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Holiday Windows and Sensory Techniques

How sights, sounds, smells and tastes influence “sensory” merchandising




When I graduated from college, I had no idea there was something called visual merchandising. I just knew when I walked into Macy's, Bloomingdale’s, or Saks Fifth Avenue, they looked great. I had no idea why they looked great or who was responsible for making them look great, I just knew they did. In those days, of course, it was known as display, and has since evolved into what we refer to today as visual merchandising. The beauty of visual merchandising is that it's constantly changing — it's a reflection of our times. Moreover, retail design has always been quick to embrace the technologies of the day. So as we move deeper into the 21st Century, and into the age of connection and technology, will the term visual merchandising lose its relevance as did the word display?

Increasingly, technology and social networking are becoming integral parts of our daily lives. Accordingly, they are becoming leading actors on the retail stage. And while the successful retail environment is driven by technological advances, one staple of the retail equation remains constant and as endearing to customers as when it first appeared at Macy's in 1868. That, of course, is the holiday window.

While the message may be the same, the medium has changed. Today, retailers are “Decking the Halls” with digital merriment. The appeal of today's holiday windows is more than visual, they tantalize all of our senses. And the wizards at Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue are clearly leading the charge with new holiday techniques.

Harry Cunningham, svp store planning and visual merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, says, “It’s so important for us to think about all the senses when we create display … the word 'visual' isn’t really relevant any longer … it’s our responsibility to touch all the senses — sight, touch, sound, smell, even taste in some retail venues.” Accordingly, Cunningham coined a new phrase, “The one-up that bricks and mortar will always have is sensory merchandising.”

For their holiday window opening this year, Saks combined all the senses into one giant “Yeti celebration.” In case you're wondering, the Yeti is the lovable character who graced Saks Fifth Avenue's windows this year. Cunningham explained, “You could 'see' the animated windows, 'hear' the music from our 3-D video mapping, 'smell' the hot cocoa, 'taste' the Yeti-shaped cookies we served, and 'feel' the snow — yes, we made it snow — on your nose as you welcomed the Yeti to center stage in our Fifth Avenue windows.”

And once again on 34th Street, Paul Olszewski, director of windows and interior flagship marketing at Macy's, waved his magic wand. His sorcery consists of a wisp of cutting-edge technology, a twist of whimsical animation and a pinch of state-of the-art-interactive presentations. The secret of his potion is a perfect blending of technology and aesthetics: “Every year we create an original score for the windows as it is an essential part of the experience, enhancing, or in this years windows, almost dictating the mood.  Visually, we wanted the windows to be beautifully haunting and mysterious. Without the music, the interpretation and/or experience of the windows may not have been the same from person to person. With the music, it really drives home the 'feeling' and 'emotion' we wanted both the windows and the viewers to have.”


Visual merchandisers come from all walks of life and points of view. The one thing we all seem to have an affinity for is our love of the theater. As with visual merchandising, theatrical productions also appeal to sensory perception. The great shows, however, are defined by character development and story telling. Both Cunningham and Olszewski are masters of both. The rambunctious, if not cuddly Yeti at Saks, left his mother behind and crossed an ocean to make snowflakes on Fifth Avenue; while a young boy in Macy's 2013 window extravaganza showed us that if we truly believe, dreams do come true. This is great theater, and after all, isn't Macy's the longest running show on Broadway?

Le Corbusier, an important architect of the 20th Century said, “You touch my heart. Starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established certain relationships that have aroused my emotions.” When the architect, when the actor, when the writer, when the visual or sensory merchandiser nudges the emotion, they move their craft into the realm of art.

So thank you, Paul and Harry. Your art has moved the emotion of thousands and provided a wonderful gift for all who would see, hear, touch, taste and smell. You have pushed the bounds of visual merchandising and holiday windows to a complete sensory experience.



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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