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Visual Merchandising basics: the importance of balance

Visual Merchandising 101: balance


Given that the purpose of all Visual Merchandising (VM) is to increase sales, the art of Visual Merchandising is to achieve balance.

A window, a store interior, and a display should all look harmonious after the attentions of the VM Manager. Harmony – in the balance of form – be it piles of sweaters, or props; harmony in the balanced use of colour, breaking up fixtures of relentless black garments with occasional use of white garments, or spring pastels. Harmony in merchandise layout  - displaying associated merchandise to create an entire outfit and thereby ‘selling up,’ by offering a second garment to create a complete outfit, for example: a shirt displayed alongside pants, or a jacket paired with a skirt.

How to make this happen? And how to check that the Visual Merchandising result is as good as it should be?

The answer is to imagine a vertical line down the centre of the display. Does the left-hand side balance the right-hand side? Just as a set of scales balance left and right volumes, so in VM, the left half of a display or a store, balances with the right half. That means the volume of merchandise on the left side of the window balances with that on the right; that the high piles of folded T-shirts are evenly distributed across the freestanding table at the store entrance.

Secondly, that the volume of merchandise on the left-side of a store is visually balanced by the volume of merchandise on the right-side – although, of course, they may not be identical merchandise. We often see this when the store entrance is in the centre of the facade, with a window to the right and to the left of the door. The resulting formal symmetry is appealing, and a good basic beginning for any store display.

A walk down any shopping street or around a mall will reveal this basic VM balance technique is used for formal display: we often see it in men’s formalwear windows, or in minimalist, ‘home’ stores, where we see three of a product lined up across a window, with that central line bisecting the middle  item.

However, whilst formal, balanced displays make a great beginning for classy VM, it can be a touch dull for more casual merchandise, which requires something a little more interesting.

The art here is to set up two displays – one either side of that imaginary vertical line in the centre of the window, or table, or store, again. Check that the total volume of the display on the left visually balances that on the left. If the display appears ‘lop-sided’ – too much merchandise on one side, not enough on the other, work on the balance to achieve harmony. Remember customers are all busy people: the message of a window or a store display has to be simple and easy to instantly comprehend, as the customer will not stand in front of the window puzzling over the theme if they don’t ‘get it.’ Instead, they will just walk on….

Example of asymmetrical balance include: a small brightly-coloured prop on the left-side of the window, balanced by a larger, darker prop on the right-side of the window. The smaller brighter colour balances the larger darker colour. Or perhaps you might use one mannequin in the left side of the window, balanced by two mannequins standing closer together, in the right-side of the window. Overall, harmony will be achieved as the three mannequins comfortably fill the space of the window, although they are unevenly distributed. In the store, the wall fixture on the left-side might be balanced by an increased number of free-standing fixtures on the right side, which has no wall fixture. Again, avoiding that ‘lop-sided’ effect is the aim.

Asymmetrical display is usually used for more interesting displays and more casual merchandise.

A couple of tips to remember now. You will know the old design adage: ‘If in doubt, leave it out.’ All displays should be simple, and must convey the product offer clearly and immediately.

Be sure to position all merchandise ‘face out’ - that is, not at an angle on the shelf or table it is displayed on. Angled merchandise looks a touch ‘ditsy’ – a little unprofessional, as though someone has been playing with the merchandise. Rather as your great-grandmother might have arranged the top of her dressing table? Face-out looks smart, sharp, and clean, and is more effective as the customer can see the merchandise more quickly. Side out is also fine. Do this with some merchandise on wall fixtures in the store to allow for denser stock holding.

Above all, remember uncluttered is far more effective than ‘add it in, pile it high thinking’ for most windows, display tables, and store layouts. Leave the serendipity of discovery of the ‘gem amongst the clutter’ to the antique dealers and the vintage stores, and focus on a neat, tidy display. Lastly, don’t forget the housekeeping: dust-free makes the stock look newer, and all customers want new merchandise!

Check list:

Dr Valerie Wilson Trower provides a regular column on store design for Essential Retail and Retail Design World