There’s always much talk about the future of visual merchandising but surprisingly little about the evolution of the role of the visual merchandiser. And that misconception is certainly one that still holds back the VM profession, its recognition and rewards. Let’s look at some key retail trends and see what the threats and opportunities are for visual merchandisers.
There’s always much talk about the future of visual merchandising but surprisingly little about the evolution of the role of the visual merchandiser. It’s almost as though beautiful stores happen by magic. And that misconception is certainly one that still holds back the VM profession, its recognition and rewards.
However, all markets and individual retailers are on a retail journey. The seas are choppy and rapidly changing and the flags of VM are firmly tied to this ship. So, let’s look at some key retail trends and see what the threats and opportunities are for visual merchandisers.
Ultimately there will be less stores. Omnichannel, economics and customer sentiment against mass consumption will ensure that. Not good for VM. However, the shops that evolve will be pure theatre and full of experiences and visual merchandising. It means that for those involved the recognition of their efforts should be greater.
On another positive note, the measures of store success are changing. Shops are being judged not only on commercial KPIs but increasingly on social popularity and reviews. Linking good display to sales has always been difficult. A few thousand 5-star ratings, enthusiastic customer feedback and a positive buzz for retail leaders about the store experience are more likely to help in the renumeration stakes.
So, for VM creatives the opportunities and rewards in a more theatrical world should be real enough.
The rise in online retail may not be just a threat for VM, despite its impact on reducing shop numbers. The visual requirements of the creatively intense online world, with its voracious appetite for imagery is an opportunity. Retailers need to coordinate brand visualisation across channels with product display at the centre.
Whilst online VM is in its infancy and still largely restricted to managing images, the logical evolution is for visual merchandisers to be at the heart of a creative omnichannel process distributed across channels. Visual merchandisers should be at the core of the business presenting single products and creating coordinated displays, guiding photoshoots and managing the output to websites, social media, and to other visual creatives in physical stores.
More enlightened brands are already putting VM at the beginning of the process and not at the end, as is traditional. This elevation in the hierarchy as well as the chronology will be good for the prestige as well as the pay packet of such VM specialists. As with all vocational occupations, from creatives to carers, there comes a time to choose between doing and managing. In visual merchandising there will be opportunities in the management side as well as the conceptual.
Changing dynamics and geographies are playing an important role in retail. Store numbers may become less dense but their management across growing regional and national boundaries will require visual management. The advancement of digital communications to stores, via tablets and digital screens, controls visual imagery but also facilitates remote training and display implementation. Already central VM experts can manage store VM not only be region but by store type, demographic and by visual strategy and intensity.
More responsibility and decision making should also come the way of VM. Physical stores increasingly need to keep pace with instant online trends and the whims of social influences. Visual merchandisers who understand the assortment and can react and respond with spontaneous creative solutions distributed and implemented quickly across a myriad of shops will be worth their weight in gold.
Substitute the tedious hours of travel for the intense interaction with dynamic store experiences. Of course, promotion and payment are strongly linked to the question of “who cares about VM in a retail business?” The classic organisation and hierarchy put sales and operations at the top table with the CEO. Its fair to say that VM is not in their daily conversations.
But the challenging retail landscape is forcing organisational changes.
Many more retailers will put marketing at the heart and the head of their businesses, with CMOs elevated to places of serious influence. Today’s enlightened CMO builds the company around the customer and ensures that the customer experience is prioritised in the boardroom. It is to be hoped that areas of the company such as customer service and visual merchandising, historically overlooked, will reap the rewards from this elevated perception.
Rewards both financial and philanthropic come from recognition of value and worth. Retail markets are moving from massconsumption to added-value. Roles that add value, from product design to product display, should be first in the new pecking order. Beneficiaries of the shift from sales & operations to marketing and experience.
So, hang on tightly to the masts of those ships sailing in the right direction. Maybe just maybe, visual merchandising will find its way to a new place of recognition and rewards. •
About Tim Radley
Tim is a retail professional specialising in the creation and development of omnichannel customer experiences. He collaborates with a wide variety of retailers, brands and service providers across Europe. In 2007, he founded VM-unleashed Ltd, to focus on delivering store experiences.