The best looking online store you’re going to find isn’t a big name chain store, high fashion New York dot com boutique, or trendy west coast online shop. While taking a coffee break today, do yourself a favor and click on over to the blog derived ‘Hello, Scarlett Store’ on Etsy. As of this morning there are exactly fifteen items for sale, but that’s all we needed to see to become huge fans of this eclectic shop. The product catalog shots communicate a boutique, curated offering of unique items better than most physical boutiques do. The sense of composition, aesthetic and detail is head and shoulders above what the average merchant or big-box team is willing or able to commit to. We’re trying to figure out what if any filters were used, but regardless, the little details come through. A blouse is arranged in an artful fold, with camera and plant composition. Real people act as models lending authenticity to the shopping experience. Beautiful photographs of the Canadian prairie are arranged against a wood backdrop. It all helps to bridge many of the challenges of shopping online for one-of-a-kind tangible products. Our mind’s eye can see the art on our walls or the fabric in our hands. And it’s not overly contrived, or overwrought. It’s a perfect balance of art and reality. In a world of middling online shopping experiences, the ‘Hello, Scarlett Store’ is a shining example to online, as well as brick and mortar stores, that attention to detail in how you present your products is one of the most important aspect of your success as a merchant.
While working on a research project I figured I finally had a reason to stop in and check out our relatively new local Aldi store. For whatever reason I hadn’t found the time to stop previously, despite the fact I live and breathe retail as a designer and consumer. I will say, I was pleasantly surprised and found the store to not be quite what I expected. While I only had time to do a cursory walk though, I came away with a strong positive impression and noticed several things Aldi does well.
Fixture Free Merchandising
As a designer I always (half heatedly) joked that consumers would buy anything from a card board box cut open on the floor if the price was right. Turns out my first impression as I stepped through the doors of Aldi was of exactly that. Wide aisles are flanked by products essentially sitting in the boxes they were shipped in. A warehouse store for food. While this form of merchandising may be how they do retail in Europe (Aldi is a German based company), it’s not as common on this side of the Atlantic. And those that try over here usually provide a middling shopping experience at best. In Aldi I observed some fixed and wheeled racks, and even climate controlled cases, but it was not unusual to see product neatly organized on the floor or by the unadorned checkout. The look screams efficiency, good prices on products and no-frills.
I make my living designing retail displays, fixtures and environments and I’m telling you: you don’t always need it.
This speaks to one of my fundamental goals as a designer: don’t design, and subsequently produce, displays and fixtures unless you need them. Far too often salesmen and marketers focus on displays and fixtures to salvage products and brands. I make my money by designing retail displays, fixtures and environments and I’m telling you, you don’t always need it. Ask yourself, would people purchase my product if I just laid it out in a cardboard box on the floor? What is my brand, and how do I want guests to experience it? How do my displays and fixtures complete or enhance the experience? While just throwing stuff on the floor is an extreme example, don’t be afraid to really question what you do and don’t need to win at retail. Start with your brand, product, packaging and then yes if you need to finish the deal, take a look at the display.
The simple, less is more, European-inspired theme carries over to the signage throughout the store, inside and out. A simple multi-level metal C-channel holds product information and pricing in quick to read black and yellow print. Unobtrusive right angle flags (RAF’s) provide category information.
As subtle as the aisle signage is, the large format graphics above the freezer and dairy cases command attention in a clear manner. Giant letters communicate the brand message to guests, and large photos of produce delight. The images and copy can be seen from anywhere in the store. It’s one of the first things guests notice when they walk in the door. Ultimately if you don’t know what to do from a retail environment standpoint then fall back on large format graphics with great art, copy or photography. You really cannot go wrong.
Aldi is a really small store, especially for being a grocer. I’m not sure there is much depth of product offering, but that probably doesn’t matter to the consumers who visit time and time again. I could easily see every corner of the store from the entrance. Overall it is an open and airy feel that you never get in other grocery stores. The aisles are wide and very orderly. Despite the store’s small size, I never felt cramped walking along. Most stores with that small a footprint would feel compelled to jam as much product (signs, departments, fixtures, etc.) in the store to ruin the experience. Aldi understands why it exists.
