2018-05 9 Reasons Your In-Store Retail Displays Aren’t Working — and What to Do Instead

Francesca Nicasio Vend

One of the major differences between brick-and-mortar and ecommerce retail is the ability (or inability) to create a physical customer-product interaction.

2018-05 9 Reasons Your In-Store Retail Displays Aren’t Working — and What to Do Instead

In-store retail displays allow you to draw attention to specific merchandise, round out the immersive in-store experience, and flex your creative muscles.

In-store retail displays play a crucial role in driving conversions. Window displays alone influence 24% of purchases, according to NPD Group. And that’s before shoppers walk into your store: Imagine the impact of displays once they’re inside?

Despite the opportunity that retail displays provide, many stores are still overlooking this important selling tool. Below, we’ll dive into nine reasons why your in-store retail displays aren’t working and what to do instead.

Why your in-store retail displays aren’t working

1. They’re one-dimensional

One common mistake that retailers make is creating a one-dimensional display that lacks depth and height, a couple of the most important characteristics for appealing visuals. Whether it’s monochromatic or features products of the same height, this in-store display mistake could make your products and your store appear dull and boring.

What to do instead

Vary the visual elements; add height, color or depth where possible. If your products are the same size, put some on pedestals, or hang them from the ceiling as in the example above.

Sustainable goods retailer United By Blue partnered with Oxford Pennant (one of their vendors) on a month-long pop-up shop in their flagship store.

It was a great concept, but the main challenge was that the products on display were pennants. These items were flat, and posed unique challenges, especially when it comes to physical displays. Dan Taylor, omni-channel merchandiser at United By Blue, was up for the challenge.

“I really focused on giving the setup 360-degree shopability and building in enough visual drama to keep customers engaged,” Taylor says. They nested a 4-foot table into a 7.5-foot live-edge walnut slab table to hold the display, along with a “vintage industrial platform.”

“Along with the table cluster, I added a matte black metal hang rack that allowed me to add more height but also show some of the same product in a different way, and be shopped from the back,” Taylor describes. “Above that rack, I hung product from the ceiling, effectively giving the cluster five different levels.”

“All of this culminated in one of the most unique setups and successful retail activations in our flagship store.” – Dan Taylor, omni-channel merchandiser at United By Blue

A mannequin with a custom-embroidered jacket advertising the pop-up and hand-drawn graphics on the pop-up windows rounded out the display.


With 250 pop-up attendees, the in-store display saw more engagement than most of the store’s previous pop-ups and regular store displays. The display contributed to a 155% month-over-month increase in sales.

2. They’re too busy and distracting

Sometimes, less is more. But it’s easy to overdo it with your in-store displays. “Simple is best,” says Greg Corey, founder and principal at retail design agency Porchlight. “Oftentimes there is so much information that the space becomes cluttered and overwhelming.”

Whether it’s because of various team members’ conflicting input, lack of clear vision, or something else altogether, adding too much to a display can distract from its ultimate purpose: to drive sales.

“In some cases, the retailer immediately turns the shopper away before they have even sparked interest in the item by making the display unapproachable,” Corey says.

What to do instead

Establish a focal point for your display: If there’s one thing in your display that you want every passerby to see, what is it? Then design your display around that. “It’s best to narrow your focus and pull out key attributes that consumers can pick up on from at least six feet away and be drawn to learn more,” says Corey.

Check out this display at Elevator, an accessories and jewelry store in Toronto. Notice how they put the focal point principle to good use by choosing to highlight just one item (their scarves) and laying out the rest beneath it.

3. They’re complicated to execute

While we may have grand, creative ideas, they’re not always realistic. There are logistics that every retailer must account for, including but not limited to budget, staffing, and timelines. “Displays are on and off the floor in a matter of weeks to make room for new products,” says Corey.

“Another challenge is electrical. Electrical doesn’t always run to the middle of the store,” Corey points out. “So when you have displays that are in the dead-zone, there’s no way to incorporate video displays or backlit displays.”

What to do instead

It’s best to anticipate logistical challenges and design your displays around those circumstances. “As designers, we have to build the displays with low cost, non-permanent features because they will likely be shuffled around or damaged during relocation,” Corey advises.

