Applying traditional visual merchandising tactics to the online shopping experience

The science of visual merchandising is no longer confined to brick-and-mortar – retailers can now use the tactics consumers still love and rely on to create truly immersive shopping experiences online.

Content Marketing Specialist at Swanky

Think about the last time you went to the mall. The way you felt and experience you had in each store was no accident. No, this was the result of visual merchandising wizardry! From the layout of the sales floor and how products were displayed to the color schemes used, and even subtle scents wafting around the store – all of these things have been carefully considered to maximize impact.

Visual merchandising has long been a science associated with traditional brick-and-mortar stores. However, this psychological feng shui is now being adopted and refined online. Today, eCommerce merchants are making strategic visual decisions that go far beyond building a clean, responsive site.

In this post, we’ll explore how visual merchandising can be applied to eCommerce stores, with seven tactics to transfer from in-store to online. But first, let’s take a brief look at what exactly visual merchandising is, both for physical and digital stores.

Visual merchandising in retail

In-store visual merchandising is a valued marketing concept used to engage customers from the minute they walk into a store to the minute they leave. Retailers carefully employ merchandising tactics to captivate as many senses as possible and create an inviting brand experience that leaves a lasting positive impression.

From creating powerful focal points to selecting strong display colors, showcasing products in an appealing fashion, utilizing space, signage, and layout effectively, all the way through how shoppers checkout, visual merchandising helps to strengthen brand identity, foster loyalty, drive sales, and generate repeat business.

Online visual merchandising

Much like visual merchandising’s many benefits for brick-and-mortar stores, it’s also super effective for use in eCommerce stores. There, it can be used to increase key online metrics such as engagement, time on site, conversion rate, and average order value (AOV), making it a must-have strategy for brands duking it out in today’s uber-competitive online retail environment.

But what does it mean to visually merchandise an online store?

Whereas the physical store experience is driven largely by discovery, visual merchandising within eCommerce is meant to guide customers through the buyer’s journey as quickly as possible, presenting shoppers with the most relevant experience, products, and offers before they hop to the next website or task.

And while it might seem trickier to accomplish, a major advantage eCommerce brands have over traditional retailers is that they don’t have to optimize for the average customer. Stores may alter their strategies and product offerings from location to location, using basic demographic data to more closely cater to the needs of the area it serves, but this doesn’t always represent the individuals who fall outside the general makeup of a given population.

Online retailers, on the other hand, can tailor the shopping experience to all different types of users who interact with a brand, increasing the impact of efforts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some tried-and-tested tactics for successful in-store visual merchandising and see how they can be applied, and supercharged, online.

1. Window Display = Website Homepage

The window display of a brick-and-mortar store is one of the first things a potential customer sees from the street. This is a great place for retailers to showcase new products, bestsellers, and sale items. However small, these spaces are cleverly put together to invoke intrigue, telling the story of a brand in hopes of generating more foot traffic.

When shopping online, the homepage is usually the first window into a brand a visitor experiences. Thus, it should work just as hard.

Dynamic Banners

Use your homepage space to inspire customers with dynamic banners that promote a line of products. Through personalization, brands can generate results based on a specific campaign or a particular audience – going beyond static window displays, which traditionally offer the same experience for all onlookers, and delivering a more tailored point of entry for visitors.

A rotating hero banner showcasing top categories can also serve to give visitors the vote of confidence to proceed with browsing.

2. Shop Layout = Site Layout

Part of in-store visual merchandising is about finding the best possible store layout to maximize sales potential. Retailers use innovative techniques to determine which areas of the store are most frequented, optimizing the store design and layout accordingly by strategically placing promos, new products, and bestsellers in areas of high activity.

When it comes to your online store, much of the same work can be done to ensure your site’s layout is driving the most engagement. Through layout personalization, entire site structures can be adapted to match the needs and preferences of a specific user.

For example, if someone has arrived at a site via a broad search query and is slowly browsing category pages, a brand should change the layout of a page to widen the assortment of items and maybe include a Pinterest-like feed of products.

Pinterest-like product feed

Alternatively, an individual who is ready to transact and has added an item to their cart but continues to shop might have content re-ordered to present other relevant products similar to the one they’ve shown an interest in.

3. In-store Signage = Site Navigation

Brick-and-mortar sales floors are usually organized by categories, creating an intuitive layout for customers to navigate. For instance, supermarkets often have overhead signage to highlight which types of products can be found in each aisle. This is perfect for shoppers who are in discovery-mode or looking for a specific item.

And while browsing a two-dimension website is a much different experience, online retailers need to carefully consider how customers navigate their product offering in order to maintain their attention and inspire action before clicking away.