Which leads to my last point, Aldi knows their brand and it plays out in all the details from parking lot to check out. This is the true test of a good retailer. “Simply Smarter Shopping” defines the Aldi brand and experience. Am I going there for everything? Probably not, but what I do buy there will be, presumably, at a good price and decent quality without any fuss.
While the feel is decidedly warehouse there’s nothing overtly cheap. Packaging art does all of the heavy lifting which saves a lot of money. This saves cost by eliminating the need to produce a lot of random signage and displays; these lead to clutter which in turn undermines their existence in the first place. Aldi breaks that cycle which allows it to stay on brand and reduce expenses.
I’m not the only one who’s impressed. The retailer has been picking up good press both here and on the other side of the pond. I for one was skeptical, or at the very least unsure, but I was delighted to see what a great looking, and functioning store it is. I will gladly use these, and other examples of best practices I discovered at Aldi, in the future. It would be worth your while to consider doing the same.
I’m a strong proponent for letting the product do most of the heavy lifting at retail. Too often brands and retailers try to compensate for so-so product or a lackadaisical retail experience by adding more “stuff”: overwrought displays, complicated graphics or the perception of hands on customer service that turns out to be middling at best.
That’s why a recent visit to Naples Soap Company in Naples, Florida was like a breath of fresh air for all the senses. Naples Soap operates a handful of stores in Southwest Florida, the first of which opened in 2009. The store I happened upon is located in Tin City, which is an eclectic group of independent boutiques stationed in old fishing industry buildings on the waterfront. The original space occupied by Naples Soap wasn’t much more than a corridor when it opened, but has since grown into an extraordinary, airy shopping experience; an unexpected gem amongst obligatory (at least for this shopper) shell and t-shirt shops.
The entry invites guests to step inside with a large display window, outfitted for Valentine’s Day during my visit. Subtle branding and a soft blue-green facade help the Company fit into its surroundings while remaining true to itself. Lastly, crisp white light glows from the window and entry – a pleasant, guest attracting contrast to the dark Tin City corridors.
Without hesitation I stepped inside and was promptly greeted by a cheerful store associate. I smiled and said “hello“, but my eyes never left the wonderful displays of soaps, creams and other curious skin conditioning products. I don’t even shop for this sort of stuff, but my eyes couldn’t keep myself from staring. Yes, I bathe and practice (usually) good hygiene, but generally this sort of product would be lost on me, or at least the marketing demographic I represent. The walls featured a sea of cubed displays each lined with bands of colorful soaps. Tin baskets held round soups in an orderly fashion. Table tops supported stacks of perfectly aligned jars of body cream. Maybe it’s because of some underlying OCD, but I was enamored from the get-go.
Product was the main attraction here.
Getting clean never looked so good.
I wandered the store, taking in its clean boutique feel. In a complex world, the down-to-earth simplicity of it all was relaxing. I was in the mood to buy soap. Who gets in the mood to buy soap? The same blue-green color from the entry carries its way through the rest of the interior walls. Fortunately for Naples Soap, the space includes a few windows in the back of the store. This isn’t always the case at retail. They take full advantage of the natural light. I felt cleaner just walking around, bathed in light and the bouquet of scents in the air. Unadorned natural wood floors compliment the soft color of the walls and add some authenticity; sense of place. Are they the same floors from the 1920’s, I wondered.
There is nothing complicated about the displays. As far as I could tell, most of them are from an IKEA catalog. And why not, it all looked perfect as far as this designer is concerned. When product is king, the displays should do their job and then disappear. Clean white is, expectedly, the predominant color of choice for shelves and tables. Secondary work spaces dissolve under a coat of blue-green wall color. The overall look is typically cosmetic and boutique, but uniquely Naples Soap. The brand plays out from product, to packaging, to retail presentation, to associate-guest interactions, all working in concert. The product feels special because of the visual delight and attention to detail. Like any good boutique brand, it makes the guest want to explore, to learn and most of all: to buy.
