Visual Merchandising, like any other function within a retail business is having to adapt in response to the paradigm shifts that are occurring in the retail industry.

Those changes are becoming a revolution, not an evolution. What began with globalised supply chains, fast fashion, the advent of ecommerce, pureplay retail, has accelerated into social and rich media shopping, the re-thinking of the high street, through to every area of sustainability from recycling to re-sell, rental, repairs, and up-cycling.

All within the space of a few decades, where the biggest change now is the rate of change.

As with other retail functions VM cannot adapt and respond in isolation. This is not a matter of improving visual display itself.

A good place to begin is with the physical shop. The bastion of visual merchandising. The longer trend has been less shops as ecommerce takes it share, but the resurgence in the customer’s clear desire for physical shops after lockdowns is testament to the fact that less shops is not the only story in town.

The threat and opportunity for VM is how the role of the physical shop is changing. What is the purpose of a shop for the customer? This is where we find the real ramifications.

The role of the physical shop is no longer just about selling product. Best practice commercial retailers are using the space and the resources in other ways as they create ‘retail hubs.’ These are ‘focal points’ for the retailers themselves, for the customer, and for the local community around the physical shop.

The ‘Shopper Paradise’ will still be the priority for the majority of shops, with its role more inspirational and theatrical than ever. But it will be a smaller part of shops. The trend for many years has been less product, less options per square metre, and less square metres. Whichever way you look, the direction is for more visual merchandising theatre working with only the best products from the assortment.

This reduction in option numbers should also add some improved visual impact within the main display areas. With less colours, patterns, and clashing styles to fit in, hopefully better sell-through, and less remnants on the shop floor, this will allow for clearer, more authoritative blocking delivering a more ordered backdrop for those stand-out displays.

In the new ‘Shop of the Future’ the ‘Community Hub’ is growing in importance with more space set-aside to engage customers and build loyalty. The ’Collection Crossroads’ is the dedicated area also growing to serve the collections, returns and deliveries of the omni-channel customer. Where stockrooms of unsold products are replaced with storage for paid for purchases.

Increasingly all gross space can be commercialised and put to good purpose, from studios for online customer demonstrations, to meeting rooms for internal and community use, to desks for de-centralised ‘work at home’ colleagues.

There is a lot going on in today’s, ‘Shop of the future.’

This new incarnation of the physical shop has exciting opportunities for visual merchandisers to take their undoubted product enthusiasm beyond display.

I have rarely met an enthusiastic visual merchandiser, who wasn’t also an enthusiast of the products they work with, and the customers they try to please and inspire. Most are very adept and comfortable talking & demonstrating to customers the features, benefits, and the beauty of products.

Visual merchandisers are product people, but they are also categorically people people. You could not wish to find a more gregarious group of people. The ‘Craic’ at the recent ‘International Visual Display Conference’ in Dublin, lays testament to that.

Whilst most retailers are growing to realise the importance of the new ‘Community’ hub in their stores, it is not always as easy to work out how to engage and interact with the customer, and who should do it. For sports & fitness brands such as Sweaty Betty & Lululemon, rolling back the fixtures to make space for yoga lessons held by local instructors is an excellent initiative but for retailers without such a clear lifestyle opportunity, brands need to be a little more creative, and discover the skills and enthusiasm from within their own existing ranks.

Interactive workshops and customer activities, anything from lessons in how to dress, how to coordinate, how to make a fashion statement, how to ‘wear your wardrobe’, to teaching how to repair, to up-cycle to create new products from old. These are all well suited to visual merchandisers, who could drive traffic to shops, and inspire loyalty in customers.

Add to this the opportunity for visual merchandisers to evolve naturally into the role of stylist, the role of personal shopper, and even a one-to-one confident for special customers. Working across both the physical store with the physical customer, and via Zoom link from the shop’s personal video studio, or even into the homes of special customers.

There is a significant shift in how customers are dressing, the confidence that they have as individuals or through influencers to make their own decisions on what clothes to mix & coordinate. This is a more personal and spontaneous approach to styling and visual merchandising. It happens more on the body than in window displays or mannequins, and it relies less on a structured visual plan from buyers and merchandisers, and much more on the dynamic response of the customer community.

For visual merchandisers this is the opportunity to evolve from simply recreating guidelines from head-office teams to a more spontaneous approach, creating new and different looks for each shop profile, in situ, supported by daily sales figures, and inspired by the requests and conversations with customers. For many visual merchandisers who have been constrained in their creativity by corporate regulations and display rules, this potentially could unleash a wealth of inspiration for customers.

Does this sound exciting and fulfilling? How many visual merchandisers would be liberated and regenerated by the opportunity to work not only with mannequins, but also with real flesh & blood and the personalities inside them? How many retail CEOs would, and should, jump at the opportunity to increase their sales by allowing this important resource to inspire customers, generate revenue and build personal customer loyalty?

The pragmatic and short-sighted alternative is to simply manage chains of shops, each with less product, each with apparently less justification for dedicated visual merchandisers. The operational viewpoint, to spread their VM resources across more stores. More hours on the road and less on the shopfloor, more remote guidance than hands-on inspiration.

Would visual merchandisers themselves prefer to be spread cost-effectively across more stores? Or would they like to be embraced as a rich resource, that can bring shops, customers, and communities alive, and satisfy the new role of the physical shops, the need for retail brands to delight and transform in front of customers eyes, and to respond to their new dynamics and spontaneous customer lifestyles?

I have personally always viewed visual merchandisers as worth their weight in creative and commercial gold, but many hard-nosed retail businesses will think more pragmatically. In this new retail world, the old battle to convince boardrooms of the commercial value of visual merchandisers is set to continue with more passion and conviction than ever.