How to “WIN” at Retail and Visual Merchandising.

By Cris Merz

Last month I went to the Rock &Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH after attending a conference on Content Marketing.   One of the things I loved about it was the layout – it was like a path through time, styles, and ground breaking innovations.  Though not necessarily set up in chronological order – it made sense the way it was laid out.  You walked a path and a story was told.  There was a moment, between looking at Ringo’s drum kit and Mick Jagger’s tight and shiny pant-suit, where I was thinking, “This reminds me of IKEA”.

IKEA knows what they are doing as far as displaying a top notch showroom.  I love walking around just to see their different set ups and get ideas for my own home.  Seeing it in person really shouts at you compared to seeing a living room configuration in a picture catalogue.  I am not saying Dive Centers need to be redesigned as IKEA stores, but we do need to understand that it is important to invest the time to learn how we can best maximize the efficiency of our show room floor and retail space to make it attractive and in turn, make people want to buy.

I want to start with three main points before we get to the fun stuff.  You should consider applying these to your retail floor as soon as possible

You are a dive center, not a museum

There are many times when I walk into dive centers that have a rich and long standing history and feel confused about where I am  due to their choice of displays.  My first piece of advice – put your junk away.  Another man’s garbage is another man’s treasure – yes I get it, but for new divers walking into your store and seeing equipment that Cousteau’s grandfather used isn’t going to do anything but scare the crap out of them.  “I’m diving in that?”

It’s fine to have a wall dedicated to your antiques but just because you own it – doesn’t mean you need to display all your collectables.  Your goal is to display items you sell so your customer can be exposed to them visually.  I love history and I love seeing how evolved we have come from some of the initial equipment  used in the past, but don’t make it your primary displays.

Clean your place up

This is another one of my biggest issues walking into ANY store.  Dive centers need to be welcoming and a place people want to hang out.  Dust your displays, put tanks and rentals where they belong, vacuum your carpet or sweep your floor and for the love of God, keep a clean bathroom.  Potential customers may lose confidence in you if you are perceived to be disorganized.  No matter how good of an instructor you think you may be, messiness and dirt only make consumers think of one thing, “I don’t really care”.  Remember, you are the person they NEED to trust to survive through this ordeal.  They will be expecting someone organized and immaculate, and having an organized and neat store helps to show that.  Who would not think, “If he treats his store carefree like this, I wonder how he treats the rental equipment that I will be diving with.” Your store will be a reflection of your character to them –right or wrong.

Train your staff

Your store needs to be welcoming, and having a welcoming staff is a HUGE part of that.  If they aren’t welcoming, then it doesn’t matter how awesome, organized, or clean your store looks – you’ll be known as the store with the “attitude”.  First things first – say, “Hello.”  I don’t care if you are with another customer or on a call – I want to be acknowledged as I walk in the door.  It is perfectly alright to say, “I will be with you in a moment, please feel free to look around.”  Make sure there is a professional look to them as well, no, I do not mean three-piece suits – you can wear shorts and a t-shirt and not look like a slob.

All right, now that we have gotten Business 101 essentials out of the way – let’s get to the science of retail and how you can improve your store based on studies by experts on the subject matter.

Display the “WANTS” and not the “NEEDS

 People will buy what they need because, well, they need it.  I go to the gas station to buy gas because I need it and end up buying a chocolate bar because I “want” it.  Take this to the next level, understanding that customers are happiest when buying what they want – not what they need (they are going to buy that anyway, aren’t they? So why display it?)  Display the shiny, the expensive, the cool and the awesome up front.  This is what you want to promote and this is what you want to push.  People want to buy things – but they don’t all know it just yet.  Let your most prominent displays tell them.

The best place to display “needs” is at the checkout counter.  Use this opportunity as a reminder before they hand over their credit card that they may need defogger for tomorrow’s dive.

Switch it up

Make changes in your store regularly.  I know several stores that prevent things from going stale by making monthly changes.  A new product comes in, put this here and move that there and display this over there.  It is a good rule of thumb to promote new items up front so your customers can see them easier – don’t hide them.  Always try to feature your high-end new arrivals in your displays when making changes.

Have the catchy displays at the front of the store so you can get them to slow down – rather than have them walk in and out.  Catch their attention right from the get-go but beware – don’t clutter.  A few simple items on display means, “These are special”.  You will notice Tiffany will do this.

