How to put on a show with festive displays

04 November 2021, 16:06 PM
  • Artful display can make all the difference when it comes to seasonal profits, finds Ellen Manning
How to put on a show with festive displays

We eat with our eyes, as the old saying goes. But the effect of what we see on what we do doesn’t end there. From wanting something to buying it, eating it and enjoying it, everything we consume comes back to that first time we see it. Especially when it comes to food. Which is why display remains key when it comes to selling us that food. For fine food retailers, display is always important, but even more so at Christmas.

For visual merchandising professional Iain Kimmins, director and chair of the British Display Society and a former visual merchandising manager at both Harrods and Selfridges dealing with the food hall and wine department, the phrase, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression,” is key. Iain now runs his own visual merchandising (VM) consultancy, Creative Download, and for him, display is more than being creative and making things look nice. “It is a commercial driver for the business,” he says.

“Re-merchandising, store layout, fixtures, product categories/product adjacencies all come under the visual merchandising remit. The store is where the action is. The need to create exciting stores, driving sales through marketing, merchandising, store layout, retail theatre, graphics and VM sites.”

Christmas is the “biggest shopping event of the year”, Iain says, accounting for up to 30% of many retailers’ annual revenue. “Given the increase of online shopping, retailers must step-up and draw customers back into their stores with great visual merchandising and retail theatre. Even food can look sexy!” He cites food halls at Fortnum’s and Selfridges as great examples of retail theatre, adding, “Presenting your merchandise is more than just putting the item on a shelf. It’s creating a stunning environment, ensuring that your merchandise looks premium and giving the customer that all-important memorable shopping experience.”

Whether you’re a nationally renowned food hall or a local deli or farm shop, the importance of display is the same, particularly at Christmas time. “It’s how you set yourself apart from your competitors, draw customers in and ultimately increase sales”, says Rob Coutts, managing director at Weetons Food Hall in Harrogate.

Tori Stanley, owner of award-winning Derbyshire-based Tori & Ben’s Farm, agrees. “Display is the window – it’s everything. Louis Vuitton makes beautiful bags, we make beautiful meat. It has to look amazing because people buy with their eyes. Whether it’s the counter in the farm shop or sending things from the online shop, it all has to look beautiful. Meat is meat – it’s not a Louis Vuitton handbag, but it can be beautiful if it’s displayed in the right way. So we spend a lot of time on it. At Christmas we do special displays, but I think we’re always 110% on our display, whether it’s Christmas or not.”

A window into your store

When it comes to display, windows are the most obvious option for retailers big or small. “Your windows and storefront are the face of your store,” says Iain. “They are the cheapest form of advertising and one of the most important elements of your store.” Yet the ability to use windows as the centrepiece of your display depends on the nature of your store. For Clare Jackson, owner of Slate Cheese, which has shops in Southwold and Aldeburgh in Suffolk, window displays can be challenging.

“Our shops are quite small so for us display is a tricky area because it’s not like we have got huge windows to do a big showcase, and we have to be quite careful about putting products in the window because we get direct sunlight.”

Windows may bring limitations, but that doesn’t mean interesting displays are a no-go. For Eve Reid, visual merchandising specialist at consultancy Metamorphosis, changes in the retail landscape mean a window into your shop is far more than the glass on the front of the building. “Your window isn’t just a traditional window anymore. It’s basically any window where your customer looks into you. Be it Instagram, Facebook, your windows – it’s every sort of visual touchpoint.”

That idea means that display goes far beyond piling products up in a window – but could include the pictures you post online, or even stunts like turning your establishment itself into a display by wrapping it up in a giant bow.

Display doesn’t start and end with a window, adds Iain. “Creating great selling space is not solely for windows. While a great window display will entice and draw customers into the store, there is a need to ensure that the interior of the store is just as exciting.”

Another key area of display for many fine food retailers is what their customers lay their eyes on when they walk into their shop. For Clare, display is key all year round, and Slate attracts customers with an unusual vertical display of cheese, affectionately known as their ‘wall of cheese’ and inspired by her family holidays to Chamonix, France. The shop focuses on seasonal displays led by props – from buckets and spades in summer to “sumptuous, decadent” displays at Christmas.

And while the last 18 months have made food and drink a harder sell as people’s ability and desire to touch, smell and taste products were restricted, she is optimistic that things are improving and this Christmas will see a return to the sensory experience that shopping for food and drink can be.

