Cutting through the Clutter

The VMSD International Visual Competition provides a window into merchandising trends. This year’s message: Simplify.
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Posted August 9, 2008
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When Apple Computer launched its new visual campaign for the video iPod nano, its window display featured a single prop: popcorn. Popcorn? Digital music and video player? And the connection is what?

The connection is scale. The oversized popcorn kernels conveyed the message that these new video devices are small. “Using oversized popcorn next to images of the product, you get the message about size right away,” says David Hogrefe, managing director at Fitch (Powell, Ohio). Hogrefe was a judge in this year’s VMSD International Visual Competition. And the Apple campaign, designed by Michael Fisher at Apple, was so effective, it won one of the competition’s first place awards.

The competition is a chance to review current practices in visual merchandising. And in the past, trends have favored throwing a lot of merchandise into a display to try speaking to a broad range of consumers. Somewhere in that presentation of numerous products and propping, something was sure to attract shoppers’ eye.

But 21st Century consumers are on image overload, barraged with messaging on a 24-7 basis. “People are being inundated with data from their phones, computers, billboards, iPods and text devices,” says Tracey Lanz, design director at Landor Associates (Cincinnati), and another judge in the competition. “They’re seeking an escape from all the visual stimulus.” Visual merchandisers are realizing that cluttered displays can be harder to focus on and the overall message ultimately might get lost. Consumers are also time-pressed and impatient, less likely to see and absorb detailed and layered messages, no matter how cleverly designed.

“Less is more right now,” says judge Jennifer Wilson, a freelance visual merchandiser who does work with Sony and Jos. A. Bank. “It used to be that you’d use propping to tell the story. Now there’s more focus on the merchandise.”

So what does it mean to be simple?

“It’s using less to get the same point across,” says Wilson. At Sony, Wilson has been focusing on one particular product rather than an assortment of electronic devices in the windows and in-store displays. “Keeping it simple makes it easier for consumers to understand a complicated message quickly,” she says.

Macy’s “The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful,” a storewide campaign that tied in with the retailer’s annual Glamorama charity fundraising event held at its Chicago State Street flagship, was viewed by the judges as another good example of replacing clutter with simplicity. The country and western theme was lauded by the judges for creating a fresh interpretation on denim and cowboy boots. “The execution was simple, using scale, natural materials and textures to draw attention to the products,” said judge Beth Harlor, design manager, beauty and health, for Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati). 

Repetitions of color and texture also declutter the visual messaging. For the launch of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Covet perfume, Jon Jones, director of visual for Macy’s Chicago, used a series of repeating acrylic graphic panels and a giant 10-by-10-foot doubled-sided banner to create a dramatic statement.

Lanz says retailers can also use merchandise arrangements to create a pattern. “Instead of showing denim on a table, a retailer can hang the jeans from hooks in a repeating pattern so the merchandise itself becomes the graphic pattern,” she says.

Tracey Peters, national visual and merchandising manager for Canadian fashion retailer Holt Renfrew (Toronto), says she mixes up her pitches, sometimes throwing a little more visual at shoppers’ senses to keep them engaged and looking forward to each installation. “One month we’ll use a simpler presentation and then the following month we’ll change it up with heavy propping or a lot of mannequins,” she says. “The key is control and restraint, making the displays full and abundant without becoming cluttered.”

But relying on less to do more does not make visual merchandisers’ creative challenges easier. “You have to be really cognizant of the negative space and how it works with the overall look of the window,” says Peters. “The placement of mannequins and props really needs to be exact. You may have to move them several times, sometimes just a few inches, until it looks perfect.”

Lanz says less clutter also takes more courage and confidence. “Less means taking a stronger stance and delivering a straightforward message,” she says. “You have to have the faith that a few dramatic gestures are enough for people to understand. Otherwise, it’s very easy to start second-guessing yourself and begin adding those additional layers, and then you’re back to clutter.”

Less doesn’t always equal cheaper, either. “If the propping is minimal, it needs to be amazing,” says Peters, “and that often involves getting something custom-made.” For a recent window campaign, the Holt visual team used graffiti walls painted by a local artist, which carried a premium cost.

The cost, in money and effort, is generally worth it. Most designers and retailers agree clean and clear merchandising is a more effective visual merchandising method. “It’s easier to see,” says Lanz. “It’s the eye candy that gives consumers a reason to come inside the store.”

Best in Show and first place, in-store storewide promotions
Macy’s Chicago, The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful 

Macy’s “The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful,” a storewide campaign that tied in with the retailer’s annual Glamorama charity fundraising event held at its Chicago State Street flagship, took a twist on the familiar Old West theme. “The execution was simple, using scale, natural materials and textures to draw attention to the products,” said judge Beth Harlor, design manager, beauty and health, for Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati).

Natural logs, metal armatures, graphics and sculpted elements worked together to create a fresh interpretation. China tables used wood log risers and bark accents, while plants and glossy driftwoods were turned into presentation tools. In the ready-to-wear department, vendors with a hint of country chic were on display.

“Repetition of color and texture makes it powerful,” says Jon Jones, director of visual for Macy’s Chicago,

The event, now it its ninth year, benefits local charities, including the Chicago art institute and cancer research organizations.

Client: Macy’s, Chicago: Jon Jones, director, State Street visual; MaryAlice Hughes, vp, visual merchandising; Denise Hurley, visual specialist

Flooring: Exposition Carpet, Chicago

Lighting: Frost Lighting, Chicago

Mannequins/Forms: Pucci, New York

Props and decoratives: Holiday Foliage, San Diego, Calif.; Jim Van Norman, sculptor, Minneapolis

Signage/Graphics: Color Image, Chicago; Signworks, Willow Springs, Ill.

Photography: Susan Kezon, Chicago

 

Click here for First Place winners pt. 1 and pt. 2.

Clicke here for Awards of Merit winners pt. 1 and pt. 2.