Retail Design: Visual Merchandising 101

visual merchandising

When I started my post-graduate career (after graduating from Interior Design) I started as a Visual Manager for H&M. This might seem like a weird entry level job choice for an interior design graduate but, in reality, there are a lot of similarities between Interior Design and Visual Merchandising. You’re just applying them in a different element. 

Space planning
Room themes and consistency
Color balance
Story telling
Making a space functional and inviting

If retail or commercial design is an area that interest you, I strongly recommend working as a visual merchandiser at some point, even part time. You see how people move through a store, where they look/what they miss, how they shop and what grabs their attention. Getting first-hand experience, in-store, is something that many companies see as an asset in a retail designer. Knowing these things before the store is built does change how you design and utilize the space. 

Whether you are merchandising as an designer or plan-o-grammer, as a shop owner or as someone that just enjoys doing it as a career, there are some basic things you should know to maximize your presentation. 

Visual Merchandising 101

Every retailer has their own way of communicating visual setup. For some, it could be by plan-o-gram where Head Office tells you the exact location of each garment by SKU and color. Some will give you color stories and a theme then leave it up to you to place the garments how you see fit. And sometimes the visual setup is strictly base on the merchandising strategy – commodity merchandising vs wardrobe merchandising. 

Commodity Merchandising = every color of a garment (or SKU) will be merchandised together. EX: a basic section, denim section or graphic t-shirt section. 

Wardrobe Merchandising = different garments are brought together to create an outfit (suggestive selling). EX: a table is merchandised with a graphic t-shirt, a pair of distressed jeans, a cardigan/hoodie and converse knock-off shoes; creating a full outfit. 

Whether you are designing the stores, making the plan-o-grams or doing the visual merchandising in your own in store, you need to know how to place the product – why you are doing it and what return you expect. No matter what the method, there are pros and cons. What you need to know is how to apply the method with maximum reward (AKA Sales!) 

Type of Fixtures

Choosing a fixture package isn’t just about the look. Yes, the look is important – The fixtures you choose should have consistency with each other (look like they go together) and they should also be on-brand and function in a way that best fits your product.

You should be thinking about all seasons – In the winter, you will have heavier pieces compared to the summer which tend to be lighter garments.

Do these fixtures transition between season effortlessly? 

Types of Retail Fixtures: 
Fashion Rails 

The other factor to consider is the capacity a fixture holds. When you are designing a store, you want to be able to hold the amount of merchandise that will be bought for the store, between the walls and the floor fixtures.

If a store’s capacity is greater than the amount of product it has to sell, the store can look empty and uninviting. On the reverse side, if the store can’t hold all the product it needs to, the store can become unstoppable.

Choose fixtures that are suitable for your capacity. Look for ones that allow you flexibility. Nesting tables, for example, allow you high capacity with multiple tiers. When stock levels are low or lighter (summer vs. winter), nesting tables gives you the ability to remove a tier so your presentation still looks strong and full. 

Finally, think about the type of merchandise you will be selling and choose fixtures that will showcase your product properly. Some garments require specialty racks (like bras and accessories) and these should be considered in the plan.

Rails are a common retail fixture that are good for merchandising simple commodity items or large quantity wardrobe items. Two key things hereSimple and large quantity. When merchandised on a rail, you are only seeing the side of the garment. Simple, basic garments are best for this fixture as the shopper will only see the side of the garment on the rack. Large quantity (commodity or wardrobe) is also key for this rack. Too many different items on a rail will look junk-y (or unappealing to shop) and will be harder to maintain for your team.  

Fixture Layout

Now that you have your fixture package, you want to plan the placement. The placement of fixtures will likely move by season. In the winter you will have more table presentations and high capacity racks with the heavier garments, for example. Think about your product and use your fixtures accordingly for the season.

Next, use the fixtures to create zones within the store – Feature Zone, Stories, Graphic Zone etc…

Typically, there are 2 types of setups:

  1. Your entrance setup which usually consists of a large table followed by t-stands or 4-ways. 
  2. Your wall setup which will either consist of a table or t-stand at the front of the zone, parallel to the wall, setting the entrance to the zone. Followed by your rails, gondolas or 4-ways as a way to divide the zones along the sides. 

Simplify your layout by mirroring the fixture plan on both sides of the store. This will give the store a comfortable, easy feel and will help to create a natural path for customers to walk.

Avoid creating any dead ends. This will restrict customer traffic flow and create dead zones in the store (places where nothing sells). 

Then, most importantly, there is the spacing of these fixtures – EGRESS. Egress is the motion of going out of a space. For fire safety regulations, there are minimum requirements of aisle ways in a store. Its best that you check with local authorities to confirm but in most cases, you are looking at 36-48″ aisle. If you are a children’s store, you will want stay around 48” to accommodate strollers.  

Mirror both sides of the store to simplify the layout.

Besides fire safety, if a store is too tight it can be uncomfortable for customers to move around and shop. This could lead to them leaving without buying anything out of frustration or discomfort.  

Product Placement

Now the fun part, product placement. Believe it or not, there is more to product placement than just putting something on a fixture to fill it. IT’S A SCIENCE. 

Considering your Zones formed by your fixture layout, you’ll want to pull the product that best fits these zones.

Whether you are placing the product on a plan-o-gram or placing it in the actual store, the order of execution is important here:

1st: Know your end goal. What story are you trying to communicate to your customer? 

2nd: Choose your table or entrance rack pieces first. These should be strong pieces in the collection but also suitable for the fixture. If you are placing it on a table, it should be an item that folds well.

If you are merchandising in wardrobe color stores, try to show all colors in the color store in some form and the pieces on the table or on the entrance rack should make up an outfit. 

3rd: After the table or entrance rack, you want to pick the pieces for the face-out floor fixtures (4-ways and t-stands) but only the sides that are facing out to the customer. 

Watch for color balance here – stand back and take a look from the customers perspective. You don’t want one color to heavy on one side or competing patterns against each other.

Suggestive Selling – AKA Wardrobe Merchandising.

If you are merchandising in color stores, try to show all colors in the color story. If you are wardrobe merchandising, make sure the items beside each other are something that would be worn together – Suggestive selling. 

4th: Now move to the face-outs on the walls, the ones visible to the customer from the aisle – traffic path. Again, watch for color balance and suggestive selling (creating outfits). 

5th: Finally, now that your power pieces are showcased, fill in the rest of the zone with the leftover garments.

You still want to make outfit suggestions (if applicable) but at this point, your primary goal is balancing color and texture and making the zone look full. 


Mannequins are a great selling aid in retail. They allow you to show the garment, styled and relatable to your customer. They are also a great tool to help increase your average sale ($) and unit per transaction (UPT). If a garment has a slow selling speed, put it on a mannequin. It’s guaranteed to sell. 

Tip: make sure your mannequins have a minimum dollar value for the whole look. Most people will buy ‘the look’ right off the mannequin. Take this opportunity to increase sales by selling a must-have look. 

For a mannequin to be successful, there are 2 things you must do: 

  1. Style it -Don’t just throw the clothes on, pull down and leave. Give them some life and movement. You want your customer to see themselves in the outfit – Bunch-up the sleeve, roll-up long sleeves. Scrunch the knees; bunch the sides of a shirt. 
  2. Merchandise the garments close to the mannequin – The worst thing you can do is create this get look and then the customer can’t find it to buy it! If the mannequin is in the window, make sure the outfit is visible as soon as they walk in the store. If the mannequin is beside a table, the outfit should be on or beside the table. Make it simple for your customer to find. 

In the end, the store needs to feel inviting and exciting. Your customer has to feel comfortable and feel like they are free to check things out and they can find what they came in for.  

What are some of your favorite stores and why? Share your experiences below. 

If you need some ideas or guidance for your store setup, send us an email at  [email protected]  

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