Posts in retail design
Get cracking for Christmas!
Image credit: Irene Van Der Poel 

Image credit: Irene Van Der Poel 

How early is too early to start discussing Christmas? As most store owners will have ordered in their Christmas stock at the height of summer, hopefully the end of September won’t seem too offensive. The spirit of local High Street shopping is community focussed and often something of an antidote to the giants of retail that start the silly season before the last fireworks of Bonfire Night have fizzled out. As a result it isn't uncommon for indies to shun introducing Christmas to stores until as ‘late’ as 1st December. 

Whenever you choose to succumb to Christmas, if you haven’t yet started planning your festive windows and in-store displays then now is absolutely the time. Here’s a few ideas to get you started. 

Stand out with unusual colour schemes

Red and green is THE traditional Christmas combo, but there are a many more that signify the season just as effectively. Layers of whites, with perhaps a hint of sparkle, is perhaps the second most common sort of snowy Christmas colour scheme. Gold or silver are obvious contenders too. Orange would be an unusual choice that could work well, being evocative of clove stuffed orange pomanders, or indeed the real thing. Navy blue and white is a smart combination that is reminiscent of a clear, wintery, starry night sky. Luxurious purple with gold is decadent, slightly frivolous and richly festive. For a contemporary and fun feel, try a variation on the traditional red and green theme by using hot pink and turquoise with white.


Less or More

Sometimes more is more, sometimes less is more, but half way in between will always look half-hearted. So whether you choose to go minimal with a graphic, simple design or maximal with a jam-packed window, make sure you really go for it to get the most impact from your visual statement.


Cheap and cheerful 

To keep on top of your VM budget, you could raid the loft for vintage decorations and toy collections, that might have been forgotten about, to make a unique and delightfully nostalgic display. Another advantage of reusing like this is avoiding buying new decorations, which are not always produced in the most long-lasting or environmentally friendly way.

If you already have a go-to stash of Christmas display goodies, you can certainly reuse them each year (or every other on rotation to avoid repetition) but by pairing with something different, borrowed or new you can make make fresh schemes each time.

images from Pinterest - click to view my VM inspiration boards

images from Pinterest - click to view my VM inspiration boards


Trash the tinsel

Even with the most careful handling, tinsel doesn't often last well for repeated use. Made from plastic nowadays, unless it can be reused multiple times it is an environmental no-no. Every bit as bad as that, it is also the laziest most obvious way to say Christmas in a store. But life is too short to go without a little sparkle altogether, so consider other ways to introduce shimmer and shine. Biodegradable glitter, confetti and sequins all now exist to make the world a better place. Shiny metal cookie cutters in star or tree shapes and so on are also brilliant, inexpensive and reusable.


Go Trad

Real life greenery is utterly charming, authentically traditional and can be used in endless ways to make a display. Fill a window with fronds, use branches to make a dress for a mannequin, suspend branches and dangle decorations or products from it, hang a selection of leaves with different coloured ribbons, the choice is yours. Biodegradable to boot, you won’t have a guilty conscience, and you’ll certainly turn heads. 


The Power of Paper: Greener Visual Merchandising

Developing a Corporate Social Responsibility plan might seem like a tall order for many independent retailers. But CSR is not just for the big boys in business, and can help even the smallest of businesses become more environmentally and financially sustainable. Visual Merchandising is the perfect area of business for retailers of all sizes to start streamlining, because displays are rarely used twice. Creating new props, set pieces and baffles from plastic or foamex every season is becoming increasingly irresponsible, and is certainly not cost-effective for smaller stores.

Committing to reducing the use of disposable plastic is just one step that all businesses should now be taking to reduce their carbon footprint. Fortunately there are plenty of sustainable alternatives to plastic for making impressive window spectacles.

Paper is the single most virtuous of materials for making window displays. The ultimate renewable resource, paper is incredibly versatile and available in myriad different textures, patterns and finishes. You can paint it. You can punch holes in it. From the simplest bunting to complex origami, the possibilities for design with paper are literally endless. 

Paper can also be very cheap or even free to source. Reusing and repurposing old magazines, newspapers, maps, music sheets and so on will always win extra ‘green’ points, as will using recycled paper. These types of paper will not suit every brand or window story of course, so the next best place to find paper is your local scrap store. They may have larger scale off cuts or end of line rolls of different papers for you to fashion into decorative displays without leaving a big environmental footprint.