You can also get creative around those challenges. In small storefronts especially, space is extremely valuable. And retail displays take up that valuable space. Denver’s Bouzy Wine & Spirits designed its displays to allow for better functionality and use of space. Their custom-made floor fixtures have wheels and a curved design that makes it easy for the retailer to reposition them to make more room on the floor.

Chocolate brand jcoco also made their retail displays multi-functional. They hosted a pop-up shop in Washington’s The Bellevue Square shopping center and needed to find a way to maximize the space but also keep the pop-up fresh (as is the nature for pop-ups). Everything was easy to disassemble and reassemble, plus it offered additional storage for merchandise.

4. They don’t reflect your price point

Linda Cahan, retail visual merchandising and design consultant says one major miss for retailers is not respecting price point designing your displays. “Space equals cost,” she says. “If you have expensive merchandise, people will understand that if there’s actually some space between the items.”

“People don’t want to feel like they’re bargain basement shopping and then see a price tag for $400.” – Linda Cahan, retail visual merchandising and design consultant

Cahan recalls a shoe store that disregarded price point in relation to visual merchandising. They had the shoes spaced apart, one at a time, similar to an art gallery. “The shoes were spread out and very elegant,” says Cahan. It was great, until you got to the price point: a surprisingly and relatively inexpensive $90.

“The visual merchandising attracted people who were looking for shoes that were in the $400 range, and then they saw these $90 shoes and they were a little betrayed by the display,” she says.

What to do instead

Mind the space for your merchandise; the amount of space a product occupies should be proportionate to the price point. This sets expectations. “It improves the shopping experience,” Cahan says.

“Customers instinctively understand that retailers are paying per square foot. The more stuff retailers cram into it, the more affordable the merchandise will be,” Cahan explains. “When there’s space, then the feeling is, ‘Wow, this stuff is more expensive.’ Customers just get it. And you can’t trick customers. You can’t make something be perceived to be less or more.”

5. They lack utility

If your in-store retail displays look beautiful but serve no purpose, you’re missing out on sales opportunities. Many times, retailers will use products that aren’t for sale, hide pricing information, or make it difficult to find the displayed merchandise elsewhere in the store. Your display could also be blocking pathways or the overall flow of your store.

What to do instead

Cater to your customer. Think about if you were shopping the display: Which information would you like to see? Perhaps there’s a sign that lists product details and prices, or a map of the store that shows you where to browse more size and color options. Better yet, bring a rack over or have a small section of the display dedicated to shoppable products.

Customers also want to see your product in action. It’s one of the main advantages a physical retailer has over ecommerce sellers. Creating displays that show your products in use or allow shoppers to try them out will help with engagement and conversions.

Brandless executed this really well in their Pop-Up with a Purpose in Los Angeles. Their displays effectively the different products they carried along with their uses. For example, they had a display that showcased the different pizza ingredients they were selling. To make it more effective, they merchandised it with pizza utensils and even had an iPad with video showing how people could use the various ingredients.

“The whole purpose of visual merchandising, other than selling merchandise, is to teach the customer what they should buy and how to put it together,” says Cahan. “That’s why you accessorize a mannequin. Essentially, an unaccessorized mannequin is an untapped opportunity to upsell.”

Cahan recalls someone she knew who would look at an entire designed room in the Bloomingdale’s home section and simply say, “I want that.” The associates could then assemble all of the displayed products for her, and she’d take everything home knowing that it will look good, since she’s already seen it in action.

6. They lack interactivity

Immersive retail is creating more opportunities for retailers to stand out than ever before. But when it comes to in-store displays, it’s easy to forget to incorporate that interactivity. After all, displays are meant to be visual, right?

In today’s retail world, you’d be remiss to exclude interactivity with your in-store displays. Consumers want to experience your product, not just look at it.

What to do instead

Your in-store retail displays are no longer for simply showcasing products; they should be interactive elements of your store that allows customers to have deeper engagements with your merchandise and your brand.

London’s Sipsmith is a gin distillery and shop. They created a retail display that allowed customers to experience their product on the spot with a sipping station.

Another example comes from Brandless, which gave guests that ability to test their products at their pop-up. Here’s a tasting station where people could test different olive oils and sauces.

Taste-testing is a surefire way to create an immersive experience in the food and beverage industry, but there are other ways you can get creative. Anthropologie is one major retailer that creates an immersive experience through in-store displays of their home goods, clothing and accessory products. “When you go into Anthropologie, you’re entering their world and you know it,” Cahan says. “Each area is designed and displayed and decorated uniquely.”

