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Designing Sales: A Professional Approach to Merchandising

The word merchandising means all things to all people -- from designer stores in Milan to your local drug store end caps -- so I prefer to use the term "Silent Selling." That encompasses the various stages of what is, in effect, the business of inspiring shoppers to make a purchase without a word being said.

Much is spoken and written about the skill of verbal selling, but there is much less how-to information when it comes to Silent Selling. I am not suggesting replacing a great sales team with a bunch of signs and displays, well not just yet! However, the reality of retail is that in a busy period like Christmas or July Fourth, the customer count in any successful store far outweighs the number of employees able to help. Many of our clients are in the garden and outdoor living channel, so on Mother's Day weekend, even the best "full-service garden center" is, in fact, a self-service experience. Employees become a stressed hybrid of traffic-cop and a one-minute salesperson; Silent Selling picks up the slack, helping customers have a successful shopping experience.

Under the banner of "Silent Selling," I include Customer Flow Planning, Cost & Use of Space, Inventory Type and Placement, Point of Purchase Materials, Visual Merchandising and Display Maintenance, Setting the Expectations, Implementing the Program, and so on. There's a lot more to it than having a good eye. Furthermore, by de-skilling the mystique of merchandising, we take it from an art form to a teachable science, making it easier to replicate by staff who were frightened to try before. The end results are usually a lot more customer-oriented, too.

What Does it Mean, "Fold in the Eggs"?

This is not new or particularly revolutionary, but what is changing is the consumer who is turning away from hobbies; seeing shopping as a project. Consumers spend less time reading and acquiring the basic skills of what previous generations took for granted -- like baking a pie or sowing a packet of seed. Never mind "roux," many consumers under 50 today don't understand a "rolling boil." That doesn't mean they are dumb or cheap; they want to grow their own veggies and eat well, they just don't know how. They can't find knowledgeable help in the big-box stores even though they grew up in malls and national chains. In fact, many of the 20-to-35-year-old consumers are reluctant to shop in independents because they are uncomfortable with the brand -- or even the process of being helped! What a great opportunity for the service-oriented independent retailer.

Inventory -- Justify Thyself!

Shoppers for both food and garden now see life as a series of projects -- from learning to bake to growing their own salads -- and they need help to figure it out, in less time than their parents did. Our clients have noticed that people spend significantly less time in a garden center than they used to, even as the SKU count and choices proliferate.
Consumers want involvement and a personal experience, not a treasure hunt. So, as part of our "merchandising" consulting, we lead an aggressive "SKU Justification" exercise, or in other words, "Why are you carrying this? What is the USP of that line?" and so on.

How it Worked in the Trenches

For the Retail2020 Conference, I described how we introduced this Silent Selling process to the team at Sickles Market, a client of ours in New Jersey. This family business has an unusual combination of Gourmet Food, Produce, Meat, Cheese, Dairy, Bakery and a full-line Garden Center, Gift, Home Accents and Christmas. Bob Sickles asked me to consult on the smaller garden and home departments, though it was all in the one store. Bob suggested we train all the departments together as a great way to deliver a consistent style, message and shopping experience to customers who, after all, shopped for Impatiens and Potting Soil at the same time as they bought Blueberries and Brie.

I began the two-day workshop by asking mixed food and garden teams to build displays without any guidance from me. Then, using those displays as examples, we trained the team in Customer Flow, Hot Spots and Dead Spots, how to classify products into Known Value, Impulse, Demand, Browse, Grab n' Go products, and understanding the placement of these different categories. From Sickles' financials, we calculated the cost of space per square foot per week and the consequent sales targets needed to break even. The groups then built a second display and critiqued each other's work.

Then, we formed a Merchandising Steering Committee of four people ranging from the chef, the gourmet manager and two of the plant buyers. Talk about empowerment! They identified the 10 best hot spots in food and garden center; they developed both the display criteria and scoring system, as well as the timing and mechanism for weekly judging and feedback. The general manager suggested the idea of photographing each display each week for filing along with the critiques -- a great resource.

A year later, the program is highly valued by the team and the owner. Not only are displays more impulsive, there are less pretty-but-unshoppable (what I call "Photo-Shoot") creations. This training produced some incredible results, like a tenfold increase in sales of Louis Rao pasta sauce and a Caprese salad end cap (pictured here) that sold 200 pounds at $9 of mozzarella in two days!

The other big benefit has been the way the food and garden teams now have great support and respect for each other -- not always easy in such a diverse group as foodies and plant lovers!

Time for Hands-On!

My talk at Retail2020 was followed by a similar exercise, when attendees were organized into three groups by Editor-in-Chief Michelle Moran and asked to build a display in one hour on a subject/product of their choice using items in the show and the few minimal props provided, such as a cheap table, fabric and poster board.

As shown in the photos taken in the meeting room (the old San Francisco Mint), the results were absolutely wonderful! The groups of strangers came together with enormous energy to identify products to use, agree on a theme, find materials and create eye-catching displays in just over an hour -- wow!

So, if a bunch of owners can do this in an hour with no warning or safety net, just think what the workers could do with a bit of training!

Wrap It Up

As the consumer changes, so must the offer in your store. Space is expensive and most displays have to be a combination of impulsive yet informative, suggestive yet shoppable. Merchandising should create answers, not questions. Imagine the questions and ideas a customer would be seeking if you were there to sell verbally; then frame your displays to answer without a word being said. They are, after all, your silent salespeople!

Ian Baldwin is a California-based retail consultant for independent businesses and can be contacted at 916-682-1069 or ianbaldwin@comcast.net. His "TLC … Think Like Customers" Sales Motivation Program can be viewed at www.ianbaldwin.com.