I did take the opportunity to converse with a store associate to learn more about the product and the store. She was knowledgable and enthusiastic in explaining the various products, and telling my wife and I about the brand story. My favorite product, not that I’d use it myself per se, was a loofa soap, displayed fantastically on little stands; little visual pods of color that looked like a collection of sea creatures waiting to go home with me. Nearby glass jars held “bath bombs”: little spheres of happiness that you drop into your bath water after a long day battling the world (my descriptions, not theirs).
From a signage standpoint, everything is clear and to the point. Taking the time to explain products, benefits and brand but not “in your face” or a garish way. It’s there if you need it. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you can just take in the visual spheres, jars and blocks of colors beckoning to be picked up and smelled. Same goes for the packaging which is clean and consistent; doing its job to attract, protect and inform, but nothing more.
The point is, as I always say, so much effort is put into the details of product and packaging that why not let the fruits of that labor carry through to the merchandising. Far too often it’s all ruined at the last-minute by the merchandising. By no means is it easy to pull off simplicity in retail merchandising while balancing brand feel and keeping the focus on the product. More often than not it can go terribly wrong, and to a certain extent it depends on the product. At Naples Soap Company everything comes together to provide a delightful retail experience for guests.
In the end we (my wife specifically) purchased a few goodies, including a sample pack of soaps in a little corrugated sleeve with a silver ribbon. But I also took with me a great retail experience that leaves me with the brand at top of mind. Which should be the goal of any merchant.
Earlier this week my wife and I decided to consider switching grocery stores. She had recently taken a field trip with our oldest son to a local northeast Ohio grocer, Heinen’s, and was impressed with the “behind the scenes” tour. We had shopped there before, but never really for a full trip so to speak. This past Tuesday morning was our first comprehensive visit to our local store.
Probably more so than any other retail outlet, where one buys groceries garners the highest degree of shopper loyalty I suspect. You go there every week, list in hand, and you learn the layout. The art of navigating the grocery store waters is refined over the course of years. You learn where your bread is at, where the Kalamata olives are…how best to request the week’s cold cuts from the surly deli lady. So switching stores is not to be taken lightly. One year at Thanksgiving I could remember hunting several different stores for specific ingredients that couldn’t be found in our regular store, only to be frustrated by the various layouts. Ultimately, when life is hectic, getting in and out at fast as humanly possible is just as important as quality and pricing.
Having been to our local Heinen’s several times previously we sort of knew what to expect, but we made sure to take our time and visit every part of the store to learn the layout and see how we liked it compared to our regular grocery shopping retailer. Size is the biggest physical difference between old and new. Everything at the other store is bigger….parking lot, product offering, number of checkout stations.
“We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home.”
I grabbed a shopping cart that was decidedly smaller than what we were used to, and we started in the produce department. The perceived quality of the produce is higher in my mind at Heinen’s than most other grocery stores. The food is displayed artfully and the saturated colors make you want to start making exotic salads and side dishes. Navigating the area was a challenge, because when you’re new to a store you just don’t know where anything is. We spent probably twice the normal amount of time there, but ultimately got everything we needed. One note, we asked the same produce associate where something was about a half-dozen times and each time instead of just saying “oh, it’s over there” he would walk over and physically show us. I had to ask the wife to ask the last time because I was too embarrassed to ask.
