Tuesday 1 January 2013

10 Commandments of Visual Merchandising 2013

Please note that an edited version of this article first appeared in December's issue of Retail Focus Magazine and has been reproduced in its original version with kind permission of the magazine.  Please check out their website  http://www.retail-focus.co.uk/
Do men and the visual merchandising industry suffer mid-life crises?  Well, it would seem so and from my own cursory research and depending on who or what you believe of course, then I certainly have apparently already been through it or it is rushing towards me like a stranger experiencing a case of mistaken identity.  When did that happen? The years seem to pass me by quicker and quicker and what once appeared to be just a fleeting period of youth now seems an even further distant memory fading quickly away.  Although, surely something better will replace it?  Wont it?  On the one hand I can’t help thinking, with some sort of offensive satisfaction or a kind of two fingers up to the world that, ‘well I’ve made it this far’ which appears to be some kind of achievement at least?  There is also that feeling that there is some great contentment in the gaining of experience and knowledge which is something I have learned to relish.  In the meantime, according to the various mid-life crisis descriptors apparently I will be taking up a new musical instrument (No. 13), dying my hair (No. 20) (too late for that one then) desiring to buy new clothes obsessively (No.19) (looks like I’ve been having a mid-life crisis for the last 40 odd years in that case) a desire to become a healer (yeah right), the list goes on, in fact 35 of descriptors in total just to pigeon hole everything you were thinking anyway.  If anything my biggest disappointment as I looked forward into the future through once youthful eyes must be the broken promise that technology and in particular computers would make my life easier and all of those incredible holidays, all those new experiences that I had planned over many years while I gladly let technology take over yet again seem to be shelved as the realisation that the same technology which promised me so much leisure time has in fact cheated on me and ensured that I work twice as fast and for twice as long each day.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 28) desiring a simple life.  Damn you technology. 

Another year in the world of Visual Merchandising has come and gone.  The enormous celebrations of 2012 are notched up in the history books, the window schemes came and went in their usual ephemeral way and off we go full speed into 2013 complete with mid-life crisis apparently looming.  The wonderful thing about these big events is that they are a time where we are able to stop and reflect on where we are as a country, where we are as an industry and input so much more energy into our Visual Merchandising.  This period of reflection of course is only very useful if we are able to identify not just what currently exists and what we did well but what we are actually going to do to build on our achievements or change what we did badly previously.  The 10 Commandments of 2013 will hopefully build on what we did well through my own period of reflection (and potential midlife crisis) and identify where we still need to build and make changes as an industry.  Mid-Life Crisis (No. 21) A desire to surround oneself with different things.  Oh there I go again.
1.       Thou shalt encourage localised creativity

Prior to the financial crisis of the early 1990’s we saw an enormous amount of creativity on the high street through retail store windows.  It was always a pleasure to go shopping in different cities where new stores could be serendipitously discovered adding to the excitement of the journey.  With the launch of the notion of branding as we now know it and the homogenisation of the high street around the globe, gradually the visual blandness of the high street became ever more apparent with much of the Retail industry afraid to be anywhere near risqué for fear of alienating an ever minutely sliced demographic .  What we are seeing however is the gradual, although albeit only just dipping its toe in the creative pool is the return to localised creativity, mostly due to brands such as Anthropologie.  Why is this, I hear you ask?  Well, of course sadly so many companies never really did understand the importance of Visual Merchandising and so the teams that were in place were the first to be culled in any crisis.  With the gradual realisation of the integral importance of these visual teams and the loss of techniques passed down through generations, but so much was lost.  Nearly 20 years on we are still seeing the effects of this short sightedness by so many brands.  As we build on our teams of Visual Merchandisers and support their development through the ranks, hopefully we will claw our way back to beyond where we were two decades ago, although much more informed and much more inclined to think twice before letting our teams go.  As we all know, differentiation is one of the keys to the retail offer and enticing the customer into the store, entertaining them, keeping them there and making them spend more money is our job.  (Mid-life Crisis Descriptor (No. 14); Sudden interest in creativity
2.       Thou shalt put the fun back into schemes