Linda Cahan of Cahan & Co, “Just like your eyes are the windows of your soul, store windows are the eyes of the store,” she says. “Each window should tell a story.”

Silent Salesman is “king” to getting your customers to ask you questions

Proper signs help you communicate with your customers, sometimes better than sales people.  For starters, put prices on EVERYTHING.  Don’t make them have to come up and ask you.

Let your silent salesmen sell promotion, educate customers on products on display and announce special events like trips.  Don’t use markers and paper to make your signs – that is appropriate for your kid’s lemonade stand.  Put some effort in it to make the signs so appealing to the eye, that people will actually read them.   Now that they are reading them, be sure to list the benefits and not just features.  Signs listing specs that aren’t connected to a tangible user benefit are meaningless.

A course flowchart among your educational equipment is the perfect way to get a conversation started on continuing education.

Signs to avoid?   “Do not touch”.  Embrace your customer’s interaction with the products you sell.  Having a customer touch a regulator is one step closer to them wanting it.  Customers love to be engaged.

Have a nice floor plan

Not all stores are the same and not all are the same size.  If you can apply the following to your store – great; do it.  People want to be led but not pushed.  Like IKEA, try and create that path for them.

Steer your customers to the right.  Why?  Brian Dyches, chief experience officer of retail branding firm Ikonic Tonic tells us that most people naturally look left, then right when entering a store.  Ever notice major shopping centers have a nice bright display of floral products, free samples and specials on the right?  People also prefer to walk counter-clockwise so you are immediately making them do what they wanted with your encouragement making the first steps of their buying process one that “feels right”.

Stores with limited spaces sometimes fail to put an ending at the end of an aisle, leading them nowhere but the bathroom or a stockroom.  You can fix this with a nice display or a promotion.

Creating “breaks” can really help slow customers down as well.  Long uninterrupted areas of product after product can really get boring and about 20% of your products may get skipped over.  A nice center piece with an attractive display can get a customer to stop and say to themselves, “Wait, what’s this awesomeness?  I think I want to know more about this.”

Display products in a way that makes sense

 Let’s start by displaying vertically, rather than horizontally. How far to the left and then to the right do you want to move while looking for that thing?  People can comfortable survey a visual field about 2.5 ft wide.  So if you display vertically, you can enhance the scope of your customers range.  If you make the area too wide, believe me, they will walk away missing a lot simply because – well, laziness.

Make the scope a natural progression by displaying left to right and top to bottom right between knee level and just above eye level.  Primarily, your audience will read from left to right it only makes sense that we naturally display items in this direction.  Try putting some smaller items on top with the larger ones on the bottom.

Many people ask me, “Where should the most expensive items go on a display?”  There are two schools of thought on this matter and based on size, available space, and product you can: A; put items left to right starting with least expensive to most expensive or B; Have the most expensive items on top and lesser expensive items below.  I prefer method B.  Do you know who else uses this method?  Liquor stores.  Top shelf brands are on the…you guessed it, top shelf.  Bacardi has a sales consultant that will actually walk into the liquor store and advise the owners on product placement usually putting their high-end products at eye level or just above.


I love good lighting.  I have my back yard the way I want it with a light up this tree and another aimed at these bushes over there and the ambiance is very calming.   Do not underestimate the power of good lighting.  Keep your display lit.  If the display is dark and good lighting is not available, move it to an area with better ambient light or take the risk of having the message you are trying to convey get missed.

Consider accent lighting on the products you want to focus on.  Sean Hennessy, a lighting designer and consultant says, “You always want the product to have the greatest amount of focus.  What makes an interesting space is having different lighting on different levels.”  Ambient light alone won’t help those displays distinguish themselves from anything else in the store.  Try to make an effort to point out the products you want your customers to see by allowing them to stand out through the use of good lighting.

Try following these tips to get started.  Over the course of 2017 you will find more articles really nailing down specific areas in which you can improve.  Remember, change is good – keep things fresh and current. Today, consumers like shopping online, it isn’t your fault – it is the way we do things now.  It is the way consumers prefer to shop.  However, what we can do is to learn how to make our store warmer, friendlier and more appealing than our competitors.  Our goal is to make the consumer stay there longer and while he is there, give him the opportunity to learn more about what you can do for them and what you can offer through proper signage and lay-outs while providing an awesome user experience making them not have to regret having to come back in the near future.

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