A Christmas 2013 visual merchandising summary

January is the perfect time to review visual merchandising (VM) for Christmas 2013 and to start planning VM for Christmas 2014. With Christmas windows commanding up to 40% of annual VM budgets if they include animated displays, and a third of annual sales occurring in the eight weeks up to Christmas, Christmas windows and interiors are the most important items in the VM calendar.

Christmas in VM terms is secular. Apart from the multicultural communities in which all retailers exist, an overtly religious theme might invite unwelcome comments between God and Mammon…

However, Christmas is becoming a global festival celebrated by everyone, even if the Christmas story plays no part of it. Presents and eating are universals, and giving Christmas presents has now been widely adopted by Asian students, even if Christmas holds little meaning for their parents. Similarly, a longer-term consequence of the global spread of Christmas will be a growing global awareness of other faiths' equivalents: Chinese New Year, Eid, Divali, Hanukkah, etc., as is already occurring in the US.

We already see some Chinese New Year VM activity in the West, particularly in areas with a high Asian tourist footfall and a Chinese diaspora, as in London and Paris, where a Christmas window may segue in to a CNY one with a change of props. Conversely, in the first and second-tier cites in China, simple Christmas windows may be cleverly designed to morph in to spectacular CNY windows. This year, Santa's reindeer will become The Year of the Wooden Horse. For other Asian countries with multi-cultural communities, including Hong Kong and Singapore, Christmas and CNY receive equal billing, and often each event has its own completely new window theme. And in the Philippines, with its predominantly Catholic community, Christmas is paramount.

J.Crew, in its first Christmas window for London, presented a very American Christmas, where Christmas follows Thanksgiving so closely, and is usually celebrated with friends and a vacation, rather than with family. ‘Happy Gifting’ spelled out in gold balloons (see below, right) with three mannequins clustered in the corner of the window, is perhaps a touch more overt about the retailers’ hopes for Christmas sales than most European stores would be, but let’s see how that progresses as it settles into its Regent Street site. Having used balloons in an exhibition display in the past, I would be very interested to know if these were helium-filled – regular balloons start to deflate after a week – but to use helium requires permission for the helium-filing process, which creates a lot of paperwork. A few large Christmas-ribbon rosettes – reminiscent of Gucci’s wonderful rosette Christmas 12 window – are crammed behind the mannequins and across the top of the window, making the window a little unbalanced, and the background hung with Lametta-style tinsel.                               

In an aside, John Lewis sales staff tell me that they had repeated requests for Lametta, the classic, thin strips of silver used to decorate Christmas trees of the past, rather than the feather-boa style tinsel that they had in stock. Having expensively tracked this down online and decorated my own tree with it, I have to say, it does have the irritating habit of slipping off. Perhaps it is best used with a glue gun…?

Still with gold – and gold, silver, and white are classic secular Christmas colours replacing the more traditional red and green – Dolce & Gabbana filled their long casement window with an opulent, golden picture frame composed of leaves and acorns (below, left). Picture frames are, of course, a classic VM prop, but this one is generously done, and creates the perfect showcase for a single mannequin. It also offers extended use as it stretches F/W's autumnal fruitfulness in Christmas.

Louis Vuitton, responsible for some of the most interesting VM we currently see, used a variation on a classic shelf theme of interconnected coloured shelves, interlinked against a selection of gold LV-print backdrops. Shelf colours of orange and purple, orange and viridian, or pink and gold, added colour to the effective eye-catching glinting backgrounds. Variations on shelves can be used at any time of the year, but this with this one LV successfully conveyed the excitement of Christmas.

A brief mention now of two of London's usually wonderful VM displays: Hermes, which usually creates such wonderful windows, were busy promoting their range made from their classic components and offered windows of giant, illuminated, leather-craftsmens’ tools on a red ground. Not really very ‘Christmas-y’? Harvey Nichols, whose windows have been completely amazing in the past, offered what looked like a colourful creche for fine art-students to express themselves. I’m sure it was ground-breaking, but it didn’t look like ‘Christmas.’

Burberry used animated windows to great effect with slowly opening and closing gift boxes, each containing a handbag or a watch. Movement is, of course, a key principle of VM as the human eye, or rather the human brain, is programmed to notice it, and Selfridges used mechanical movement and the ‘make it giant’ concept to great effect in their single-product windows. All very effective and linked by the theme of a snowy-landscape: one window of a giant YSL handbag with a swishing tassel, one of washing-line-style briefs, one with a giant trainer, one of sunglasses, one a giant tub of Playdoh, etc. The best one was the one of un-built or destroyed London buildings promoting a new book, and including Selfridges tower on the west corner, surrounded by a train set, with trains made from Tate & Lyle syrup tins. And neatly in the centre window, a model of Selfridges, encased in a giant snow-shaker (see below, left).

A little bit of me is wondering if Selfridges charged the brands for the window space? They were great product showcases and a clean, refreshing change from Selfridges usual ‘cornucopia-based’ themes – which Fortnum & Mason employed.

Animation continued inside Selfridges, and I loved the giant mirror-covered disco-ball Christmas baubles in the atrium space inside the store, which moved slowly up and down showered by ‘snow’ from the gobos on each level. Nearby mannequins on each floor echoed the theme with mirror-chip masks, and a selection of events including an opera singer, a jazz band, etc. focused attention on the space in the run-up to Christmas.

A last innovative animation example, at Molton Brown’s Regent Street store, pumped artificial snow around shallow, clear acrylic, floor-to-ceiling cases, neatly making it look as though it was snowing inside the store. Cool! This was so much classier than Piccadilly’s giant snow-globe – which unfortunately became opaque and impossible to see inside when it rained.

Harrods created a train – complete with light-decked engine in the north-east corner window – and incorporating a flat screen showing the landscape in every window, each dressed as a carriage. A touch reminiscent of Louis Vuitton’s S/S 12 windows perhaps?

John Lewis very neatly tied the UK's current interest in recycling with their ‘Bear and the Hare’ television advertisement for their windows filled with animals including, hares, bears, and penguins, all composed of parts of Dyson vacuum cleaners and coffee machines (see main picture, top right). If success in VM terms can be determined by the number of people taking photographs on their mobile phones outside the store, then this was a clear Christmas window 13 winner. Neatly constructed by Chameleon - see their video of the construction on their site – it neatly showcased John Lewis home merchandise, and the background of stylized foam-board trees was repeated throughout the store.

Simple again were Bonpoint’s spiraling wire trees (below, right) decorated with lights, and Superdry’s ribbon-wrapped mesh boxes (below, left). This easily changed theme has been used for Superdry’s window before, but I still admire the simplicity of the idea, which allows any member of the sales team to dress the window, and its effectiveness.













A last example, from the grocer P. Rothe in Marylebone Lane (see below), a classic fir-branch, traditional, welcoming, Christmas display, and totally in keeping with the store image.



To sum up, these are but a fraction of the displays, both good and not quite so good, that London’s streets offer as Christmas approaches. As a child, my mother would always take my sister and I to see the Christmas windows and Christmas lights in Oxford Street and Regent Street, and braving the cold weather, this is still a great thing to do. Add Knightsbridge, Mount Street, and Bond Street to the list, and London’s windows are well worth close inspection for inspiration for Christmas 2014.

Dr. Valerie Wilson Trower provides a regular column on store design for Essential Retail.


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