By Linda Cahan

Catchy title for an article on display isn’t it! There’s nothing like the words “deadly” and “sins” in one sentence to attract attention. Sin is a powerful word that Webster describes as a transgression of the law of God or, in retail parlance, a serious fault or error. You may wonder just how serious you can get about display when you consider it in the greater scheme of life. The term "seven deadly sins" dates back to the Middle Ages. It refers to seven sins that were thought to lead to eternal damnation. The seven sins are pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and laziness. Eternal damnation is certainly not in your future if you commit the display sins described in this article but your financial future may improve if you learn to avoid them.

In a new age gift store you can commit a minimum of five “sins” against good retail visual merchandising principles. Each of these will confuse and push away prospective customers. Of course there are quite a few non-display related retail sins that won’t be covered in this article. They include: bringing your home problems to work, impatience, rudeness, downright nastiness, letting a customer overhear you make fun of him or her, playing Metallica or any other inappropriate music and of course, having the wrong merchandise at the wrong price in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Five deadly display sins for any new age retailer are:

Lack of clarity, staleness, clutter, bad timing and laziness. Under these sins lie a myriad of lesser sins that can hurt the image and sales of your store.

• Lack of Clarity

A good display tells an easy-to-read story. Most customers give cursory one-second glances at windows and interior displays and if the visual message is unclear it remains unread, un-seen and unappreciated.

What makes a display unclear?

1. No focal point.

Each display requires a definitive focal point. A focal point is the first area that is seen and it can define an entire display. A focal point may be the largest item in the window, the brightest color, a moving object or a prop or merchandise placed on a strong angle. Windows without focal points usually have many items of similar size placed together. Good focal points are often more geometric in shape. For example, a display of similar items grouped in the shape of a triangle with larger objects in the rear giving height to the display is more interesting and appealing than the same items in a straight row. Triangular displays attract attention because angles are formed that add energy and motion to the display. Square displays are more stagnant but can be powerful when the merchandise itself is square and there is a strong theme and color story to overcome the overall less interesting shape.

2. Mixed messages

A good story, just like a good display has a plot and a few main characters. In a display the plot is either a color theme, a “use” theme or a concept theme.

A color theme involves just a few colors that work together and pulling many items in those colors into an attractive grouping. A mixed message would be another item from a different color story thrown into the display just so customers know it’s in stock. A red and orange colored display with black as the neutral color would not benefit from a blue pot. It would give a mixed message and destroy the color story.

A “use” theme or story involves merchandise used for the same thing. An example is a display of candleholders and candles. Within that display may be decorative matches, incense and perhaps short vases filled with colorful tapered candles splayed out to resemble a flower display. The addition of tapestry handbags would hurt the message of the display. Of course customers would then know that you carry handbags but the mixed message would distract rather than attract customers. A good “use” theme can show the depth of your selection of merchandise. If the use is magic – imagine everything you can pull together to create a magic oriented display.

A concept theme works great for books. If you are doing a Feng Shui theme you may incorporate books on Feng Shui along with bamboo, chimes, bells, river stones, crystals, water fountains and any other strongly related gift items. You do not add books on any other subject nor items that are not directly attuned to the practice of Feng Shui. When you have a strong concept display you pull together everything in your store related to that concept. When you dilute the message you loose the customers attention.

3. Poor lighting

All displays require light. Good lighting is one of the most important aspects in store design. If a window or interior display remains unlit, it will most likely remain unsold as well. Lights not only bring attention to a display, they also warm it up making it far more appealing. Short lengths of track lights are fairly easy to install and can make a huge different in a window or throughout the interior of the store. Rather than obsessing on whether they match your existing lights or not, just buy some that are the same color and get them up as soon as possible. Make sure that where you currently do displays in your store are the best focal areas. If they are - light ‘em up!

• Staleness

One frequently asked question is “how often should I change my displays?” Any window or interior display is going to feel and look stale after two weeks. Although it may seem daunting to even consider changing out your displays every two weeks, it is very much worth the work. Just the dusting alone makes the effort viable!

