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VM Basics: the challenge of shoe shops

With continuing brand-extension in full flood, shoe stores are fast becoming an exception to today’s retail-more rule. With the exception of specialist watch and jewellery stores and bookshops, many of which also sell DVDs and games, shoe stores are becoming a minority in selling only shoes and, sometimes, handbags.

Most of the high street is now a mix of multi-brand product, much of it for men and women rather than one or the other. But shoe stores continue, the last remnants of the now rarely found single product category specialist store.

A few of these survive, such James Smith, the umbrella store on New Oxford Street or Causse, the Paris glove specialist, near Place Vendome. But most of these brands now only exist, if they exist at all, as counters in department stores. We probably all purchase more shoes than we do umbrellas or gloves and that may help to explain their continued existence, but what does the future hold for shoe stores?

Let’s start by contrasting the changing appearance of shoe stores. I have used global examples as fashion retailing is not constrained to the UK.

The rule of thumb that inversely equates cost with the volume of merchandise in a store window still applies. The crammed full, mass-market Paris shoe store, when compared to the Spring/Summer 13 window of Christian Louboutin featuring three shoes on a fishing hook, says it all.

In comparison, the Louboutin store points the way forwards with an increasing number of themed windows for shoe stores. Even corporate-brand Clarks has a themed window, featuring aubergines for Fall/Winter 2013, not too dissimilar to the window of top-end shoe brand, Oliver Sweeney, which plays on autumnal texture and colour in its F/W 13 window to create a sensual delight.

In line with the increasing use of technology in store windows, Geox’s Oxford Street store has a column of screens which cleverly duplicate certain shoe images. This is a very Warholesque technique, much loved in visual merchandising and with good reason. Andy Warhol was a successful visual merchandiser for Tiffany before he began his art career.

The repeated sequence of images includes close-up patterns of the Geox sole – the brand’s USP – and the brand name. Simple, powerful, and very impactfully executed, this is a great example of how technology can enhance the product and brand, be eye-catching, and create movement in a store.

So far so good with shoe store windows, but what about the interiors? How can repeated displays of shoes, perhaps interspersed with the odd handbag, look distinctive and memorable?

We have all had the experience of spending an entire day hunting for an elusive, perfect pair of shoes only to realise after hours of shopping, when we decided to return to the first store that we entered, that we have completely forgotten its name.

How to make the store, as well as the shoe, memorable? One very easy way to do this is to borrow Australian shoe brand Charles & Keith’s idea. On almost any shelf of shoes in their stores, will be a small sign with the name Charles & Keith written on it. Just seeing the name of the brand alongside the shoes is a simple means of tying the shoe to the brand name. It is a rather simple, low-cost, low tech reminder that works terrifically.

Another way forward is to divide the store interior in to separate galleries - much as Selfridges has done with great success in its Oxford Street shoe department. This refitted section continues to out-perform Selfridges’ expectations and a similar strategy is soon to be implemented Harrods women’s shoe section.

This strategy produces more wall space which can be product-free, and which can be changed as an in-store form of visual merchandising depending on the merchandise being promoted at any given time.

Imagine a wall of Nike-related images to promote its sports shoes, followed six weeks later by a wall of fluffy sheep images promoting Ugg slippers. The shoe department then begins to emulate the rest of the department store with changing displays driving sales promotions, rather than being a relatively static - and therefore boring - space. This change brings new to the interior of the store, rather than just confining it to the window. And of course, that is what the customer is actually purchasing: fashion is newness.

The other benefit of increased internal wall space is more space for full-length mirrors. Mirrors are super-powerful selling tools for all retail businesses. Customers like to look at themselves, so they slow down when there are mirrors around. Slowing down the customers means they see the merchandise around them for longer, and of course, they become more critical of their appearance – especially when they are in a location with other smartly-dressed customers. Mirrors also reflect light and make the store appear brighter, and again we know that bright lighting attracts customers’ attention.

An adequate number of mirrors for shoe stores is a must. Ever had to queue to look at yourself in a pair of shoes you are trying on? Many people don’t bother to wait.

Lastly, let’s consider the usual strategy of retail stores in creating exciting interiors for a moment: think of Spanish brand, Desigual or US brand, Anthropologie, for example. Their lovely, wacky interiors would just not work for something as small as shoes. The merchandise would be totally overwhelmed by the store – to the detriment of sales. Shoes need to shine in their own space.

Equally, the conservative version of this same problem doesn’t work either. For many years the first impression in Marks and Spencer’s shoe department was of the fixtures. They totally dominated the merchandise, so what the customer saw on entering the department was the fixtures and then the merchandise – in that order. Where is the seduction of the perfect pair of shoes here? It was completely missing.