Build it & They Will Come. ...or not
They design & then build the structures: the shopping centres, the retail stores etc. They fill them with counters, signs & stock. But they no longer give it a soul.
In fact, for decades, they have been systematically removing all trace of a soul in most of our retail centres and even in our C.B.D’s With a very few exceptions (the Spring flower show in David Jones’ flagship store in Sydney for example) everything that gave our retail spaces a ‘feeling’ has been stripped away.
Remember when major department stores would go all out to dazzle with their window displays? When the theme for the season would be carried throughout the interiors by the ‘Display Department’ (which grew up to be the Visual Merchandising Department)?
Remember when Santa’s Christmas Village would draw long queues?
When people would get out of their cars to walk the streets to window shop? Remember those department store windows at Christmas? For that matter, remember when department stores had windows?
Remember when the CBD used to be an attraction for families at Christmas?
The V.M. managers of the day ruled with flamboyant tenacity. These were the Gods of all things visual. Every major department store had its own V.M. Department and the ‘Display Queens’ were in hot demand from the smaller retailers.
The best of them were sought out globally, because their talent SOLD.
Where are the Gods now? What happened to those people who could wield a drill, a staple gun & a feather boa with equal aplomb?
Where are those departments that trained so many talented, multi-skilled specialists?
These were the masters of creativity that gave our commercial environments soul.
These were the craftspeople that caused you to stop in your tracks with a window display; to slow down suddenly when you barrelled into a department store at full tilt.
Who Needs Froufrou?
I think it began in the late 70’s or early 80’s. As the economists, the economic rationalists began to move in. Usually the very first thing in their sights was the V.M. Department.
To the ‘rationalists, it was all just ‘froufrou’. It was all an elaborate and expendable extravagance. The flowers, the props, the sets and of course, the windows¸ could go. Along with generations of specialized talent.
The science of the visual art of selling lost out to the science of numbers.
The merchandising departments budgets were slashed, the work outsourced. The Christmas decorations were imported in bulk from China.
But it was all a poor, listless substitute for what had gone.
And now the number crunchers, the councils, the CEO’s & CFO’s, the economists and accountants are all scratching their heads. Now that online shopping has become the new ‘thing’ they are standing - in their soulless department stores, in the barren streets, in the dying arcades and the shopping centres where people no longer linger - and they’re wondering what happened.
“It’s the internet!” they cry. “It’s all the webs’ fault!” Bloody web.
“Why do people prefer to stay home and shop?” they wonder.
Sure, if we can get it cheaper, why not? So yes, price is a factor. We love the ease of online shopping but it doesn’t suit all of us. And we don’t all want to buy everything online. And as far back as the mid 1990’s it was recognised in the industry that we the shoppers no longer lingered in their ‘centres. We arrived, bought what we wanted and left.
It Comes Down to Soul.
We still like to get out into the real world. We eat out more than ever before.
Cafe culture is a response to that. We enjoy a sensory experience. So what draws us into a new cafe when we are just walking the street? How it looks, usually. And something needs to draw us across the threshold: the visual appeal. The cafe, the retail store, the bar, whatever it may be, needs to visually appeal to us.
Visual appeal. Visual draw cards. Visual cues = Visual Merchandising.
It’s that intangible thing of how it feels. Even before we get to the food or the service, it’s all of the visual and sensory elements that catch your eye; that draw you in and create a sense of comfort that invites you to slow down and take in the environment.
Once this has been achieved, one of the biggest hurdles in the sales process has been overcome.
Our department stores, our shopping centres, even our city centres have lost feeling. They lack atmosphere. The success of any retail environment begins with the visual cues – and how it feels.
To tackle a competitor that provides something you can’t, you need to provide something that competitor can’t: In this case, a sensory experience. Atmosphere.
The lateral thinkers, the creators of the intangible, need to be brought back to the core of retail strategy.
We need to find these people (those who are still alive!). We need to revive this art, this science, this entire industry! True Visual Merchandisers are as rare as hens’ teeth these days.
Their art, their talent, their knowledge is on the brink of extinction.
And we can’t just pull new ‘Gods’ out of a box – even a fabulous box. New people need to be trained in a disappearing, highly specialized set of skills. And it will not happen in 5 minutes.
I have been a designer, production manager & consultant in merchandising, television, events, fashion, Christmas and more for more than 30 years.
BOO Creative (my company) was the driving force in visual merchandising – including Christmas - in Perth for almost 30 years.