“Anthropologie does a lot of visual layering; it’s not just one prop on a wall. They create texture and movement through their displays,” Cahan says. “They know their customer, and they gear everything towards that customer.”

7. They disregard the details

Many times, retailers lack basic standards or guidelines. That makes it easier for smaller details to go unnoticed during the design process. “Standards matter,” Cahan says. “Messy means cheap, that everything’s on sale.”

What to do instead

Consider documenting brand guidelines for in-store displays. This becomes increasingly important for retailers with multiple locations, as it will help ensure both stores create a synonymous customer experience.

“It also sets a tone,” Cahan says. “One of the best ways a manual works is if you explain why you have this rule. When people understand why, then they’re more inclined to go along with it.”

Cahan has some suggestions for universal guidelines, but you should also include standards that are specific to your brand.

  • Matching hangers. “Cheap hangers will make clothing look cheap,” Cahan notes.
  • Tag symmetry. Make sure all of your tags are hanging in the same direction and found in a similar location on your products.
  • All merchandise faces left. This is the general standard for all verticals.

8. They’re uninspired

“One of the things retailers do that is a mistake is that they basically just stay in their stores,” Cahan says. “They don’t shop competitors.” It’s easy to be “heads down” in your business and fall into a routine, doing the same displays you’ve always done.

Sometimes, a fresh look and outside inspiration is all you need to be inspired to innovate with your in-store retail displays.

What to do instead

First thing’s first: Take a walk. Look at the other shops near your store, home or favorite store to shop as a consumer. Which in-store displays catch your eye? What do you like about them? Take pictures so you can recall and recreate later.

“Getting inspired by other types of retail can be a wonderful way to freshen and invigorate their own displays.” – Linda Cahan, retail visual merchandising and design consultant

“For instance, if you have a clothing store and you look at the displays of a gift shop or an antique store or an arts and crafts store, you can creatively borrow ideas,” Cahan says. “It’s a wonderful way to get a lot of fresh ideas. There are no rules about what you can or cannot do.”

Here’s an inspiring window display to get you started: One clothing retailer on New York City’s Madison Avenue used inexpensive paint brushes to create an artistic and eye catching display. “It was unexpected and pretty and not expensive, but it was very creative,” says Cahan. “When you see creativity in a window, then you feel that you’re creative by buying from this store.”

Luxury brands may turn to Saks Fifth Avenue as a source of inspiration. Consider these window displays for Dior: The innovative, industrial approach appealed to the quality of the product and style of their target market.

Portland-based Tilde, an accessories and home goods shop, is conveniently located across the street from a popular restaurant. The retailer lures customers in with their creative window displays, which are complemented by the textures and playfulness of the in-store merchandising. “She’s never spent more than $40 per window,” Cahan says.

9. They’re stale

One common mistake among retailers is failing to update the in-store displays frequently enough. One survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 40% of consumers make weekly purchases at brick-and-mortar retail stores. Whether they visit your store weekly or not, you’ll want to make sure each visit reveals new products to discover.

What to do instead

To prevent your displays from going stale, maintain a regular schedule to update them. Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doc, advises:

“Every couple of weeks, move displays around to keep them from getting stale – and certainly move them when new merchandise comes in. Since the fairly new products will still be selling, switch your displays two weeks after their arrival. Move one display from the front to the middle of the store and another display from the middle to the back.”

You can also use holidays, events and seasonal changes to inspire changes in your in-store retail displays. That’s what one San Francisco-based Core Hardware store did for Halloween.

Hanging brooms in the windows, along with a “Witch broom?” tagline, drew attention and foot traffic, thanks to an unlikely but creative parallel between Halloween and hardware. “A little cleverness goes a long way. Window displays are on-street entertainment and on-street advertising,” Cahan says of the example. “It’s one of the less expensive ways to advertise and it lasts a long time, especially if you’re in an area where there’s walk-by traffic.”

Creating in-store retail displays that drive sales

You don’t need to be an overly creative or experienced designer to create effective in-store retail displays. The most successful displays are created with a specific goal and the customer in mind.

Which retailers have you seen create innovative in-store displays? Which approaches have you tried in your own store?

Francesca Nicasio Vend