There’s a new generation of visual merchandisers who’ve grown up with iPhone apps, social media, texting and tweeting. And they’re bringing this knowledge to in-store life, with exciting programs that bridge the world of mannequins and window displays with the world of digital technology.
Gina Mercatili, 23, is part of that generation, a recent graduate of the visual merchandising program at the LIM College in New York. She’s working as merchandising coordinator at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This is not, however, some compromise position for a young visual merchandiser until the tough job market improves. What Mercatili does – promoting the brands of the Barclays Center, the borough of Brooklyn, the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets, Brooklyn Boxing and Brooklyn Hoops (plus the National Hockey League’s Islanders in 2015) – is a perfect window into what visual merchandising has become today.
An increasing number of today’s young professionals see their job as strategic marketing, promoting the essence of their brand, whether it’s a department store chain, a line of apparel or a sports venue in a borough desperate for national recognition since the Dodgers baseball team fled town 55 years ago.
They don’t see it as selling a sweater, they see it as selling an idea. And the young practitioners who are doing the work tend to agree.
“Visual is no longer just about what product you’ve decided to put on your focal ‘third window’ table, but what story you want to tell,” says 34-year-old Faith Bartrug, owner of Faith Bartrug Design (Columbus, Ohio).
For Mercatili, that story is the return of major league sports to “I-Get-No-Respect” Brooklyn, which, after all, would be the fourth-largest U.S. city if it were not part of New York – there are 2.5 million people for whom the borough is not simply an address but an identity, an emotional connection.
Her first assignment was the arena’s kickoff marketing campaign, called “My Borough is Thorough.” Mercatili worked to oversee the introduction of a line of community-centric T-shirts that called out “Hello Brooklyn,” “Hello Flatbush,” “Hello Bed Stuy,” “Hello Coney Island” and several other neighborhood references.
And while Mercatili was busy driving consumer acceptance of products and developing planograms for her two Nets stores, one at the Barclays Center and one in Coney Island, she was also using today’s all-important digital technology and social media.
“During the NBA playoffs in the spring, I ordered shirts that said #helloplayoffs,” she says, “and invited people to text ‘shirt’ for a chance to win a free one. That allowed us to grow our digital fan base and follow up with retail-specific team news blasts.”
She used HTML to design emails with trackable links so she could measure how many people clicked in. She also acquired and provided links for the digital team to launch on Facebook and Twitter, promoting special offers.
“Social media became very important to understanding our demographic and adjusting our visual programs,” she says.
While some retailers see social media as keeping customers out of the store, others have used it creatively to drive traffic into the store. Selfridges, the British fashion department store, created a social media campaign for its shoe department launch around a digital character called Shoeper Hero, who interacted with customers on Facebook and Twitter, giving them shoe advice and inviting them to share their experiences.
The result, boasted the retailer, included write-ups on the top 10 fashion blogs including 43 reader comments on Park & Cube, 35 re-tweets of @LDNfashion and hundreds of likes on Facebook.
And when the department was finally launched, “it was so well-attended that the Oxford Street store had to be closed,” said the Selfridges’ website.
But retailers are finding that technology – whether assisting shoppers or promoting merchandise – can’t overpromise. Shoppers are armed with their own devices and a great deal of information. “Millennials all carry smartphones and have access to all kinds of apps,” says Bartrug. “If you overstate product benefits or comparative information, the millennial customer has the resources to call your bluff.”
An app called Open Object, created by a Cambridge University engineering student named Jessi Baker, allows a consumer to accumulate objective information about a product just by pointing her smartphone at it.
“The big picture behind this was my genuine frustration with the lack of knowledge people have when they’re shopping,” writes Baker in a blog for DesignBridge.com. She developed the app in London as part of the Royal College of Art Innovation Design Engineering program. “To me, it’s incredible that the only information we really have to make a decision is the information that’s in front of us – which is 100 percent from the brand owners – and that seems quite biased to me.”
As much as today’s younger shoppers revere technology, they also respect retailers who support causes – another opportunity for today’s visual merchandising.
Another recent Selfridges campaign was called Project Ocean, to raise awareness about overfishing. This multi-media blitz, done in cooperation with the Zoological Society of London, began with eye-catching graphics like “NO MORE FISH IN THE SEA?” on the Oxford Street store exterior and in windows.
The store’s ground floor was transformed into a rallying space to talk about a huge range of ocean issues, including a weekly series of talks and debates on ocean topics, featuring celebrities (such as Prince Charles) and experts from around the world; screenings of oceans-related films; displays of marine-inspired fashion (including Lady Gaga’s lobster hat); and parties in some of London’s tonier venues.
“It was old-fashioned visual merchandising,” Bartrug says, “coral windows, a couture octopus dress by Iris van Herpen and chefs holding instructional seminars on which fish are safe to eat.” They developed a line of Project Ocean products, but this wasn’t just about selling merchandise, it was public advocacy in Selfridges’ own, distinct voice. They created a custom app enabling customers to text donations to the cause and, by doing so, used retail to promote change.
This may be taking the notion of selling an idea to its furthest length, but it’s all part of the challenges and opportunity for today’s plugged-in visual professionals.
“The successful visual merchandisers have their fingers on the pulse of our society,” says retail veteran Eric Feigenbaum, chair of LIM College’s visual merchandising department. “They tap into what’s going on. Retail, after all, is a reflection of the world – of politics, sports, art, movies, TV, news, culture. So good visual has to be about being in touch and in tune.”