As we passed down the dairy aisle we were loving the wide open aisles. Grocery shopping was no longer a stressful battle with humanity for nature’s bare essentials. It was a relaxing stroll through wood (patterned vinyl) floors with bright lighting overhead. We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home. Granted traffic was light on a Tuesday morning, but I would imagine that even with a Summer weekend or holiday rush the store would be manageable, as opposed to most grocery stores that appear to be selling aisle displays in lieu of food. Just as in the produce department, products throughout the store were arranged in an orderly fashion. Packaging designers should rejoice, for the time taken to organize the product on shelves made good packaging design shout out to guests. In a world where retail designers and marketers spout off about making the product “king“, only to have the system delegate product to an afterthought, saddled with promotional signage and overwrought merchandising schemes; it was refreshing to see restraint and product focused merchandising.
We spent a majority of our time in the perimeter of the store, moving through baked goods, frozen foods, and meat departments. We were pleased to see options for sustainably and humanely raised meat and eggs. Adjacent to the meat department is probably our favorite superfluous “lifestyle” department; a whole area dedicated to cheese, beer, wine and hors d’oeuvre meats. This area alone pushed our grocery bill well beyond what we would have spent at another outlet, but how can you resist artisan cheeses from Washington state and the joy of hunting for “cheap” wine. The wine selection was a bit pricy for our undiscriminating palate, but we can stock up elsewhere for our kind of wine elsewhere. Regardless, once again the shopping experience was delightful and experiential without being gimmicky.
Worn out from spending so much time in the perimeter, and with a small cart already overflowing, we made a quick dash to the center of the store to pick up various pantry provisions. The shopping experience in the core was every bit as delightful as the edges. Products were in order, offering exotic (to us at least) varieties and old standbys in equal measure. Wide aisles made it easy to park the cart, hunt and gather without hindering other guests.
As a small store in an affluent area, the store’s smallness caters to higher income guest who most likely eat out quite a bit and don’t load up on groceries as much as, say, maybe our hectic family would in a typical trip. Checkout was a challenge as we unloaded our overstuffed little cart. In fact I had to get a second cart, and that’s when I discovered they offered larger carts up front; chalk that up to the learning experience. One other difference, that is probably common in settings where parking lots are smaller, is that the store loads your car up for you. I had to restrain the independently minded part of me and gracefully pull up to loading door. I darted back and forth, the control freak in me making sure the gentleman could fit everything in the back of our Rabbit, which already had two car seats in the back, limiting grocery getting space to just the hatch area. With some planning though everything fit and I showed great restraint.
So are we switching? We’ll keep visiting, learning where everything is at the new store. Nearly every grocery chain has their advantages. Ultimately it comes down to cost, convenience (experience) and quality. Both grocery chains we’ve been using hit on all three in different ways. I could see leveraging each, and others, for their strengths. They are good at what they set out to do, who they set out to be.
When we talk specifically about Heinen’s, from a design perspective I think their strength is providing great quality and great shopping experience. Their brand message plays out in their store, by displaying quality products in an orderly manner without being overwrought. Food is a very personal necessity. Maybe shopping for it shouldn’t always border on being work and something we try to get over with. By fostering that relationship we have with food, Heinen’s helps guests slow down and really appreciate shopping for sustenance. It’s not only our pantry that is renewed after shopping there.
Apparently I don’t get out much, but when I finally was allowed to leave my studio earlier this week, I found myself at the mall with my family. We needed new dishes, so we stopped by Pottery Barn and found something we liked. It would be about a half hour to pull inventory and pack our two sets of dinnerware, so we had some time to kill. After the kids tossed a few wishful pennies in the fountain (ah, the simple things in life….when’s the last time you did that?) we aimlessly wandered around the corner and found ourselves in front of the LEGO store. The kids were happy. Their father, on the other hand, kind of dreaded the thought of having to buy more LEGO’s, not because of any aversion to small building blocks (I love them, and play with them, to this day) but rather because both young boys just had birthdays and received plenty already. Across the way though, something caught my eye.
“You guys go check out the LEGO store, I’ll be over here” I offhandedly directed to my toddler wrangling partner, and I walked across the way.
