Effective Visual Merchandising

By using creative store displays, retailers are making a certain connection with potential customers, one that is long lasting and makes them more apt to make a purchase.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

Are you showing your wares as effectively as possible?

According to the Convenience Consumer Insights (cci) Panel, the first-of-its-kind mobile research panel designed by MSA and Paradigm Sample to capture purchase-decisions and attitudinal information among the 18-to-34-year-old segment, the majority of customers in this crucial age group spend less than five minutes shopping in a convenience store. That’s not a lot of time to make a memorable impression.

Armed with this knowledge, c-store operators need to see to it that displays and fixtures are neat, informative and easy to navigate—all while promoting higher margin impulse items.

“My goal at any store is to maximize categories in the space given,” said Amer Hawatmeh, president of St. George Oil in St. Louis, operator of six Coast to Coast convenience stores. “We’re focused heavily on category management. Anything that doesn’t turn on a weekly basis is gone. The industry has definitely changed in this regard, but it’s for the better.”

By viewing his store from the customer’s vantage point, Hawatmeh can more easily anticipate their needs. “I become the customer so I can see what the customer sees. If they see dust, I see dust,” he said. “So everything we are selling has to look good, be in stock and served at a competitive price.”

Hawatmeh remains as passionate as ever about getting as much inventory into the selling space as possible. He practices what he likes to call 3-D merchandising.

“Nothing in our stores goes above five feet, but most stores stock shelves and displays that are up to 10-feet high,” he said. “What we do to keep displays manageable is eliminate slow sellers and utilize the back wall, endcaps and hanging displays to maximize every square inch of the store. If there is a way to be creative in merchandising I’ll find it.”

For example, Hawatmeh said, a customer who wants a snack is going to go looking for it. “But if I’m going to try and sell a novelty item—like a pair of shoes that has roller skates built into them—I want that to be my endcap. It may cost me $10, but I’m selling it for $29.99, so three pieces will make me more than a whole Hostess rack. Because of the potential, we will stick that somewhere in the corner near the coffee.”
Coast to Coast stores have actually reduced the size of their gondolas, Hawatmeh reported, many by a third, from 12 feet to eight feet. That created a lot more walking space in which to merchandise product, thus maximizing consumer contact with it.

“What I did was start merchandising products from the door to the register area,” he said. “I try to put out as many things as people can reach. You know the old adage, if you knock it over, you buy it. That’s what I’m going after.”

Signage of the Times
Andrea Myers, executive vice president of Kocolene Marketing’s 12 Fast Max c-stores in Seymour, Ind., called herself a signage person. “I hate to see something in a store and not know what it costs,” she said.

Naturally, she also insists that all store employees know the prices on the items they sell, especially those on special. Keeping everything labeled correctly takes time and persistence.

“When I got out of college I studied the business under a guy who had a grocery store background,” Myers said. “He told me a story about the time he walked into a store with the owner of a grocery chain and there was an elegant display on the floor. It probably took the employee hours to build this one display. The owner asked the store manager, ‘Who built this display?’ and the manager told him, ‘Jimmy did.’ He called Jimmy over and said, ‘Jimmy, there’s something wrong with this display. I want you to take it all down.’ Jimmy didn’t understand, but said, ‘OK, sir,’ and disassembled the whole thing. A few hours later Jimmy goes back to the two men and the owner said, ‘Jimmy, I want you to rebuild that display, but this time I want you to put a sign on it.’ It taught the manager a lesson: a display can be pretty, but if it doesn’t have a sign on it—what the product is, how much is costs, etc.—it really doesn’t matter.”

Pointers and Passion
Hawatmeh said he sees c-store operators around the country making mistakes in merchandising that can be easily rectified. One of his pet peeves is what he called the cookie-cutter approach taken by most retail chains.

“Everything is in the same place in every store, no matter where you’re at. You’ve got to remember that neighborhoods change. Neighborhoods have different buying patterns and category managers need to pay attention to them,” Hawatmeh said. “Everybody puts their Twinkies in the same area on the planogram at the corporate level. There is something to be said about consistency, but there is also a case to be made for a store to generate its own personality in community.”

On the flip side, independent operators, Hawatmeh said, appear to give little thought at all to merchandising. “Half of these guys just put things wherever they fall out of their hands, it seems like. For the other half it’s not even well thought out. You don’t put lighters by the candy. You put lighters by the register, that type of thing.”

The vital component in effective merchandising, according to Hawatmeh, extends beyond displays, fixtures and attractive colors. It’s about the passion that the retailer brings to marketing their merchandise.

“I grew up with people telling me, ‘Amer, you’re too passionate,’ and I’ve always thought, What does that mean? How can anybody be too passionate? How do you love your family too much? How do you care about your business too little?” he said. “A lack of passion will transfer over to your customers, your way of life and define everything about you. If people aren’t willing to fight to protect their market share there are dozens of stores waiting to take their business.”

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