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History 101: What is Visual Merchandising in Retail?

More than floor plans and eye-catching decorations, visual merchandising contributes to a brand’s storytelling. Especially in the retail industry, visual merchandising is an essential practice to bring more foot traffic and increase sales. Its purpose is to attract shoppers into the store with powerful window displays, and then maintain engaging customer experience with in-store display and layouts to encourage a purchase or—better yet—convince them to be loyal and returning customers. 

In retail, visual merchandising is a creative and commercial practice. Like any form of science and creative, visual merchandising is full of history. It is the retail practice we know now because of how time and history shaped it. From simple traders’ business of displaying products to attracting consumers’ attention, visual merchandising turned into a sale-converting element of retail. Types of visual merchandising become more evident. Visual merchandising techniques become more complex and scientific. And as it evolved, there are more benefits of visual merchandising that retailers can have.

But how did visual merchandising evolve? And, what does it mean for the retail industry?

The Evolution of Visual Merchandising

In the early days, there were no types of visual merchandising. It was just about selling. Visual merchandising displays were all about traders simply telling people that they were available for business. It was only a direct form of communication between the buyer and the seller.

To put it simply, visual merchandising was synonymous with bartering. Imagine sellers with their products on the streets, displaying it on plain carts and stalls. During this period, one of the visual merchandising techniques was the practice of displaying the most attractive product upfront. In that sense, the core purpose of visual merchandising hasn’t changed that much.

This early and archaic type of visual merchandising changed in the early 1800s, but it only evolved into cluttered factory-like outlets. Retail in the 1800s was only about merchandise and selling. Stores operated without organized plans; visual merchandising wasn’t a priority. Back then, the benefits of visual merchandising weren’t obvious to retailers.

Then, a shift happened during the middle of the 1800s. This was the birth of technology and window displays. In the book, Visual Merchandising, Tony Morgan explains how the production of large panes of glass and the industrial technology changed the retail game. It opened so many possibilities for retailers. And this started the retail industry we know now:

“Harrods opened in London in 1849 as a small shop selling groceries, perfume and stationery, and grew to become the renowned department store it is today. Mitsukoshi, Tokyo’s leading department store, was established even earlier, in 1673, as a kimono specialist. Its innovation was the concept of bringing the customer to a store rather than selling from door to door.”

Morgan continues, telling the story of Le Bon Marché and the start of department stores that led to the modern-day designs of window and in-store display:

“It is the department store, with its huge array of merchandise and vast amount of window space, that is the pioneer of the window display. A relatively recent phenomenon, it first began in France. Even there, however, for many years department stores existed only in the capital, Paris. It was Aristide Boucicaut who first had the idea of setting up this kind of store. He wanted to create a shop designed to sell all sorts of merchandise, but also wanted to attract crowds of people who could wander freely about in a little “town within the town”. In 1852 Boucicaut opened the world’s first department store: Le Bon Marché.”

Visual Merchandising and Today’s Retail                                      

Now, visual merchandising goes beyond the window and in-store displays. Practiced both in retail spaces and e-commerce, it has evolved into a form of marketing. Its core value of attracting customers is expressed in different forms, from high-tech window displays to pop-up stores to e-commerce. Visual merchandising is not only a concept but turned into a science that has rules and techniques that can be learned and altered.

Recently, pop-up stores become a new model of retail. Using exclusivity and limited promos, it explores the idea of giving a new experience to retail shopping, hence improving customer experience. Like pop-up stores, brand activations is an innovative practice of visual merchandising. It gives a whole new meaning to visual merchandising. These new expressions highlight the importance of experience and storytelling to form a more solid relationship between a seller and buyer.

Putting importance to customer relationship has shaped the evolution of visual merchandising. Looking at how visual merchandising continues to grow gives retailers an idea of how to innovate their visual merchandising techniques. History teaches us by learning from people’s practices and mistakes. It reprograms our creativity to bring more innovation.

And what you can learn from this history lesson?

To grow means recognizing the needs of your customers; to be creative means looking into your customer’s perspective, and to evolve means creating more.

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