The Whole Cake ... or is it the Crumbs?

Visual merchandisers weigh in on the state of their business
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Posted November 22, 2006
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What’s the state of mind of today’s visual merchandiser? VM+SD sought the answer with its first annual visual merchandising survey.

Is this creative profession being used, appreciated, underwritten, valued, honored? Or is it an afterthought, a lot of work with very little reward?

One respondent told us: “Visual merchandising in no longer the icing on the cake – it’s the whole cake! Retailers who fail to recognize this are losing as we speak.”

Some survey respondents agreed that it’s the whole cake. But others said it’s the crumbs. “It’s all about the budget – cut, cut, cut!” wrote a respondent.

“There is no creativity left in most organizations,” said another. “They are looking for a cookie-cutter image throughout all of the stores.”

Cake, crumbs or cookies, visual merchandisers have long complained about the status of the business: budgets slashed, staffs trimmed, propping replaced by graphics.

Or have today’s competitive pressures of retailing convinced executives – even the ones counting the beans – of the need to create environments, support brands, carve out distinct individual personalities in the marketplace, make shopping more fun and rewarding?

“Visual merchandising is like medicine for the stores and the visual merchandiser is a health consultant to the store,” said a respondent.

So which is it? Shrinking budgets and influence? Or front and center in the strategic campaign?

Our survey attempted to take the pulse of retail’s oldest profession:

Is retail, as a whole, devoting more energy and emphasis to visual merchandising than in recent years?

A solid 69.5 percent of the respondents said “Yes.”

Are the budgets for visual merchandising increasing?

Another solid 58.5 percent said “Yes.”

Are there more jobs available?

More than half said “Yes.”

What are you earning?

More than 60 percent of those at the corporate level said they were earning more than $50,000 a year. Of those, 44 percent earn between $75,000 and $100,000 a year; 25 percent earn more than $100,000.

Does all of this add up to good news? It does if you’re with the right company. For the retailer that still values branding and environment, it’s as one respondent said: “Increasing competition and decreasing sway of traditional media cause both brands and retailers to spend more and attempt more elaborate in-store projects.”

But then there are still the others, reflecting the notion of one respondent who told us: “It’s ‘store in a box’ – no more creating a theme of season or holiday.”

Or the one who said: “The elements that made this field great are diminishing. Elements such as creativity, taste level, large-format display and the importance of exchanging ideas are all nearly extinct.”

Fashion-forward

At least the visual merchandising effort continues to be acknowledged and rewarded in the halls of fashion. “Our mission statement is ‘to be universally recognized as the best shopping experience because of our gorgeous fashion, entertaining stores and amazing service,’ ” says Tracey Peters, national visual and merchandising manager for Toronto’s Holt-Renfrew, “and our brand promise is: ‘Delighting customers with beautiful fashions presented in style.’ So not only does the corporate team understand the importance of visual, it expects nothing short of exceptional visuals.”

“Visual merchandising is a key competitive factor in how we differentiate the brand,” says Jack Hruska, executive vp, creative services, for the New York-based Bloomingdale’s division of Federated Department Stores. “Our teams are integral to the senior management of each store and central to the strategic development of the art of persuasion. Visual merchandising is one of the key aspects in the creative management of the brand and continues to exercise influence and direction in how we internally market to the customer.”

But is it just the fashion brands with the national reputations and the high-profile windows? Not necessarily.

“When business is good,” says Jason Floyd, director of visual merchandising for RadioShack, “the visual merchandising teams are tasked with further improving the environment and changing as the assortments and seasons change.”

“As we open more stores we are putting a larger emphasis on visual merchandising utilizing our archival art and seasonal fashion shoots,” says Aaron Duncan, creative director and senior vp of Playboy Enterprise’s licensing group, “particularly in terms of creative windows and in-store signage. Strong visuals enable us to dream, identify and inspire. They also instruct us about the latest trends. It’s even more important that the windows are also followed through with internal visuals that represent those trends.”

“Starting from the president down, we believe in and support visual presentation,” said the visual executive of one of the nation’s largest mall-based specialty apparel retailers. (She asked not to be quoted by name.) “We feel it is an integral part of our business approach when presenting product on the sales floor. Visual ties into not just the typical display and merchandising arena but also the strategic planning of floorsets, upcoming special events, marketing promotions, store communications, etc. So ideally, I am not in fear of losing my job at any time in the near future.”

Job Security

Ah, yes, job insecurity. Visual merchandisers have felt the pressure in the hyper-competitive retail world of the last couple of decades. How, after all, do you measure the return on an artfully crafted window? Or a well-dressed mannequin? Or an expensive holiday presentation? And once a retailer starts letting sales associates and stock clerks put presentations together, where’s the value of a professional?

We asked whether there were more jobs available for visual merchandisers than before, and a little more than 44 percent said “No.” For them, the reasons were uncomfortably familiar: visual budgets slashed; retailers cutting back on the visual merchandising effort; few or no jobs at the store level; more skilled visual merchandisers available than the number of jobs that open up.

“Pay is still insultingly low,” said one respondent. “Too many cutbacks,” said another. “Different suppliers, brands calling visual shots now.” “Too many visual merchandisers and too few jobs,” said a third.

As RadioShack’s Floyd noted, “When business is trending low, the budget and direction to support typically trends low, as well. The focus is controlling costs versus building revenues.”

“In Orlando,” said a Florida-based respondent, “the retail market is booming. But there are more and more retail venues using corporate materials – sales collateral, pre-packaged graphics, shelf-talkers and that sort of thing. Creativity is gone for the master visual merchandisers. I follow the trends and have tried to bring the vendors new and innovative ideas and themes, design a window that pops. But they don’t understand the marketing value of a window display.”

Jobs may be harder to get, budgets may be slashed, pay may occasionally be disappointing, but visual merchandisers always seem united by their passion. Nearly 79 percent of respondents said this was a good time to be in visual merchandising.

“I do love this field,” said one respondent, “even if it is becoming more of a challenge to sustain a career. The pool of potential qualified visual talent is dwindling – you must have the passion to create magic. It’s a challenging time to be in this field.”

“Better pay, more emphasis being put on my shoulders,” said another respondent, “and it’s fun to make the store look good.”

So it seems that challenges and pressures notwithstanding, many visual merchandisers are still having fun. But it won’t be all that much fun until retailers are convinced that all-out efforts can drive sales and increase competitiveness. And that’s still a matter of economics.