Use Visual Merchandising to Promote Your Brand, Not Just Its Products

By: Emily Gorka

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Visual merchandising is an integrated method for optimizing sales, time spent in store, and customer delight through the strategic use of floor planning, signage and three-dimensional displays, and ambient sensations.

The primary goal of merchandising is to facilitate the sale of goods and services, and the chief method for doing so is the careful direction of consumer attention. Properly laid out spaces block out distractions and highlight the appeal of the products on display.

An attractive window display, an enticing promotional offer, or an inviting retail environment can all help attract, engage, and motivate customers and drive sales. In addition to adding an immediate boost to the balance sheet, visual merchandising is also a crucial opportunity for branding.

Captivating Consumers at all Touchpoints

The elements of visual merchandising help brands differentiate themselves from their rivals. If two trendy clothing stores sell similar wares, but one has installed a coffee bar, is piping in a custom playlist from a local DJ, and has augmented reality-enabled dressing rooms, they stand to attract more customers, build a more loyal following, and charge a higher premium to shop there.

While those features might be a good fit for a high end clothing store, every retailer has to first do the hard work of researching their target market before investing in their visual merchandising scheme. Understanding buyer personas, the values, self-image, and likes and dislikes of your specific customer is the first step in building an experience that caters to their needs.

We’re sensory creatures, and though it has the word ‘visual’ in the name, the best merchandising program communicates to customers using all their senses. That includes ambient music and aromas, comfortable seating, digital and static displays, and pleasant lighting.

When any one of these sensory experiences is aggravating, rather than agreeable, customers incur psychic costs that decrease shopping pleasure and hurt chances for purchases or repeat sales. Even the interpersonal skills and physical appearance of employees is a touchpoint that should be enhanced.

Maximizing Resources and Guiding Behavior

Layout is highly influential in the merchandising potential of a retail outlet. Thanks to 3D modeling software, it’s easier than ever to visualize various floor plans and consider how visitors will flow through the space.

There are three broad categories of layouts:

  1. Grid – Classic rectangular space filled with aisles to expedite access to goods and maximize the usage of every square foot
  2. Racetrack – A predetermined, serpentine path, forcing shoppers to see every major section of the store before they get to the point of sale area
  3. Freeform – A relaxed, open layout that isn’t optimized for speedy transactions or maximal contact with the products on display, but rather for browsing or even socializing

Each layout has its pros and cons and is the right fit for a given class of products. Grids are common in supermarkets and hardware stores where shoppers may know exactly what they want and will be irritated if forced to meander through the whole store to get to it.

Some grid layouts, however incorporate racetrack elements, such as a grocery market layout where you have to pass through the produce section to get to the aisles. Classic racetrack (or loop) layouts are common in stores that encourage browsing and impulse shopping like Target and Best Buy.

Apple uses a freeform layout in all of its stores, with tables and bars filled with the company’s products for people to try. The open and inviting atmosphere has turned their retail outlets into more than a convenient spot to pick up your new phone, but into true community hubs, where people gather just to hang out.

Using Sensory Cues

The window and other exterior displays are the first thing customers interact with when coming to a retail location. Their next experience is the transition zone, or simply, the entrance. If the window display is intended to entice passerbys to come in, the transition zone is meant to reassure them that they made a good decision.

The atmospheres of the transition zone (and of the entire store, really) should impart a positive first impression and communicate the general feeling of the location. Everything from a refreshing temperature to design schemes to subtle scents in the air affects consumer behavior:

  • Color – Warm colors like red and orange are stimulating and exciting, but can also be distracting and cause anxiety. Cooler hues like blues and greens are associated with calmness and security. They are common in stores with highly task-oriented shoppers.
  • Lighting – Adequate lighting is important, if only so that people can properly inspect the merchandise, but, like color, the amount and type of light can have different connotations. Bright light indicates positivity and honesty, and has been shown to promote impulse shopping. Bright lights are stimulating and can speed up the pace of visits. Dim lighting, by contrast, is intimate and mellow and promotes a more casual experience.
  • Music – Fast, upbeat music is arousing and increases engagement, but slower tempo tunes cause people to relax and spend more time in stores.
  • Scents – Like sights and sounds, scents are powerful emotional triggers. Mellow scents like lavender and basil are soothing, stimulating scents like peppermint and eucalyptus wake us up and encourage productive behavior, and some scents, like ginger, chocolate, and liquorice, have romantic overtones.


Ultimately, visual merchandising is best thought of as a multisensory tool for encouraging consumers to engage with a retail outlet and have a pleasant and rewarding shopping experience.

Everything from specific in-store imagery to the general look and feel of a location is read by visitors as representative of the overall brand. Clean floors, intuitive layouts, fresh scents, adequate lighting, and smartly designed signage all suggest a brand that is competent, attentive to the likes and needs of its customers, and, most importantly, worth transacting with.

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