Menus

If your product inventory is vast, a tiered menu allows users to follow a natural flow through the top and subcategories of your choosing. Mega-menus can also be employed to provide shoppers with an infinite amount of options to navigate from, though these can sometimes feel overwhelming.

Whatever menu structure you opt for, be sure to test the number, order, and type of items listed to ensure the best possible experience. You can also re-sort the navigation based on each visitor’s affinities and preferred categories – the end goal is to get shoppers where they want to go in the fewest possible clicks.

Search

Another layer of a site’s navigation is its search functionality. Seeing as every SKU can’t live on the homepage like it does on the floor of a retail store, 80% of visitors opt to search once they hit a site instead of manually clicking through category pages. Akin to asking a sales representative for assistance in finding a particular product, a good search bar effectively matches expectations with relevant results.

Use autocomplete to display matching keywords and images as the visitor types their entry, allow shoppers to use a search filter to refine product listings by size, color, price, or brand, and try personalizing results based on 3rd party affinity data.

Autocomplete search functionality with images

4. Physical Products = Imagery and Video

When shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, consumers get a chance to experience a product before making a purchasing decision. They can physically touch it, pick it up and try it on. As an eCommerce retailer, this lack of physical interaction is a barrier you need to overcome through a cohesive mix of media.

Strong, dynamic product visuals are essential for any eCommerce business. Sharp, clear photographs and videos of the highest quality should be used to showcase products from a variety of angles, with close-ups of important features and the details that make your products unique.

Optimize the experience by testing which visuals resonate most and in which order. Some segments of users may prefer lifestyle photos while others, traditional product shots on a mannequin or model. You can also personalize the product detail page (PDP), highlighting colors according to each individual’s affinity.

In doing so, you’ll create a strong mental connection with your products.

Optimizing product imagery

5. In-Store Events = Online Social Proof

Although not a traditional strategy, one visual merchandising tactic which often goes overlooked is customer events. These are meant to attract large groups of patrons inside and around the entrance of a store, inciting interest among those walking by.

A powerful marketing ingredient, eager shoppers lining up to purchase is much more encouraging than that of an empty store. In the online world, marketers might consider this as a form of social proof, whereby the number of likes, purchases, or people viewing an item is displayed on a product listing or detail page to highlight demand and drive urgency.

Social proof example

It is particularly important within eCommerce, where users don’t get the chance to physically interact with a product before purchase and need that little bit of extra assurance from the community to help make a final decision.

6. Bundling = Product Recommendations

Fashion retailers use a visual merchandising technique known as ‘bundling’ to promote products that work together as a set. This may be done by presenting complete outfits on mannequins or placing complementary products next to each other. The shopper can see how pieces fit together and are therefore inspired to buy more than one item. In many cases, customers will simply purchase what they see on a mannequin.

Bundling doesn’t have to be exclusive to brick-and-mortar stores. This visual merchandising tactic can easily be applied to eCommerce, and if deployed correctly, can significantly increase the size of a user’s cart, and subsequently, average order value.

You can encourage consumers to buy additional items by featuring images of people wearing or using a product alongside other complementary ones. Visual cues like this subtly prompt consumers to consider snatching up a complete outfit.

Shop the look

Furthermore, merchants can use ‘frequently bought together’ recommendations across product pages and within the cart to inspire consumers. This strategy recommends complementary products that are typically purchased together with the product currently being viewed, or the items in a user’s cart.

Online retailers can go one step further and personalize the product recommendations experience, leveraging what they know about a customer’s browsing behavior and purchase history to present options they are sure to love. These can be placed anywhere on the site or even within email marketing campaigns.

7. Checkout Line Merchandising = Online Checkout Optimization

Checkout areas in retail stores are a prime target for increasing average purchase value with visual merchandising techniques. The space is great for selling low cost/high margin items that appeal to consumers’ buying mindset.

This upselling tactic is commonly seen in the online checkout process too, with high markup items often being promoted as suggested extras – eCommerce merchants are leveraging the cart page to influence impulse buys with in-the-mood shoppers.

However, as in-store merchandisers are careful to balance the desire to upsell with a streamlined checkout experience, it’s just as crucial to not distract customers from the checkout process online. A great solution for this is to promote upsell items in a slide-out cart rather than at the checkout stage.

Checkout optimization example - slide-out cart

Registers are also sometimes visually merchandised with graphics about loyalty programs or in-store events. You’ll often find the cashier asks customers whether they are interested in signing up to a program or activating a points card. Online, you can display widgets promoting loyalty programs as well as enable popups on the cart page. Personalize these messages for customers who have already signed up, showing them their current points or redeemable items rather than a registration form that’s no longer relevant.

Wrapping up

The science of visual merchandising is no longer confined to brick-and-mortar – eCommerce brands are now able to use the tried-and-tested tactics consumers still love and rely on to create truly immersive shopping experiences online.

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