The easiest way to use paper to make a design statement is to cut out simple shapes from a template and suspend them in the windows, ideally using clear nylon thread. Inaccurately or roughly cut shapes will instantly look unprofessional of course, so take care or delegate to someone with patience. With this kind of display more is usually more, so make plenty. 

To tap into the sculptural potential of paper you can experiment with folding, fringing, curving and curling - simply run the edge or a ruler or scissor blade along a strip of paper like a florist curling ribbon. Secure shapes with staples, staple pliers, double sided tape, sticky pads, or glue. Play with light and shadow by punching or cutting holes or other shapes to the paper, adding a further layer or detail to your display.

Construct larger shapes or even set pieces using boxes or rolled-up wadges of corrugated card (sourced from your own empty delivery boxes of course). Cover with paper maché which is, in case it has been a long time since you did this at primary school, simply a mixture of paper and glue that applied to cardboard shapes to make a hard surface. You can texture it too by adding sand, rice, lentils or textiles depending on what you are trying to achieve. For a smoother finish, layer it up neatly, and lacquer it with water-based acrylic varnish for a glossy effect. 

If you still need convincing that paper is better for your windows than plastic there is plenty of inspiration to be found on my Pinterest Board.


How to VM (and actually sell) ugly products

Showcasing your actual product stock in your shop windows is the most cost-effective way to create a window display. It signals unambiguously and efficiently to customers exactly what can be found in store, but not all retailers are blessed with selling pretty products that easily make great window displays. This makes visual merchandising much more tricky for purveyors of the more humdrum, everyday essentials that are unremarkable, or even ugly, to look at. The last thing you want to do as a small business is go to the trouble of making a banal window display that is easily overlooked or, conversely, spend a lot of money on specially made props and set pieces to compensate for the unattractiveness of the products. Luckily, with a little creativity and imagination there are several ways to make a resourceful and striking display, even with using the most dull items.

It can be tempting to show off everything you sell in the window, particularly if you stock many and varied product lines, but this usually leads to a messy melange. Less is usually more when selecting product varieties for a display, to keep the message clear, concise and give it a curated look. If you think of a window display as a theatre stage, ordinarily there would be one star of the show, and a supporting cast. So use this metaphor to help you choose one product to be the focal point of your shop’s show. Give this one pride of place, centre stage. The leading role is nothing without the help of his or her supporting actors, so pick another two products (maximum) to make up the rest of the cast. Display these around the main character, making sure the emphasis is on the star. 

Another visual merchandising technique that has great impact is repetition. Although an under used device in window displays, repetition can be very effective at attracting attention. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Tins are a great Pop Art example of this. It is worth emulating and very easy to achieve whether you sell soup, scissors, spanners or shoes. Simply choose one product and display duplicates of it, adding nothing else to avoid diluting the potency of the image. If the same product is available in different colour variations then creating a kaleidoscopic rainbow effect is just as good as using one colour throughout. Another variation on this technique is to use all one colour except for just one box or item in a different colour. There are multiple ways to install the products from suspending on string or clear thread, or stacking up to placing on shelves or plinths. The best and easiest display method may depend on the type of product you choose, and whether you keep it boxed or unboxed. Every month or 6 weeks you can simply choose another item to repeat throughout the window, and hopefully get people wondering about what you will choose to show next time.

The third way to make a virtue of ugly product displays is to set a scene and tell a story, because this is what really gets people talking. If you can make people laugh, you are definitely on to a winner. For example, a store selling household products could stack up packets of toilet paper rolls, and unwrap and unroll a quantity of the rolls to make a deliberate, carefully placed mess - as if the dog or kids have created chaos then disappeared. A witty caption could be written on to the window, or a series of doggy footprints on the floor. This would be enough to help explain the scene and hint at the story, as opposed to just leaving a pile of unexplained loo roll everywhere.

This sort of humorous ‘whodunnit’ style tableaux can also work with a pyramid stack of tins or boxes that has been partially knocked over by a mystery pet / child / elf / etc that has disappeared leaving just a clue to their guilt. Simply change the stacked items and the clumsy character to change the story. Pyramid stacks are not overly practical in small shops for obvious safety reasons, and have long been the source of calamity jokes on TV adverts.  However, there is no harm in referencing this in window displays, particularly where customers can’t reach them to get hurt or damage your stock.

You may well think of better stories and ideas that are more appropriate to your particular brand. If cashflow does not permit getting a freelance Visual Merchandiser onboard, you can always get your staff involved with brainstorming and installing the ideas, which will have the added bonus of making them feel valued provided you reward their contributions. 

*This article written by Zoe Hewett first appeared on* 

5 Instant upgrades for your VM that cost under £10

1. Here Comes The Sun

Some stores will be more affected than others by the damage caused by strong sunlight, depending on which side of the street they are located, the direction of the road and the surrounding buildings. But it is worth being alert to this easily avoided problem, especially as it costs nothing. Faded posters and notices quickly make stores look old and neglected. This is no good in the fast paced retail industry where everything needs to constantly look up to date and fresh. Any product displayed in the windows will also be vulnerable to sun damage, so be sure to keep an eye, and rotate displays more frequently if necessary. Even if you markdown ex-display products it will be difficult to sell them at all if they have been baking in the sunlight for too long. Avoid cladding the windows in yellow cellophane at all costs, as it is incredibly dated and obscures the view in to your treasures. Instead, consider delegating to shop assistants a weekly check for any items that need removing or replacing.

2. Don’t get personal

People buy from people, it’s true, but personal clutter on and around the service counter of a shop diminishes professionalism, and can detract from the brand image. The charm of independent stores is that they are unique, so of course it is very important to inject plenty of character into retail premises. However; the place where transactions are carried out should be free from family photos, novelty pens, toys or other personal knick-knacks. It can be difficult to get the balance right between personality and the personal, but generally speaking it is best to avoid resembling cluttered desk booths that have been made cosy by open plan office staff. It can seem over-familiar. The emphasis should be not on you, but on your customer.

3. Quit using blue tack

Although blu tack is a quick and easy way to fix important notices to glass door panes and windows, it is by no means the most attractive option. It can very easily look messy, amateurish and as though no effort has been made to keep a presentable front. Professionally produced window stickers may seem hard to justify when cashflow is slow, or if only a temporary message is required, so a better solution to blu-tack or sellotape is transparent sticky glue dots. Available in permanent or repositionable strength, they are made by Bostik, Pritt and Scotch among others so inexpensive and easy to source. Being clear they won’t clash with any brand colours, and will create a more sophisticated finish than your neighbours still using those ugly blue blobs.

4. Handwriting is an art

Unless you happen to be a keen calligrapher, avoid hand writing notices, as all-too-often they look horribly unprofessional. When you have a quick message write or one-day special offer to promote it can seem like a chore to print out a half-decent sign from the computer. It would be a waste of money to have these professionally printed, and of course hand written signs do have character and charm. However; unless written by someone with truly beautiful handwriting and using a good choice of pen and paper, it is a wasted effort. Scratchy biros and nearly-dead marker pens are not a good look, but if embracing the handwritten would suit your brand then here are some tips to help you succeed. Chalk written messages on blackboards are currently very in vogue, but are also classic so will always look stylish. Available in any size, chalkboards have a place inside and out. The right typography can change the tone of the message to match your brand image. Even the least artistic person can make a beautiful sign by printing out the words needed in the right size to make a template. Cover the back of the paper in chalk, then tape it in position on the board. Draw over the words with a soft tipped pencil to make a transfer of the letters, then remove the paper and fill in the text on the board with map chalk or a chalk pen. If that’s too much bother, delegate it to one of the team, and if chalk doesn’t fit the store image, download and install some suitable free stock fonts from the web to use in making your own DIY printed paper signs. Use the same typefaces to unify your logo, storefront signage, POS graphics and pricing to create a professional, cohesive look. It will be worth the effort.

