 sq. ft. of retail space that not only features casual furniture, but also includes substantial offerings in grills and fire pits. Every November and December, the store becomes a holiday shop.

“While we have a fairly large store, we’re able to create small vignettes in different areas of the store,” she said. “There is a natural path through the store, and we are constantly moving things around so that, when customers return, it looks fresh and new. During the holiday season we create different themes, and we find fun ways of bringing patio furniture into holiday settings.”

Everett agrees that merchandising is not for everyone, and the most successful in the field share certain common traits.

“You have to have a lot of energy to be good at merchandising,” she said. “You also have to be open to new ideas. If a certain direction isn’t working, you have to be willing to change, and it’s very important that you actually enjoy making changes.

“Some people are just born with an eye for what works and what doesn’t work, and have a natural curiosity that keeps them constantly looking for inspirations. You never know where you will find the next great idea. It might be something you see in a department store window or something on social media. It’s all about constantly striving to be better, because there is always something out there that will make you better.”

Elegant Outdoor Living, Bonita Springs, Florida.
Photo: ©2017 Home Photo. Greg Agee Photographer.

Want to Improve Your Merchandising? Read On.

Less is more

The goal is not to cram into your store as many furniture sets as the laws of physics will allow. When it comes to merchandising, less is more – more opportunities to accessorize furniture groups and more opportunities to inspire customers to buy.

Change it up

Merchandising should be a continually changing process as you learn the types of settings that attract your customers’ attention. Don’t let furniture sets become static fixtures season after season. Just moving things around can create an illusion of new that encourages customers to visit often.

Add a signature piece to the showroom

It’s a trick used by car dealers for decades. Put a red convertible in the showroom to draw in potential customers who are likely to purchase a family sedan. You can do the same at specialty retail. Buy that wild and crazy outdoor piece and give it a place of prominence. You might not sell it, but you’ll certainly set yourself apart and create conversation.

It’s all about the experience

Let’s face it. No one really needs an upscale set of casual furniture. But they do need meaningful experiences with family and friends enjoying time together outside. Your merchandising program will turn a “want” into a “need” and need turns into, you guessed it, a sale.

Think about merchandising more broadly

While merchandising is certainly focused on how you arrange furniture and how you accessorize, the most successful stores think more broadly. Merchandising includes your storefront, lighting, background music, aromas in the store, refreshments offered to customers and how your staff dresses and greets customers. Merchandising is all about creating an experience that leads a customer to make a purchase.

Invite designers in

Think about inviting interior designers from your community to come into the store and create vignettes. They’ll appreciate the exposure and you’ll achieve a more eclectic and exciting showroom while creating a reason for people to come into the store to see what’s new.

Merchandise online and offline

Speaking of a broader definition of merchandising, don’t forget that your merchandising has both offline and online components. Does your website do a good job of showing off your well-merchandised store?

Tap into support from manufacturers

Furniture and fabric makers provide the basics for selling, such as brochures and sample books, that should be incorporated into the merchandise mix. Another thought: Some manufacturers might be willing to put more skin into your merchandising game if you agree to give them more floor space.

Create a Design Center

Designate an area of the store as a Design Center where you keep fabric sample cards and furniture brochures. Make it a cozy nook where customers can work with your sales staff or with a designer to create a special look for their deck, patio or Outdoor Room.

Create vignettes

Approach merchandising as someone would go about decorating a room inside their house. Add a rug, some artwork, pottery, plants and accessories.

Add color

Frames are gray, brown, black or silver and the fabric is beige. We get that. But don’t let it stop you from adding pops of color with rugs, umbrellas, throws, flowers and other accessories.

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