Creating the first impression

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You only have one chance to make the first impression. However superficial this first impression is, it will either encourage the customer to come into the store and give you an opportunity to sell or it will make them turn on their heel and go somewhere else.

Therefore your ability to make your store the most effective and pleasant shopping environment possible will have a direct impact on your bottom line and on the likelihood of you surviving the current recession. 
Merchandising is a set of retail techniques and skills which can be learnt as everything else. They are taught at the Alphason retail training courses which the manufacturer is delivering at various locations across the country. The merchandising course is conducted by Sarah Swales, a visual merchandising expert from ABDS consultancy.
Making the store work
The aims of the course are linked to the objectives which every independent wishes to achieve:

  • to encourage customers into the store
  • entertain them there
  • encourage them to browse
  • present products in the best way
  • ensure repeat custom and
  • improve sales.

The majority of independent stores have a set of inherent challenges. Among them are:  lack of space, difficult store layout, ensuring customer flow to every area of the store, introducing and accommodating new product categories and making the store stand out in the high street.
Creating the first impression
First of all, a set of simple good housekeeping rules will ensure that the store makes a good first impression on potential customers. This checklist (handed out as a small laminated sheet to the course participants) includes the following:

  • keeping the window display in good order, clean and relevant to the season or changing promotions,
  • ensuring that window lights work as intended,
  • ensuring that the entrance to the shop is clean and free of obstacles,
  • making sure that the access to the till is a clear path for the customers,
  • keeping all the products free of dust and clearly labelled – with the correct PoS, and
  • ensuring that the store is easy to navigate and provides the correct level of information.

Customer flow
Once customers have entered the store they are likely to follow the ‘interest path’ which you have designed. Therefore it is key to create the right flow for your store  – the natural direction that customers will take upon entering a store and their movement around the store.
It’s worth remembering that the management of customer flow starts outside the store, and such factors as parking, bus or taxi stops and other stores of potential interest to customers have a role to play. Therefore it’s important to use to your best advantage such things as external advertising, shop window displays and potential signage on the pavement.
Inside the store the intended customer flow can be created by positioning the products along the customer’s path and even creating a colour scheme to encourage a pleasant shopping experience and guide customers in the desired direction. Placing physical obstacles such as shelves and tables, achieves the same result.  Think about IKEA which excels at ‘customer traffic management’.
Tables and low shelving units can be used to display the products which you wish to promote and on which you have seasonal offers. Don’t display very expensive products on the front as this may discourage browsing customers.
Remember, however, not to clutter the store. On entering customers want to see at one glance what’s on offer in the store.
The position of the till is very important in this context – as queuing customers can completely obscure the view of the whole store.
Space allocation
Space allocated to various products on the shop floor has a direct impact on the bottom line. Therefore each product range needs to be allocated adequate space to reflect the proportion of sales it takes. Better selling ranges will need more space than slower selling ranges because they will return more sales.
You need therefore to divide your floor space into primary locations, secondary locations and tertiary locations. Primary locations are these which customers see first, the secondary are these areas which customers see walking around the store. The tertiary locations are the ‘dead’ corners.
However, each product range should flow naturally into the next one to form a logical link for the customers as they walk around the store. Therefore you may wish to follow cookers with small kitchen appliances and tumble dryers with irons.
Retail theatre
In today’s competitive retail environment is it very important to create an attractive ambiance in your store. Sarah Swales reinforced the message voiced by the speakers at this year’s retra conference: “You need to create some theatre and environment to WOW your customers.”
The ‘set’ and the special atmosphere can be created by staging product demonstrations, dressing staff in special uniforms (costumes), by playing music (it may encourage or discourage customers from lingering and browsing), smell (an aroma produced by a working coffee maker can stimulate instant interest), store décor or lighting. Any of this doesn’t need to break the bank.
In electrical retailing a bit of theatre can be created by demonstrations of cooking appliances, small kitchen appliances, steam and floorcare products – and by almost all AV products – there is plenty of suitable PoS material to create it.
Window to the world
“Windows are your first means of communication with the customer. They should reflect events, seasonal changes, promotions and new product launches to inspire the customer,” suggests Sarah Swales.
Her advice is to keep things simple because:

  • the simple ideas work best
  • too much stock is confusing and looks complicated
  • not enough stock looks weak and uninviting
  • too many angles look untidy.

You also have to ensure that your window display faces customer flow, so consider carefully the directions from which your customers approach the store.
While creating the window display it’s worth giving consideration to the symmetry and to remember that repetition (of colours, shapes, products) creates greater impact. “Triangular feels comfortable on the eye and is easy to absorb,” says Sarah.
It is important to change the window display regularly because people accustomed to the same sight will stop noticing it and your store. Any props can be used in the window, as long as they complement the product range and the message. The sky is the limit – see the examples of shop windows in this article.

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