For many fine food retailers, display isn’t about choosing one aspect but several combined to maximise the opportunity to encourage customers to buy. “We generally rely on our two large window displays, a feature table upon entry and, of course, how the product is displayed on the shelves/stands,” says Rob.

It’s the same for Tori, with their butcher’s counter dominating the shop, backed up by displays on shelves and table tops as well as a strong social media presence. “When you walk into the shop, the first thing you see is our meat counter, and we always have beef there because beef’s our thing. We then put sausages and bacon right at the other end of the counter because everybody buys bacon and sausages so that pulls people down to the other end, then they stumble across all sorts of other things on their way. We use Instagram and social media to tell the story behind the farm-to-fork journey.

“Table tops are great because people walk past them and just grab something – it might be a packet of biscuits or a bottle of gin. They just pick it up because it’s easy.” It’s also about balancing eye-catching displays with making sure people know where they can find their favourites and staples, says Tori. “You have your promotional table top which is seasonal and ‘look at me’ but if people want to go and get their horseradish they know where it is and there’s no fuss.”

Christmas offers other opportunities to take advantage of display, says Iain, especially when it comes to ‘link selling’ – encouraging people to buy products that will go well with other things, such as displaying brandy butter next to Christmas pudding. It’s something Claire takes advantage of when putting displays together at Slate. “We use seasonal rotation in our display so in summer time you would put fresh types of cheese whereas towards Christmas people want stronger punchier cheeses. But it’s also about cheese and perfect companions, so where we can suggest pairings like chutney or pickle or wine to create those links between cheese and their companions – that’s important for us and display helps do that.”

Showcases are also useful, adds Iain, citing Harrod’s previous use of a showcase promoting Christmas Hampers as a great display that encourages customers to take a closer look.

When it comes to display, language also plays a part, says Rich Ford, strategy director at Sherlock Studio. “It’s about how you can inspire people, which means using an engaging, exciting tone of voice. It’s not just about a couple of boxes of Panettone, it’s about really exciting people, getting them thinking about Christmas and getting them in the mood. I think for a long time it was overlooked but Covid has made tone of voice really, really important and it’s becoming a differentiator as well. It’s a part of your branding, it’s a brand asset, your tone of voice, how you feel and come across on social media.”

Display dos and don’ts

So when it comes to display for fine food retailers, what are the dos and don’ts, according to the people in the know? Most agree on a few key elements that display should incorporate, from tempting people into a shop with visually interesting and exciting displays, to making sure you move people around the space to explore everything you’re offering. Including prices is something everyone agrees is important, with customers nervous about buying something that might break the bank.

“Visual merchandising is all about creating something out of nothing,” says Iain. “An experienced visual merchandiser can help drive sales by creating anything from a bay of own-branded products to creating a simple table of products with a few display props to gain height and interest.” Iain’s pointers include thinking about available space and fixtures, as well as keeping tables well stocked, encouraging customers to walk around them by using different products. For him, remembering that ‘less is more’ is an important lesson. “It is not a requirement to fill every inch of space. Leaving empty floor space gives the customer breathing space on their eye.”

Eve agrees, advising: “Don’t try to show everything. If it looks rubbish, take it out.” For her, consistency is key when it comes to communicating with customers through display. “You look at people really trying hard but they’re forgetting to say, ‘what actually am I trying to achieve?’ People would be much better thinking about one goal and one objective, then thinking how best to communicate that as opposed to just putting a load of stuff together, because it becomes a crazy mess of ‘stuff’. Just start with your message, then work out how that message would be communicated across all your mediums. If you feel you can put a window together, and it’s pretty enough to be able to post a picture online, then great. It could be that you’re just choosing to pull out one or two products. But it’s thinking how best to link it all together.” Eve’s suggestion is to look for inspiration elsewhere, even if that’s from different sectors, on how to tackle display a bit differently and stand out from the crowd.

For Rich, when it comes to language, it’s about not trying to be something that you’re not, or copying another brand’s tone of voice. Like Eve, he’s an advocate of consistency across your brand and across the year, making sure you’re talking to your customers in a voice they recognise.

For Tori, having a display that’s fresh and appealing is vital, as well as ensuring that your best products are dominant as soon as someone walks in and as they move around the shop. “People like buying easily,” she says, “and if it’s well priced and well labelled that helps.”

close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing