Retailers have long used visual merchandising to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their inventory and drive sales since the 19th century, but technological changes in 2018 are revolutionizing the ways that retailers produce and disseminate images of their products to shoppers. In many ways, the old paradigm of “inspirational visual merchandising” is reaching the end of its useful lifespan, and retailers are signing on to a new paradigm that promises them reduced marketing costs, more targeted marketing opportunities, and the opportunity to deliver a true omnichannel experience for shoppers.
In this guide, we’re breaking down the most important trends that are changing visual merchandising in 2018. We’ll look at traditional visual merchandising and how it has manifested throughout the last 50 years of retail before highlighting the latest trends in technology that are shaking up the retail industry. Will your company adapt – or get left behind?
What is Visual Merchandising?
On a broad scale, visual merchandising means optimizing the aesthetics of the customer experience – incorporating catalog items with in-store displays to create visual appeal and trigger sales. Fashion retailers use visual merchandising to present inventory in their physical stores and through other media and sales channels, including e-commerce outlets, social media, and e-mail advertising.
At its core, what visual merchandising tries to do is present products in a context that is both aspirational and inspirational for the customer. Products can be visually merchandised on their own but presenting groups of products together in the same display, or as part of an outfit, allows retailers to create a deeper and more meaningful brand identity that connects with its target customers.
Visual merchandising is used to tell increasingly rich stories about the lifestyle and brand image associated with a specific product. Effective visual merchandising continuously establish a brand image that followers of that brand can aspire to, and automatically associates the lifestyle on display with the brand’s own products.
What are the Mediums of Visual Merchandising?
High-quality visuals play a major role in driving retail sales, and everyone from the grocer who puts the freshest apples at the top of the pile to the fisherman who puts the day’s biggest catch on display understands that.
Before retailers could feature their products in print ads for magazines, most visual merchandising was done in the physical store. Merchants would construct elaborate and ornate displays around their products to attract shoppers – the same way that clothing retailers use mannequins in their front windows to entice shoppers with featured outfits for the seasons.
Popular fashion designers created “fashion plates”, full-spread magazine ads featuring rows of models wearing the designer’s clothing. Later, designers would create “look books” – collections of photographs that featured items from their latest clothing line and showed readers how to style them. Some retailers release large catalogs, full of visually merchandised selections from their stock arranged to maximize aesthetic appeal.
Visual merchandising also happens for print and magazine advertisements, flyers, billboards, and television commercials. Each visual is designed to feature curated items from the retailer’s selection and to present a compelling brand image to prospective buyers.
Changes in technology over the past decade have opened new channels for retailers to advertise their products and engage with customers. Retailers can now reach their customers with e-mail advertisement, on social media with either paid advertisements or through their own platform, and with e-commerce websites where customers can shop as an alternative to visiting their local bricks-and-mortar store. These new channels are presenting some of the most exciting opportunities for retailers to utilize new visual merchandising technology to expand their appeal to customers.
What Challenges are Associated with Traditional Visual Merchandising?
While traditional visual merchandising methods have continuously evolved to do a better job at attracting customers, retailers still face challenges and limitations when it comes to effectively representing their brands through visual merchandising. Some of the key issues are:
Visual Merchandising at Scale is Cost Prohibitive
Curating individual outfits and arranging them in a context that delivers a compelling brand narrative is a costly process to replicate at scale. As a result, retailers must carefully choose what items they want represented in marketing materials, and a retailer might feature just 50 or 100 items in its visually merchandised marketing material from an inventory that contains thousands of items.
Merchandised Visuals Lack Targeting and Personalization
Retailers have used several mass market mediums to get the word out to customers about looks for the new season, but retailers have never had a meaningful way to target their advertisements more specifically. In the past, a retailer might set up five mannequins in their storefront that show five different looks. Thousands of people walk by, and they all see the brand represented in the same way. The retailer buys a billboard ad with an image on it, and thousands of people all see the same image – there is a lack of personalization and a lack of targeting.
This untargeted “one to many” approach to visual merchandising means that while some people may see a brand narrative they relate to – many others do not.
The Newest Trends in Visual Merchandising for 2018
New technologies are starting to emerge that allow greater variety in how retailers can visualize their products for customers, especially using digital channels like e-commerce and e-mail marketing. Retailers are beginning to realize that in today’s competitive environment, it is no longer cost-effective to spend money on massive ad campaigns that try to generate a lot of press but do not directly connect with consumers.
Visual Merchandising is Now Possible at Scale
With applications like Stylitics, retailers can now visually merchandise every item in their catalogs automatically, 200x faster than it would take someone to do it manually. Products are databased visually and combined into outfits with other inventory items using a sophisticated styling algorithm. Instead of visually merchandising just 5% of their catalog, retailers have access to hundreds, or even thousands, of “outfits” containing each item in their clothing line. Technology is creating more variety in how visual merchandising happens, giving retailers access to more high-quality, compelling product visuals than before that they can use to target customers through multiple channels.
Integrated Visual Merchandising Keeps Marketing and Inventory in Sync
With traditional visual merchandising, the narrow range of items that made it into the retailer’s marketing would often sell out, leaving retailers stuck selling their unadvertised items only. The newest visual merchandising technologies link the company’s marketing to their inventory – out-of-stock items are automatically removed from the company’s marketing material and won’t be shown to prospective customers.
New Paradigm of Visual Merchandising Allows More Targeting and Personalization
Retailers are re-aligning their visual merchandising strategies towards capturing the needs, aspirations and lifestyles of individual customers by using the latest analytics tools to capture consumer data and visual merchandising software applications like to deliver targeted and personalized product recommendations.
By capturing data on individual consumers, retailers can target them with visually merchandised outfit and product offerings that are most compelling for them. Retailers are doing away with the “one to many” paradigm of traditional visual merchandising and using technology to target customers more specifically with offers and images that are more likely to trigger a sale.
Targeting can be based on size, past preferences, shopping history, or even remarketing items that the shopper has viewed in the past but showing the item in a different outfit that corresponds to an upcoming event that might trigger a purchase.
Visual Merchandising Technology Enables Omni Channel Experiences
The most successful retailers in 2018 are looking to integrating their sales channels, creating a smooth customer experience journey at every touch point. Visual merchandising technology is helping by broadening access to compelling visuals that retailers can use in their e-mail campaigns, social media channels, and on their e-commerce platform.
Retailers that successfully track customer behavior across each of the different touch points of their brand will be able to use data to deliver highly targeted advertising messages – and they’ll have the visual content needed to do so on a one-to-one, highly personalized basis.
Visual merchandising is going through a technological revolution in 2018. With retailers able to leverage enticing visuals of their products, coordinated into outfits at scale and for minimal cost, personalized and highly-targeted product recommendations are now a reality in the world of visual merchandising. Data capture is enabling retailers to track customer behavior throughout their brand interactions, enabling targeted advertisement and a seamless omnichannel experience. Stylitics is excited to be at the cutting edge of visual merchandising technology in 2018.