What happened to fun?  There we were squeezing out every last penny from the customer, blandly offering anything they wished for, as cheaply as we could and as quickly as they wanted it (and the quicker the better) and along the way forgot that visual fun is not just the domain of the department stores.  I daily peruse the stores of London’s West end and with the exception of a few of the multiple brands teetering on the edge of creative schemes; it’s just plain old dull.  While of course Visual Merchandising doesn’t have to be confrontational, offensive or indeed need to be particularly thought provoking (and its best not to venture into taboo areas unless one is willing and preferably able to defend it), it can however be thoughtfully clever.  Liberty and Selfridges here in London are always so sharply brilliant for example together with a few brands such as Desigual, Hackett and occasionally some Zara stores too, although the Visual Merchandising industry has generally lost its sense of fun, don’t you think?.  It seems that the days of installations such as those reported in New York in the 1960’s with scenes produced of aeroplane crashes with stewardesses running up and down the gangway screaming whatever was being promoted have long gone.  What about the events that were once promoted through newspaper articles with large banners screaming ‘Come and see the Lions’ at a named store?  These events generated massive excitement and probably some disappointment when customers realised that the ‘Lions’ were in fact a brand of fireplace at the time.  Are we sanitising everything for the lowest common denominator and afraid that disappointment is a terrible thing that we need to cushion our customers from?  Isn’t this something that Luxury brands always do so well? Mid-Life Crisis Descriptor (No.6) It feels good to be hurt sometimes.
3.       Thou shalt communicate to our audience

So often I see Visual Merchandising that I simply don’t understand.  I try and unravel the thinking behind such schemes on a regular basis although so often it can be meaningless and apparently unrelated to anything else.  Is that a bad thing?  Well, part of our roles as Visual Merchandisers is to communicate effectively to the customer, isn’t it?  As we also know, don’t we, that Visual Merchandising can be seen absolutely everywhere, from ancient sculpture to the daily newspaper or a magazine.  The same principles can be applied and if done well, it will communicate effectively; job done.  Unfortunately these solutions appear to escape the majority of retailers and, well, an image (in this instance in the form of a graphic) says a thousand words, doesn’t it?  But which words?  And why can’t we think of saying it in a different way?  Mid-Life crisis (No. 32) Fixated on finding solutions to problems.  Is there no stopping me?
4.       Thou shalt maintain retail standards

Oh how many times do we need to view dusty floors, dusty merchandise, lighting not working or if it is working its lighting nothing in particular?  Strands of invisible threads hanging like the ghost of an old scheme, security tags showing, labels everywhere, damaged graphics and unprepared merchandise fill the high street.  I always try and think of a retail space as if it were my own home.  Would I invite someone around if it were unclean or untidy, of course not?  It still amazes me that the basics of visual merchandising are not always in place.  Why is this?  Because retailers are not investing in good quality, experienced, reliable teams who are paid a decent salary to do so and then developing these teams’ skills in order to maintain a higher level of presentation.  It’s all looking a little slack right now.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 1); Looking into the mirror and realising its all falling apart.
5.       Thou shalt not use live animals in windows

I’m must admit that I’m not an over enthusiastic animal lover and like furry products from something that has been literally skinned alive in an Asian province somewhere even less.  While working for a company in China mid 2012 I was quite amazed to come across the circuses which not only had the obligatory one trick ponies and dogs in garishly coloured tutu’s but incredibly little hippos being ridden by monkeys wearing tiny pill box hats (the Monkeys not the hippos).  Well, I had seen chained Leopards at Gorky Park in Moscow and the dancing bears on my travels through India, all horribly flea bitten, unkempt, gone mad and laid on for the tourist’s entertainment; none of it was amusing or entertaining in the slightest.  I could have happily coped with a few jugglers, Chi Chi the Serpent Amphibian Man and a few bearded females; in some parts of London it appears the norm anyway?  That said, I suppose the attraction of Chinese Circuses is the same as my attraction to Visual Merchandising.  I just hope that something dangerous or even just a little Rock and Roll may actually happen.  But the Lions riding pillion on motorbikes around the wall of death and the skipping Elephants in (forgive the pun) jumbo stiletto heels really did push me over the edge a little.  The only Circuses that I like are those of Piccadilly and Oxford here in London.  Anyway, thankfully we rarely see live animals in retail spaces (unless you happen to be in Vegas) but even so I do occasionally come across them and in particular this fish in a tank at Victorinox annoyed me this year.  This is just cruel and unnecessary don’t you think?  The product could have been shown in a different way to communicate its qualities.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 11) Desire to become physical. 
6.       Thou shalt keep informed about current trends in Visual Merchandising