Successful retailers make frequent floor moves for two good reasons. Every floor move re-energizes the merchandise as well as gently forcing repeat customers to see new items. Many retailers know that sales always increase during a floor move. Customers are intrigued by the action and when merchandise is pulled out of its normal resting place it takes on a new energy giving it more appeal. Of course you’ll have a few regulars complaining that they can’t find their incense sticks or their seed packet greeting cards but they will discover new items in their quest to find the old.

Think of window displays as free advertising. When you change your windows on a regular basis people start looking at your windows more often, knowing they will be entertained. If you change your windows infrequently they become wallpaper. People know they are there but rarely glance at them knowing it’s the same old thing. Stale windows make the merchandise inside the store seem as old and tired as the goods in the window.

A few ways to make changing displays and windows easier are:

1. Add a horizontal grid in your window parallel to the floor and above eye level so it can’t be seen from the street. Ensure that it’s hung securely just in case you want to hang something from it on the heavier side. A grid allows you to creatively hang props and merchandise easily using a lower ladder. If your window allows it and you have a clever handyman put the grid on a pulley so it can be raised and lowered as needed.

Some fun things you can hang from a grid include: origami creatures, holiday decorations, crystals, decorative hanging fabric lights, silk flowers, window ornaments, greeting cards, feathers, incense packages, hats, gloves, small holiday lights or, whatever you get into your store in bulk that can hang without pulling down the ceiling.

2. Think about the windows in advance. Keep a folder with advertisements that inspire you with interesting display ideas. Lots of display professionals also work with advertising agencies and the ads are excellent visual images.

3. As you drive to and from work check out garage sales and trash day treasures. Pick up things that can work in your windows. An old birdcage spray painted glossy red makes a great holder for all sorts of merchandise. Pick up a few blackbirds or cardinals from a hobby or crafts shop and have them flying free, out of the cage. Thanks to your handy grid and some 2 lb. fishing line – that will be a breeze! Old tables, chairs, lamps, bicycles, pots and pans – almost anything can be painted and used as a buildup or creative prop.

4. By keeping your window displays simple you can change them more often with less effort. There is no need to show the entire store in the window. Pick a theme and stick with it!


The thought pattern “If it’s not in the window, how will people know we carry it?” is a sure way to create clutter in your window displays.

Have some faith that if customers are attracted to your windows they will be curious enough to come into the store. No one expects Nordstrom’s to put everything they carry in each window any more than they expect that from you. People are fairly sophisticated shoppers at this stage in our consumer history. Smart chain store retailers have been training the public for years and we all now understand clear, simple window messages.

Interior clutter is an insidious killer of sales as well. Those piles of boxes from UPS belong in the stockroom along with the RTV’s, holds and the “we’ll fix this one of these days” box of goods. As the Nike commercial says – “JUST DO IT.” Allot one day per week to deal with clutter. Make it a priority on that day. It will amaze (and maybe even delight) you how different the store feels once the clutter is reduced. Ideally, the clutter should be eliminated completely. It drains energy from your store and eventually from your sales.

Clutter includes merchandise that you can’t seem to find a place for so you “stick” it wherever it seems to fit. When merchandise doesn’t make sense on a shelf or in a display it becomes inappropriate visual clutter and confuses the overall display. One of the basic rules of merchandising a wall or fixture is that the hot merchandise goes at eye level, the displays go above eye level and you fall apart way below eye level. Falling apart means it’s a great place to shelve broken assortments, one only items and larger pieces that feel top heavy on a higher shelf.

One tip for those “one-only” items: If it’s a really interesting or great piece -use it as the centerpiece for a display. Rather than hiding “one-onlies” – promote them by giving them their own little show.

Bad Timing

It’s the day after Valentine’s Day and all through the store paper hearts are hanging and the glut of red is a bore. Plan now to take down all your holiday trim the day after Russian Orthodox Christmas. Plan to remove Valentines Day on Feb. 15th and every other special occasion and holiday trim the day after it’s over. Bad timing is lazy timing. When it’s over it’s over and leftover displays look like you don’t care enough to take them down.

Bad timing also includes not having merchandise displayed that is appropriate for the holiday, season or weather. If it’s Halloween and all your Wiccan merchandise is hidden on a shelf you’re missing a great seasonal opportunity. If it’s cold and you carry handwoven wool scarves – get them out in front of your wrap desk or in a focal area where they can be seen, appreciated and purchased.

Another aspect of bad timing is when you choose to install your displays. Early morning is an ideal time before the store is open or at least before it gets busy. From experience you know your slow times. Those are perfect for floor moves and window or interior display installations. The more you are distracted from your creative pursuits by pesky customers (a thought form you definitely want to avoid) the less polished and professional will be your display.

Whenever possible plan your window and interior focal displays around your advertising schedule. Bad timing is not having merchandise on display that is featured in an advertisement. In large cities the advertising and promotions departments work hand-in-hand with the visual merchandising departments in the major department stores. They discuss and plan window and in-store promotions to correspond with the advertising schedule. This requires a lot of people. A smaller business requires far less meetings and can be much more flexible. The important concept is to coordinate so the timing creates increased sales rather than having people come into your store wondering where that great vase was that they saw in the ad in their local paper.


There are a million excuses for doing a bad display. Some favorites include:

My ladder is too short; I don’t have the right tools; There’s no light in this area; I ran out of time; My arms are tired; The phone keeps ringing; Customers keep asking questions; I have nothing to work with; I sold all the merchandise I was going to put into the window; Who cares anyway?

What constitutes a bad display?

1. Sloppy execution. Any type of visible tape is a display sin. So are hand-lettered signs with magic marker that fade in sunlight or under fluorescents. Another no-no is the overuse of silk flowers scattered around a display to add color when all they do is detract from the merchandise. Using a pretty length of fabric to tie a display together will only draw attention to the fabric. If you are hanging anything from the ceiling or from a grid cut the ends of the fishing line. Long strands flopping about are not attractive. A major plus is to use fishing line rather than string, rope, chain, cord or ribbon (unless the ribbon is an integral part of the display.) One tip: fishing line stretches over time especially when heated by lights. Hang your items just a little higher so they will stretch to their perfect place.

Other types of sloppy execution include covering buildups with paper – a major display no. Paper fades immediately and if the fading doesn’t get you the curling, creasing and tearing will give you away. Fabric is always preferable but must be stretched perfectly tight. Wrinkles in fabric look sloppy. As a reminder – iron all fabric that goes in your window or inside the store. Don’t hope that it will smooth out over time. It never does! Wrinkles and creases are another display sin.

Vendor fixtures are the classic lazy way to merchandise your store. They’re either free or very reasonable and they hold a lot of stuff. The only problem is that they are often too high or large for your space and when you sell down on the vendors merchandise the fixture looks pathetic and the leftover merchandise looks picked over. The solution? If you don’t intend to re-fill the fixture on a regular basis so it always looks full consider another (professionally made) sign to cover the vendors name on the top of the fixture for those times that you fill it with other merchandise. The sign can be more promotional rather than vendor oriented such as : New For Fall. Or, the sign may be more about you: Magical Mystery Tour Special Purchase.

Cardboard vendor fixtures are even worse than those made of sturdy materials. Never, never, never let customers see the back of those fixtures! The least amount of cardboard fixtures in your store, the better your store will look and feel.

Buy an iron and ironing board for your store along with a ladder high enough to change bulbs as well as interior displays and signs. Add to that a basic tool kit and of course duct tape as it can single-handedly hold the world together. Just remember use it – but don’t let it show!

Absolutely every rule and all the “sins” listed above have their exceptions. Sometimes location, great merchandise and a wonderful staff can compensate for less than fabulous displays. But, imagine how much better sales would be if the displays matched the quality of your location, service and merchandise!


Linda Cahan is an internationally recognized expert in Visual Merchandising for all types of retail stores. She has been working in VM since 1971 and has worked with all types and sizes of retailers from American Express, Lancome, United Rentals, Meijer, Saks Fifth Avenue to independent smaller retailers. She has experience with everything from fashion to computers and tools. Linda specializes in training retailers in all aspects of visual merchandising as well as giving seminars and consultat...

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