5. Spring Clean Regime

Spring is great time for maintenance around the home, and shops are no exception. Even if your regular cleaner is committed and conscientious, your shop will love you back after a really deep clean and a thorough maintenance inspection. Go over every square inch with a fine tooth comb looking for wear and tear, and make a list of any dirty, dusty corners, grubby shelves or cabinets, broken light bulbs, out of date info notices, prices, offers, ads etc. Delegate this task if you are too busy, and ensure everything on the list is actioned. It is amazing what grime you can notice when browsing a store as a shopper; details that people who spend everyday in-store would easily miss.  Residue from sticky pads, double sided tape and sky hooks is ugly and always makes stores look particularly unloved, so invest in a bottle of Sticky Stuff Remover, and get rid of all trace as part of your Spring Clean regime. 


Shine a light: the impact of lighting on your store

Lighting is one of the most important elements of retail store design and can have a substantial impact on sales. You can create beautiful product displays, but if they aren’t lit properly, all that work goes to waste. Balancing the practicalities of displaying your merchandise with atmosphere and dramatic impact can be a challenge, so here are some of the basics of retail lighting design.



Lighting is likely to be one of your biggest investments in terms of store design. It’s estimated that 43% of your energy costs are likely to go on lighting, and that’s after your initial investment in any kind of lighting rig. But scrimp on this design element and you could be compromising sales if merchandise isn’t displayed to best advantage.


Ambient lighting

Choosing the level of ambient light – the general light in the store – is crucial. Compare a brightly lit a pound shop or branch of Primark to the warm, welcoming low light of a luxury boutique and it’s clear how different light levels send different brand messages. Brighter isn’t always better, and low light can indicate a premium brand, but it’s crucial to balance this with merchandise display. If you have low ambient light levels, how will you light displays to keep the focus on your product?


Task lighting

Task lighting highlights areas of the shop that perform functions – cash desks, changing rooms, help desks. It helps customers orientate themselves in store and lights the area so that particular task can be performed effectively.


Decorative lighting

Decorative lighting is additional lighting that creates a particular atmosphere in store. It might add to the ambient light, but its main function is visual impact.

Accent lighting

Accent lighting is used in conjunction with ambient lighting to highlight displays. The fittings required will depend on your merchandise. Mannequin displays will require a wider beam to highlight than a display of jewellery.

In this Diesel store, low ambient light, accent lighting and decorative lighting are combined to create a treasure-trove feel to this display.

In this Diesel store, low ambient light, accent lighting and decorative lighting are combined to create a treasure-trove feel to this display.

Using natural light

Retailers are increasingly incorporating natural light into their visual merchandising. Department stores like Macy’s that traditionally covered windows entirely with displays are opening them up again to bring in light from outside. Natural light makes shoppers feel good and displays merchandise colour accurately.

Consider how you moderate natural light to deal with very sunny or overcast days and how you’ll light the store at night. One option is to use a thin curtain material that lets through light but cuts out bright sunshine. You can also balance out natural light with lamps to even the overall effect and avoid silhouettes. Some lighting systems offer sensors that will adjust lamps as the light level outside changes.

Natural light is used to bring out the contrast of natural tones and bold colours in this display at the Revival store in Chattanooga, USA.

Natural light is used to bring out the contrast of natural tones and bold colours in this display at the Revival store in Chattanooga, USA.


Lamps have individual colour tones that give different effects in an overall lighting scheme. The Colour Rating Index (CRI) of a lamp measures its ability to display colours accurately compared to natural light; the lower the rating, the more accurately colours are displayed. A low CRI would be appropriate to changing rooms where customers want to view a garment as it will appear outside the store.


Flexible Systems

Ideally, your lighting system should be flexible so that you can redirect lights depending on your displays. A track system with adjustable lamps allows you to combine flood fittings that give an ambient light to the whole store with spot fittings for highlighting particular areas.

Track systems are a substantial investment, but at the very least you should ensure you have the ability to highlight key displays and attractive merchandise separately from the ambient light.


Alternatives to Lighting

We’ve covered using windows for natural light, but you can also bounce around more light with mirrors and reflective surfaces. Your colour scheme will also have an impact on how your lighting design works.


This is a guest post courtesy of Modern Retail.





Image Credits:

“Fashion boutique decorative lighting”: Brobbel Interieur,

“Lighting installation at Diesel Denim Gallery, Tokyo”: Diesel,

“Petit Bateau store”: Zisla Tortello, 

“Revival, Chattanooga”: Revival,

“A Frame lighting rig”: Dezeen,