Visual Merchandising: New Approaches In The Digital Age

Jasper Zeelenberg
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What is visual merchandising?

Fashion retailers have relied on visual merchandising to display their products and entice shoppers since ‘shopping’ was invented. The practice of visual merchandising aims to show potential buyers specific qualities of a product, or to show it in a certain context to encourage a sale.

Window displays are one of the most commonly-recognised forms of visual merchandising, as these create an ever-changing snapshot of what might be new and in-season – however as the shift toward more digital, online and omnichannel shopping continues there is some doubt over the role of merchandising in the future.

What kinds of visual merchandising standards or techniques can we adopt to leverage digital touchpoints, and how can we guide shoppers to related products without using traditional in-store retail visual merchandising techniques?

Future of visual merchandising in fashion

Possibly the biggest advantage of digital contact with the shopper is the ability to customise their shopping experience. Using personal shopping and preference data for each registered customer, it is possible to suggest specific products to each specific customer who opts-in.

We know that consumers have shifted their buying habits during the COVID crisis, and this is likely to remain a permanent change. Concerned consumers have actively sought out ways to minimise contact during shopping trips, leading to lasting shifts in buyer behaviour.

One of the biggest shifts in shopping behaviour has been the adoption of at-home delivery, BOPIS (Buy Online Pick-up In Store), and curbside collection of orders.

Consumers are much more focused on maximising the efficiency of their shopping trips and minimising the time spent in-store, and this means they will appreciate a more focused, customised shopping experience which features suggested products that are genuinely interesting to them.

Retailers who can successfully blend their physical store with a customised digital experience will reap the rewards.

As consumer behaviour is now also directed by a drive towards sustainability, we see that shoppers react negatively towards waste and the environmental problems caused by practices in all industries – especially fashion.

How can we reconcile this with a traditional visual merchandising approach that is wasteful and promotes disposable, seasonal fashion?

How technology adds value to your visual merchandising strategy

The key to solving this riddle is to link your visual merchandising strategy to your whole supply strategy. Mass-produced seasonal ranges will continue to become less palatable to our ethically-conscious modern consumer.

This means the entire fashion visual merchandising strategy will need to wrap itself around this new, more personalised supply model.

From an inventory management perspective, digital tools are already being used to improve the effectiveness of supply chains by ensuring that just the right products reach the right stores at the right time.

This cuts waste and boosts margins considerably, but how do we tackle the task of visual merchandising when we are no longer trying to ‘push’ excessive seasonal ranges?

The answer to this, as with so many of these challenges, is to use technology to generate a unique and personalised shopping experience with rich visual merchandising features.

The options in this area are nearly endless, with new technology and capabilities emerging every year. Interesting concepts that use Augmented Reality (AR) and Smart phone apps are already being used by leading fashion brands to enhance physical retail experiences and create new opportunities for ecommerce visual merchandising.

Evolution of visual merchandising in the context of ecommerce

The rise of ecommerce as a dominant force in fashion retail means that traditional visual merchandising techniques need to adapt.

Unlike a traditional physical store there is no opportunity to create captivating seasonal displays or window displays, nor is there the same opportunity to induce buying frenzies with carefully positioned bargain items and related products.

Products with special features, such as textures or sustainable credentials are even more challenging to highlight. When a shopper comes into an online store, there is no telling which direction they are coming from or which products they see first.

This makes it impossible to lead them on a journey in the same way as you would with the layout of a physical store, so you have to approach this differently.

The online medium has many benefits and features which a physical store does not – making it possible to accomplish entirely new (digital) visual merchandising tricks:

  • Smart algorithms can group products together when they are frequently purchased together, or look at the search patterns of each customer to suggest products that relate to them and their other purchases.
  • High-resolution photography enables shoppers to see details of item textures and materials with greater acuity than would be possible with their own eyes.
  • Lighting can be customised during each photo-shoot to provide the maximum effect – in a brick-and-mortar store this is always a challenge.
  • Careful staging of each photograph can also ensure that complementary colours bring the best out of each item.
  • Video is now becoming a more integral part of the online visual merchandising strategy, and this is widely used by many of the more disruptive retailers who leverage video via social platforms to directly instigate sales.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) technology gives retailers interesting options for bringing the physical retail experience to distant shoppers, and for joining the digital world with visits to physical stores.
  • AR technology can also be used to show how items look when worn by the actual customer – bringing a new level of closeness to the customer-retailer relationship.
  • 3D modelling of clothes that shows them in motion, with the movement of the fabrics accurately simulated, gives a new option to showcase products including those that have not yet been made or which are made-to-order.    

6 steps to improve your visual merchandising

Step 1. Prioritise your digital-first, online and omnichannel strategy

Ensure you keep up with innovations by having a tight focus on excelling in a digital strategy that uses the strengths of your brand and the habits and preferences of your ideal customers.

Step 2. Make sure you always provide the highest quality, brand-appropriate images

Make sure you always provide the highest quality, brand-appropriate images that are up-to-date with your latest items, and that show all the right features – texture, sustainable credentials, fabrics, or other features that matter to your customer.

Step 3. Explore using 3D models and simulations of products

This is especially useful when the actual item is not available yet for photographs, or when items are made (or customised) to order.

Step 4. Discuss ideas with your team

Discuss ideas with your team for enhancing your physical retail experience using digital tools like apps or AR concepts. Consider which information or offers your customers would like to receive and how they want to receive it.

Step 5. Use customer-focused digital stories

Use customer-focused digital stories to show your products in a relatable context, and customise those stories so they are shown to specific audiences (based on demographics or known preferences).

Step 6. Define your unique visual merchandising strategy

While retailers selling through platforms and marketplaces are limited by the capabilities of those websites or apps, you should define your own unique, powerful online visual merchandising strategy for your own website.

Jasper Zeelenberg
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