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Visual merchandiser view on shoe retailing

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, games, etc, 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, and much of it men's and womenswear, rather than menswear or womenswear alone. But shoe stores continue, the last remnants of the now rarely found, single-product category specialist store. A few of these survive, for example, 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, but is a global phenomenon.

The rule of thumb that inversely equates cost with the volume of merchandise in a store window, still applies. The crammed full, mass-market price-point, Paris shoe store (see left) compared to the Spring/Summer 13 window of Christian Louboutin featuring three shoes on a fishing hook (see right), says it all. Less is certainly more in terms of price point. This space/price dialectic is a very real constraint for brands such as the teen accessories brand, Claire's, that select their merchandise partly by the area that it will require to display and the sales per square foot it will generate.

In comparison, the Louboutin store points the way forwards with an increasing number of themed windows for shoe stores. Even corporate-brand Clarks have a themed window – featuring aubergines for Fall/Winter 13 – not too dissimilar to the window of top-end shoe brand, Oliver Sweeney (below left), whose play on autumnal texture and colour for their F/W 13 window is a completely sensual delight.

In line with the increasing use of technology in store windows, Geox's Oxford Street store (see below right) has a column of screens which cleverly duplicate certain shoe images – a very Warholesque technique, and much loved in visual merchandising, 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 – their USP – and the brand name. Simply, powerfully, and very impactfully executed, and a great example of how technology can enhance the product, the 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 shoe, shoe, shoe, perhaps interspersed with the odd handbag, look distinctive and memorable?

We have all – even the guys – had the experience of spending an entire day hunting for the elusive, perfect pair of shoes, only to realise, after hours of shopping, when we decided to return to the first store that we entered much earlier, that we have completely forgotten the name of the store. How to make the store, as well as the shoe, memorable? One very easy way to do this is to borrow the 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, which the customer is interested in, is a simple means of tying the shoe to the brand name.

Effectively, it is a rather simple, low-cost, non-high tech version of the subliminal image sequences, which were banned in advertising years ago.

Another way forward is to divide the shoe store interior in to separate galleries – much as Selfridges have done with great success in their Oxford Street shoe department. This section of their store refit has out-performed, and continues to out-perform, Selfridges’ wildest expectations, and a similar strategy is soon to be implemented Harrods women’s shoe section. This design 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 their sports shoes, followed six-weeks later by a wall of fluffy sheep images promoting Ugg slippers, a classic but classy Christmas gift? The shoe department then begins to emulate the rest of the department store with changing displays driving sales promotions, rather than being visually, a relatively unchanging 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, what the customer is actually purchasing is fashion, that is, newness.

The other benefit of increased internal wall space in shoe stores 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. A win-win?

An adequate number of mirrors for shoe stores are a must. Ever had to queue, or at least wait your turn, to look at yourself in a pair of shoes that you are trying on? The store just didn’t have enough mirrors for the number of customers at busy periods. How many of those customers, gave up and decided to come back another day, or gave up not to return at all?

Lastly, let's consider the usual strategy of other 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 fit – 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 example, for many years the first impression in Marks & Spencer’s shoe department, was of the fixtures. The fixtures totally dominated the merchandise, so that all that 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 shows here? It was completely missing. Not the best retailing?

Shoe retailing is an art form, a careful balance of old-style single product, with new style lifestyle, and boutique product offer, and the small scale of shoes, as with all accessories, making this an extra challenge. With the top-end brands, especially Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahnik, increasingly developing their own standalone stores, shoe stores are going to be around for a while yet, and may yet provide inspiration for all types of stores, shoe stores included.

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

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