In front of me stood the simple shiny white facade of the Microsoft store. I knew these stores existed, but never really thought to find one in the Cleveland area. Has the concept been around so long that it finally filtered its way down to our area? Who cares. It’s here now.
Before I even stepped inside I was smitten by the large lifestyle graphic panels that ran around the perimeter of the store. “That’s awesome“, I thought to myself. I liked the seemingly backlit color and images. I like how it seamlessly went from wall to wall in a 4′ tall band.
Then the graphics changed.
“Whoa” I mouthed silently to myself.
What I was actually looking at was not back-lit graphics but rather one giant, extremely long, video screen. It took a moment to comprehend. I mean, I’ve seen all kinds of similar, and even more extraordinary things like this before, but not on a somewhat “mass” retail scale. And a part of me probably recalls reading or seeing this sort of thing in trade magazine or something. Hell, we used to draw this kind of idea all the time but it never made it past a shiny computer rendering. Back in the day I thought it’d be cool to use video screens instead of printed signs – never have to ship another piece of seasonal signage again, just upload it. But here, live, in front of me was something I guess I never would have expected…or at least not expected to see during a trip to go pick up plates and coffee mugs (albeit a different store obviously).
It was pure visual retail porn.
Without hesitation I stepped inside. I basked in the glow of my newly discovered wall of visual ecstasy. Watching fields of grass in one section, the time and date in another….over there a competitive comparison…all on one screen…like two hundred feet long…that turned two corners. I wanted to shake someone’s hand. Somewhere out there was a very proud design team who made a very compelling case to someone with there wear withal to make this happen. Very cool.
I was promptly greeted by an Microsoft sales associate. We chatted a bit. I owned up to the fact that I was just looking around. I did not use the words “porn” or “ecstasy” in case you were wondering. There I was snapping photos with my phone (I won’t mention the brand…let’s just say it was ironic), like a kid in a candy store….or LEGO store. I walked around, not really interested in the product. I only had a few minutes, so it’s not like I could do a complete deep dive on this retail visit. I was just winging it.
Towards the back I was eyeing the Xbox gaming area when another associate and I started talking. She demonstrated how guests can try out the latest games using controllers tethered to small posts. Gaming screens appeared within the larger screen display that wraps the store. The area is surrounded by simple full faced software displays and large format graphics informing guests of new releases. Also, at the front of the store is a floor to ceiling gaming demo space, that I’m sure draws in mall visitors. The day I was there they had a, yet to be released, Xbox One showing off its impressive graphics capabilities. Very cool indeed.
The topic then switched over to computers after I asked what the space behind the registers was for. They have a small classroom to teach guests how to use their new computers. The space features contemporary tables, benches and a very large monitor. On the main sales floor there are various areas to learn about the different computers and other products the store has to offer. All are done in relative simplicity and feature clean contemporary lines. Guests are welcome to sit while shopping as stools are plentiful; something that is in contrast to competitive stores I believe. Personally I found myself smitten again as my Microsoft expert companion explained the pros of picking up a new Surface computer, complete with stylus and portable keyboard. Alas I didn’t have a spare $800 burning a hole in my pocket, but at least now I have something to dream about.
As I walked out of the store I noticed the deftly executed backlit window sign. Actually I had seen this from across the aisle, where I left the family earlier, but the video wall had usurped this window sign in my giddy excitement. Now I examined the window sign closer. It was really well done. Graphically it tied into Microsoft’s phone software. The edge and back lighting were flawless. And the sign artfully suspended itself visually as if in mid-air (it actually sandwiches the store window, but your eye couldn’t care less about the glass window).
In my imagination and experience as a designer the window sign and the highly technical video wall were both visual delights, that borders upon being downright mythical in my opinion. I was very impressed.
I would say that the store is doing its job. At least for me. I went in with a few minutes to kill and left with visions of Surface tablets and the Xbox One dancing in my head. I will definitely plan another trip to the Microsoft store to take a closer look. Honey, if you’re reading…you might want to confiscate my credit card before I go back.