Manuu Mansheet, a visual merchandiser, has designed and conceptualized over 200 stores and redesigned around a 1,000 more. In a conversation with Sanjay Choudhry, he offers unique insights into the world of visual merchandising.
Q. Since when has visual merchandising become important in retail?
Visual merchandising is not something new. It has been omnipresent through history. It is required by anybody with something to sell, from a fruit vendor to a department store. As long as retail and competition among retailers exist, visual merchandising will exist too.
In the West, modern visual merchandising as a discipline came into vogue in the 1960s. In India, it arrived on the scene 20 to 25 years ago with the advent of large-format stores and retail chains which demand more professionalism and systems than stand-alone stores.
Q. Why do retailers need visual merchandising?
A couple of decades ago, when you needed to buy something from a stand-alone store, you bought it across the counter from the owner or a sales person who would show you various products and explain things. As stores became bigger, one-to-one interaction between the retailer and the customer ceased. Across-the-counter stores transformed into self-browsing, selfhelp stores. In the absence of personal interaction, it has become important for the modern large-format stores to give a look and feel that is in tandem with how a customer would walk in and interact with the merchandise. Visual merchandising ensures that this objective is met.
Q. What are the main elements of visual merchandising?
Visual merchandising is about two things: (i) aesthetics and visual appeal, and (ii) organizing the store and products in a manner that leads to a more efficient shopping process and more effective communication with shoppers.
There was a time when visual merchandising was restricted to just window displays. Today, it encompasses the entire visual environment and atmospherics of a store: the ambience, the music, the communication with customers, the smells, the textures, the materials used in the store, the facade outside and the entire retail space inside.
Q. How do you actually go about designing a store?
There are many technical things that go into designing a store and putting together a collection. As a visual merchandiser, I will break down a store into three main components: the exterior element, the interior element and the window display. When you design a store, first you look at the facade – what kind of a face the store is presenting to the customers, where the customer flow is coming from, what is the communication required, the main entry point, the main signage and the lighting.
The interior element is all about how the store is going to be laid out, where all the departments are going to be (if it is a multi-department store), which collection goes where (if it is a boutique store), how to arrange the shelves and the store displays, the lighting, etc.
A lot of thought goes into how to tackle the five senses of a customer, which together create the store ambience. Visual merchandisers focus on how much personal space the layout offers the customers and how comfortable are they when they move around the store. There has to be a balance and flow of colors. Color flow is very important. Human eye likes going softly from light colors to darker ones. This gradation has to be kept in mind while arranging merchandise. Rhythm and balance are also very significant.
Correct organization is essential for modern stores – each product has to be put at a particular place according to a purpose. Good visual merchandising has to create “stories” – color stories, texture stories, the way related products are arranged together– so that it becomes easier for a customer to understand a product category and take purchase decisions quickly and without confusion.
Communication with the customer is a very important part of visual merchandising, from the entire store ambience right down to the price tag. A customer should get to know if a product has aspirational value for him or has utility for him in relation to the cost he is paying.
Q. What is your definition of good visual merchandising?
Good visual merchandising must have a “wow” element – customers who come to a store should feel happy because ultimately every retailer has opened the store for the customer, not for his own benefit. A lot of times, people mistake beautiful stores to be good visually effective stores. It is important for visual elements in a store to be effective, but not all beautiful stores are so. Whether it is a designer store, a high-end boutique or a grocery store, the visual merchandising should be effective. It should have the right environment and the right ingredients for a customer to come, feel happy and shop.
In today’s competitive world, retailers are looking for loyal customers who would return again and again to shop. Visual merchandising is a commercial game but there is a lot of feel-good factor and aesthetics in it to make the customer feel happy.
Q. What is your assessment of the Indian visual merchandising market?
It is great. Visual merchandising has got recognition in the country in the past 20 years. Today, every retailer, every brand, every chain of stores is looking for a team of visual merchandisers.
However, I feel that even though everyone in India wants to have a visual merchandiser on board, they still want to slot them in a 9-to-6 kind of job. Many times I have come across a team of visual merchandisers working in companies whose roles have been diffused. They have been given added responsibilities such as taking care of stocks and reordering in a store! That is not the job of a visual merchandiser. I feel sorry for the retailers who are using their visual merchandising staff for such duties.
