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VM Basics: why three is the magic number

For all display, especially windows with mannequins, three-in-a-row looks so much better than four. The human eye – and really, we mean the human brain – likes to count things. We all do this, be it steps, buttons on a shirt, etc. It is a form of exercise for our brains that we find fun.

Because we tend to pair items when we count them – two, four, six, etc. – we are more practiced at counting even numbers than uneven ones: three, five, seven, etc. It takes us fractionally longer to count uneven numbers than it does to count even numbers. So we look at uneven-numbered displays for fractionally longer than we do even numbered displays.

As helping the customer to look at the window - or any in-store display - for as long as possible is one of the aims of VM, it makes sense to employ techniques that will help us get and retain the customer’s attention for fractionally longer. There is also a pleasing symmetry in the use of three. Let’s take a look at how this can be used in good visual merchandising.

Chanel’s fine jewellery and watch store in London’s Bond Street displayed an elegant trompe o’eil effect last summer with three watches on a podium in the faux-grass-covered base of the window. The back-boards suggested an herbarium with specimens in line-drawn glass jars.

Similarly, Dior used five miniature versions of their beautiful salon chair, each topped with a fine-jewellery ring, in their print campaign in 2005.

Three of anything allows a display of colour as in the Loewe S/S12 window, with a sharp lime green handbag flanked by orange and cerise pink ones. This also works for analogous colour - tone-on-tone - as in Links of London’s Pantone-themed cabinets displaying their charm bracelets in S/S2009.

For mannequins, a three-in-a-row in the window is saved from predictability by the inclusion of an added extra, as in the Victorinox Bond Street store showcasing F/W13 men’s outerwear.

The small flat screens display the ‘features and benefits’ (great American merchandise marketing phrase) of the product, combined with captions for each feature in graphics on the window, create something similar to a 3-D version of a mail-order catalogue page.

In-store, any wall fixture will include a three-to-one ratio of tops to bottoms - this is pretty much how we purchase and wear our wardrobes: that is three different tops to one bottom, be it a skirt or a pair of trousers - so it follows that a wall fixture can be displayed in much the same way, with tops on the upper part of the display and pants on the lower part. Merchandise looks ‘right’ this way round: tops below pants or skirts looks ‘wrong,’ as that is not how we wear these items.

A nice example here from Marks & Spencer’s store in Central, Hong Kong, illustrates the point with the North Coast men’s casual range. A row of jeans on a wall fixture on the centre-back wall is surrounded by polo shirts on the upper part of the wall, and a display of shirts and T-shirts on hangars above it. The display - from August 2012 - on the nesting tables in the foreground is mostly of shirts and polo-shirts with an oil drum and pipework as props, all combining visually to convey the three-to-one ratio. This display is at the foot of the escalator as the customer enters the men’s dept. making a great display location for the entire collection.

This advice is not intended to be followed slavishly: it is really only important for relatively large items, be it a mannequin, merchandise, or a large prop. Whether there is 1 pot plant in a window or 2 is not going to make much difference, apart from possibly making the window look cluttered. Remember the old adage here: if in doubt leave it out.

• Use props, merchandise and mannequins in uneven numbers if possible.

• Link three or more props or three or more pieces of merchandise by colour: use an analogous colour palette, or evenly-balanced colour-saturated merchandise.

• Liven up the three-in-a-row mannequins with additional detail to prevent them looking too predictable.

• Place pants and skirts - worn on the lower body – on the lower part of a wall fixture.

• Place tops - worn on the upper part of the body - on the upper part of the wall fixture if possible. There may be more tops than space allows, placing jackets and coats lower down tends to look better if space is not sufficient to place all tops on the upper part of a wall fixture.