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Visual Merchandising: The 'Silent Salesperson'

Luxury Marketing Council panel debates roles of architect, designer and retailer.

Great visual merchandising should not seem like visual merchandising at all, according to the panelists at Tuesday's presentation on "Visual Merchandising and Store Design," hosted by The Luxury Marketing Council at the Haworth showroom in New York City.

In fact, it should serve as the "silent salesperson," said Pam Levine, the president and creative director of the New York-based luxury-branding firm Levine Design Group

Philip Rosenzweig, the senior vice president of Giorgio Armani Group store development and visual merchandising agreed. "If I can convey a message—a clear, coherent, on-brand message to our client, and they have no idea that they’ve received that message, then I've succeeded." Rounding out the panel was Frederic Zonsius, the principal of New York­–based architecture firm FZAD.

The architect, designer and retailer offered discrete points of view, and some playful sparring, on the importance of collaboration, and how significant each piece of a store’s design and presentation is to engaging consumers.

Zonsius, who has helped design stores for Oscar de la Renta, Kenneth Cole and Giorgio Armani, described architecture as the foundation of a brand, and key to pulling the customer into the store to begin with. He contrasted different approaches taken by architects, from focusing the store around a brand--such as Apple's spare, high-tech modernism at its store--or pulling disparate brands, into one coherent architectural vision, such as in a department store.

But when Zonsius went as far as to say that the architect sets the trend in the visual merchandising, Rosenzweig playfully rebutted, "hogwash," pointing out the current trend of retail pop-up shops.

While Rosenzweig agreed with Zonsius on many points, including how well-designed stairs play a crucial role in drawing customers further into the store, he stressed service and products are the key elements in merchandising. Rosenzweig used the analogy of a theater to emphasize how product and service support the brand message--a dazzling theater is like the architecture that excites audience, the set is the visual merchandising that gets the audience oriented, but the actors and play itself are the products and service that are ultimately what the patrons have paid to see.

Synergy between all the elements in store design and brand presentation is key, agreed the panelists. "On the visual merchandising side, it's the dimension, the display, the scent, the smell, the lighting, the pattern, the texture," said Levine. The designer, who has worked with a number of clients including Cartier, De Beers, Tourneau and Baccarat, pointed to the red chairs and spacious white surfaces of the Haworth furniture showroom the panel was seated in as an example of this.

Levine spotlighted to the jewelry department in Lane Crawford department store in Beijing, where layers of plush carpeting and silver table stands in the shape of trees engages consumers with the product both from a distance and up close.

The new Nespresso coffee shop in Manhattan, meanwhile, is an example of congruent, collaborative visual merchandising, from the company’s swirling logo to its artistic sugar packets, she said. "The styling, the elegance, every point of detail is considered here and every point of contact with the customer. It shows how companies value design and use it for the expression of their brand."

The discussion wrapped up on the topic of technology's potential for visual merchandising. Technology is not only compelling back-of-the-house operational opportunities that a designer would be likely to hide--but it can also be embraced and accentuated in the design itself. Levine cited the video and light boxes at New York's Cartier store, which are arranged in a sculptural fashion to show a variety of merchandise including packaging, watches and gemstones. She also noted the Ivanka Trump framed video image boxes that show movement and large format jewelry images of what’s inside.

But as this technology is incorporated into drawing in the customer, Rosenzweig emphasized that it should still work to engage them subtly. "With all this visual merchandising, all of this technology, I [want to] just get the message across without saying anything."