Many Indian retailers don’t realize the actual role of a visual merchandiser, who actually plays a very clinical and professional role in a store. They cannot just digest that there could be visual merchandising professionals who would do just one function in the organization. They try to load them with work unrelated to visual merchandising. This is really unfortunate.
Q. What all qualities should a good visual merchandiser have?
Visual merchandising is 60 percent technical knowledge and theory such as thumb rules, jargon and principles. The rest is one’s own creativity. Either you are born with that or you learn. If you are born with it, then you hone it further. While everyone can learn theory, you can distinguish yourself from others only through creativity and the spark you are born with.
In visual merchandising, there are a few people who rise up the ladder while the rest merely follow the rule books and manuals available in the market. The joy in visual merchandising is in creating, not in following. It is the extra that you do over others that counts.
There are a lot of people entering the field of visual merchandising, but there is a real crunch for good talent, for people who can give results. There is an acute dearth of people who can perform, but there are many who just follow the book. There are very few visual merchandisers who can innovate and create, and that too on a regular basis. The maximum talent that I find in visual merchandising is at the grassroots level. The ordinary workers at the store, with no formal qualifications or education, sometimes perform even better than professional visual merchandisers. Many of these people I have spotted for talent and trained; they have now turned into excellent visual merchandisers.
Q. What are the challenges you face as a visual merchandiser?
One is the mindset; second is the lack of professional help. We don’t have organizations or vendors for lighting and other visual merchandising techniques. We have a few companies that are doing systems of display such as racking but a lot more can be done.
Everybody is reinventing the wheel in India. We are still confused about the difference between a visual merchandiser and an interior designer. There is a lot of mix and match happening between people, and many retailers don’t know whom to approach when they are designing their stores. An interior designer may or may not be a visual merchandiser, but a visual merchandiser is certainly an interior designer.
Q. What are the latest trends you are witnessing in visual merchandising in India?
The trend in India is towards cleaner stores. I like the way the stores are getting cleaned up. This has required a major change in the mindset of retailers because Indian mentality is that the more you stuff a store with products, the better the sales. This is changing. Now you see Spartan and emptier stores with lesser products and collection. This helps in sales because customers increasingly want satisfaction that comes from exclusivity.
As aspirations of customers increase, upmarket stores are getting into higher brands and more expensive products. People have become very conscious about status. They demand more satisfaction for the amount they spend. This satisfaction comes from more exclusive stores and being seen shopping at the right places. Increasing competition and emergence of retail chains are driving visual merchandising in India as brands and stores proliferate.
Q. Where does visual merchandising stand in India compared to the West?
We are actually neck to neck. The difference is in the recognition. The retail industry in India lags behind in recognizing the talent and professionalism of visual merchandisers. Right from familyowned stores to global brands in India, everybody needs visual merchandisers but they are not able to adjust their mindset to paying that much or hiring that kind of talent.
The visual merchandising profession is very well respected in India, but are retailers willing to pay them the right kind of money? Their mindset says: why do we need a visual merchandiser? Can’t we do without him? Another thing is that many prominent Indian retailers, if willing to pay a higher amount, prefer to hire a foreigner from the West. They think anyone from abroad will be able to perform much better than Indians.
They have a mental block in paying a respectable amount to Indians and think that in so much money, why not hire foreigners? As a result, a lot of high visual-merchandising positions in India are being filled up by expatriates. Many retailers in our country cannot digest the fact that an Indian can demand a level of compensation on par with the Westerners.
Q. What are the common mistakes Indians make in visual merchandising?
The biggest mistake is that we try to straitjacket things and put them in a fixed formula. We think if we have done something somewhere, it can be replicated everywhere. India is very diverse geographically and culturally. The tastes, lifestyle and living conditions of people differ from region to region.
Differences in culture are very important. For example, shopping seasons in different states vary to coincide with major festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali or Durga Puja. In rural areas, shopping coincides with a good harvest. Major purchases happen during the wedding season. Shopping season thus varies in the country, and you cannot have the same collection and marketing drives running everywhere at the same time.
Foreign brands come to India and think the same merchandise would sell across the country. This is not Europe. There is no uniformity from region to region in terms of sizes, colors or patterns, and there is no single formula that you can follow.
Another thing is creating the right combination. This is something Indian visual merchandisers and retailers are forgetting. It is about exciting customers and giving them ideas about how a particular product looks in combination with something else.
This interview was originally published in November 2011 issue of Images Retail.