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VM Basics: small displays

For the successful visual merchandising of small merchandise there is one golden rule: make the merchandise display seem larger than it is, and it will attract attention.

Displays can still be simple. This image was taken in a jewellery store, Asterisk, selling Balinese-styled silver jewellery to the tourist market in Ubud, Bali, some years ago. The store owner may never have heard of the term ‘visual merchandising’ – and still doesn’t have a website - but certainly knew how to make the store look attractive.

These small, round, silver key-rings were displayed on a simple pile of round white stones, which echo their shape. Placing the stones and the key-rings on a varnished wooden shelf enhances the natural materials, the feel of the smooth stones, and the intricately worked silver too. The wooden shelf contrasts with the colour of the stones, creating a congruent and pleasingly simple display. Think of other ways of displaying key rings: either drooping on small stands, or laid flat like dead fish on a market stall. This is so much better: it costs very little, and takes seconds to install or remove.

Classic jewellery and watch brands have very specific ways of displaying their merchandise. Cartier consistently uses a box from which the cushion holding the watch pops up. The colour of the box and the cushion gives the main focus to any Cartier window but the outline of the brand’s iconic panther, in the background here, identifies the brand of watch to the passing customer. If the panther were a stronger colour it would detract from the watches. The smooth, matte-gold outline of the panther is a subtle contrast to the brocaded satin sheen of the fabric back of the window. This tone-on-tone palette conveys the impression of luxury.

Using small merchandise in larger groups to create a prop which is relevant to the brand is a classic VM strategy. The window here, in a Dior beauty store, creates a quilted ‘Lady Dior’ handbag shape from lipstick cases, promoting both the cosmetic brand and referencing one of the brands’ most iconic merchandise categories. At a simpler level this works for any small packaged item: a giant solitaire ring composed of ring-sized turquoise Tiffany & Co boxes, for example.

What saves this from cliché is the novel use of the lipstick cases, with missing cases denoting the quilt surface, and a real Dior handbag clasp.

This series of printed boxes for Italian jewellery brand Pianegonda can be assembled on any base, offering variations for neatly thought-out window and in-store display ideas. Placed on shallow eye-level shelves in an open-backed window these boxes, printed with a stylized red heart, the graphic ‘love,’ or tied with a simple red-ribbon bow, can be arranged in any order to accommodate longer pendant-chain merchandise or shorter bracelets and rings. Again, the use of colour is limited so the silver jewellery shines through.

For perfume retailers the use of a giant perfume bottle to promote a range has become something of a cliché. Better is the use of a merchandise-related prop, as here for Parfum Caron’s Paris store in Avenue Montaigne. A large, ostrich-feathered fan behind the peach-tinted mirrored backdrop with glass shelves, is the promotion for their Royal Bain de Caron eau de toilette. The merchandise is displayed in a slightly-retro, ‘make-patterns with the product’ manner befitting the Belle Epoque brand, founded in 1904.

The use of glass or acrylic cubes to display the bottle adds a special touch, just as it does for jewellery (see Hermes glass jewellery display cubes, in a series of related metric sizes). For those tempted to use acrylic, do remember that it scratches very, very easily. As jewellery display is all about looking at merchandise close-up, nothing looks worse than scratched display props.

Pearl jewellery specialist Hodel Switzerland created its own range of props for displaying its range in premium multi-brand jewellers across Asia, after realising it needed unique props to stand out from competitors. Simple, carefully crafted, oval-shaped in a muted greyed-brown bronze, harmonise with the pearl ranges. They stand in varying combinations on a brighter bronze leather-covered yin/yan shaped platform. The ring stand has a pleasing pebble-like quality and the earring fixtures were designed in two heights allowing for earrings with and without a drop.

Italian jewellery brand Pomellato uses matte-gold bracelet-shaped containers in which to fit an interchangeable, satin-covered cushion to display its range. As can be seen here, the cushion can be removed and replaced with another, usually in a pastel colour. This image, taken in Beijing some years ago, shows how conspicuous carelessness in display for small items can be: the poor positioning of the cushion in the foreground would not be noticed in a window displaying larger merchandise, but it is very conspicuous in small display. Retail is detail.

In contrast to small displays focusing on merchandise to attract attention, the converse can also work very well, as here in a window promoting silver jewellery specialist Theo Fennell’s range at Selfridges some years ago. The Roy Litchenstein-style backdrop of table condiments and imaginary cartoon-like jewellery makes the Theo Fennel pieces, simply displayed on generic jewellery props, look fun.

Tiffany has been a the past-master of excellent window display since the days of Gene Moore, who really put VM on the map. Moore employed the young Andy Warhol, and abstract expressionists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as visual merchandisers. His use of Tonka toys as props, and his standards for effective lighting, should never be forgotten. This window theme, from after his time, has a selection of icy-looking translucent cubes held by a pair of ice tongs in the foreground. Look for the jewellery, and there it is: a sprinkling of cut stones (be they real or faux) on the floor of the window.


• Use the natural world as a foil for intricate work: shells, stones, bark, and leaves all work well.

• Use a simple outline or cutout of the iconic tropes of a brand. This might, for example, include the crossed oars for Crew Clothing; the Pink’s fox; or Longchamp’s racehorse.

• For premium brands a luxurious feel can be created by the use of a tone-on-tone palette, varying the materials. For example using satin, matte, or brushed surfaces of the same palette if the merchandise is shiny.

• Use the packaging for small merchandise (beauty packaging, jewellery boxes, or food containers) to create a larger iconic prop.

•  Use a series of simple boxes of varying sizes printed with symbols of the seasonal promotion: Valentine’s hearts; Mother’s day flowers; Easter eggs; Halloween pumpkins, etc.

• Consider creating your own display props rather than risk being mistaken for a competitor’s brand.

• If good housekeeping is desirable in all visual merchandising, it is super critically important in small display. As customers are looking at merchandise in detail, any errant detail in the display shows up too.

• If using ordinary jewellery props from a jewellery props supplier, make the window backdrop look fun and interesting by using bright colour and graphic patterns to attract attention.

• Remember the fittings for stones, watch parts, or faux stones themselves all make great props for small display windows, especially if used in an imaginative way.

• Tiffany sells an excellent coffee-table book of large colour images of Gene Moore’s work (‘Windows at Tiffany’s’, 1980, Abrahms). This is not only a must for all visual merchandisers, but it is one of the largest (and  least expensive) things that it is possible to purchase from Tiffany, requiring a very large, distinctively turquoise shopping bag. The huge size of the shopping bag ensures excellent service in any other store you choose to visit…