Why do we so often see the same schemes cropping up time and time again?  Repetition of props such as umbrellas has been overdone now, right?  I’m not entirely sure who produces some of the schemes, who designs them or who commissions some of them but surely just to go out onto the high streets and take a look requires such little effort?  There are plenty of publications ‘out there’ from which to refer although how this information is interpreted and used is clearly a problem.  As ever, the only limitation is our own imaginations and surely brands need to employ people who are creative, in tune with what is happening on the street, experienced and aware of how their work is being interpreted?  It often feels as though we as customers are on the receiving end of a random vision from some retailers and one of my conclusions is that there is so much interference from other departments into the world of Visual Merchandising, which incidentally it appears that everyone else has worked in and everyone else wants to have a say but no-one else really seems to have a grasp of.  So get out there and have a look to see what everyone else is doing.  Simple.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 24) Desire to change the world for the better.
7.       Thou shalt continue to develop the use of digital technology

I have been rather amazed at the amount of technology on the high street which has been launched in 2012.  Hopefully the days of big old clunky machines that never really worked anyway are long gone.  I’ve had hours of fun at the new McQ store in Dover Street and of course the brand spanking new Burberry store along Regent Street here in London.  OK, well the majority of the technology is the implementation of giant video screens, so no news there then, although we are seeing more and more interactivity happening with the use of ipads at All Saints and the launch of the Matches Curation at Matches during London Fashion week and ‘machines’ which can photograph us, e-mail our images to everyone we know and let the world decide what we purchase.  The days of London’s West End becoming an Elizabethan theme park of the way we used to shop are still, it seems a long way off yet although I am excited about the potential of virtual shopping at its most convincing.  It would seem however, that even the levels of technology that we do current have access to is already alienating a proportion of society.  As humans are sensitive creatures, it would appear that we are becoming ever lonelier.  And there we were sat on our facebook, googling our twitters and all we wanted was to share the physical love between each other.  Apparently digital social networking hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations after all and we’ve all realised that we want and desire real human interaction.  Looks like customer service rather than technology is the biggy moving forward.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 32) Becoming fixated on new ‘wonder’ solutions to problems.
8.       Though shalt not use motifs

Why do retailers always use the same old motifs year after year?  This one has to be in our 10 commandments this year again as this never seems to move on.  What is it with the use of Heart motifs in particular that retailers seem to feel the need to return to every year?  There are of course variations on the theme but why do we have to keep producing the same stuff time and again?  Motifs have no design left in them, and while they are of course universally recognisable can we now move onto something different?  Is it the need for comfort, nostalgia or times where we felt secure?  I don’t know the answer, but surely someone somewhere will do something to generate a different mood?  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 29) Excessively looking back to one’s childhood
9.       Thou shalt continue to support Visual Merchandisers

Supporting the Visual Merchandising teams within any retailer is critical.  These teams are expected to work though the night, produce and produce to the highest levels and commit nearly all of their time.  Of course, we love what we do and we wouldn’t want to do anything else, however, these guys need all the support they can receive in generating the best work on the high street.  Of course most retailers will take these guys for granted and leach every ounce of creativity out of them with little opportunity for them to replenish their creative energy through visiting shows and exhibitions within a working day.  Why?  Because this is not viewed as work and God forbid anyone enjoy what they do for work, right?  Staff development and investing in your teams is absolutely necessary and should be a priority in 2013 if you want to hang on to them.  Mid-life crisis descriptor (No. 4) Change and invest in new things
10.   Thou shalt have a fantastic 2013

I am certainly looking forward to 2013, mid-life crisis or not.  In the meantime, I shall continue to have shifting sleep patterns (No 15), Doing things that get me into trouble (No. 34) Wonder where am I going with my life? (No. 31), maybe I will restart things I dropped 20 years ago (No. 23), play again just to play (No 30)

Oh what the hell, do your worst Mid-life crisis and bring it all on.  Happy 2013..!
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