Retail 101: What is Visual Pollution?

Being a good merchant is like being a good communicator: select a single message and hit it hard.  What is the ONE thing every shopper going past your store needs to know? What do they need to know as they enter your store?  Shop your departments? And, finally, checkout and leave the store.  Match the message to the vehicle: put your BOGO offer in the window or on the exterior banner and your return policy next to the cash register and not vice versa, for example.

All too often, however, I walk into a store and am astounded by the number of messages, the vehicles and the levels of information attacking me.  In my previous post on the 5 Roles of Retail Signs I talked about the permanent and promotional messages and their hierarchy throughout a well merchandised store.  Visual Pollution occurs when customers are bombarded with information and messages that make sales clumsy or confusing.  Even simple messages (“Buy any 5 General Mills Cereals and get a Gallon of Milk Free”) can be confusing when they are on an endcap with a mix of Big G cereals and Kellogg cereals or some SKU’s qualify and others don’t or some brands of milk are excluded.

A critical role is the store merchandising coordinator or visual merchant who should be a shopper marketing advocate.  Someone in the retail organization has to be able to match messages to vehicles and create a rational match.  The goal is always to provide shoppers with the relevant information they need to make a satisfying purchase.

Another ugly source of visual pollution is vendor-provided POP materials and “free promo fixtures” that seem to replicate in stores.  Think of the variety of messages, styles and vehicles that appear when vendors are allowed to affix window clings, door banners, fixture toppers, endcap signs, floor adhesives, in-line offers, floorstands, display-ready cases and other items in stores.  To find the most common examples of that, open your eyes in a convenience store where soda bottlers, beer distributors, snack vendors and gum/candy merchandisers clutter aisles, cooler doors and counters with so many products it is often difficult to conduct the transaction at the cash register.  This is also where you will find red, black, blue and white wire racks left over from old promotions being re-purposed on the sales floor making the entire store look like a jumble sale.  Unregulated dollar stores have the same fixture mess.

I once worked with Suncoast Video – a chain of DVD stores that were often under 1200 square feet and  usually had more than 40 different promotional messages at any one time.  Shoppers were expected to wade through signs (often provided by the studios) promoting 20 or more titles from a certain price band, PLUS new release signs, PLUS loyalty point marketing signs, PLUS discounted price signs, PLUS free with purchase offers, PLUS magazine subscriptions, PLUS Netflix offers, PLUS club member offers, PLUS PLUS PLUS.  For shoppers, it was a distraction.  And what is the natural reaction to so many different messages?  To ignore them all.

Skilled retailers have to learn to say NO to secondary and tertiary messages and focus on the primary messages that are most important.  It is hard to say no in marketing meetings where vendors offer funding and buyers whine that they are being prevented from making their budgets.  Secondary and tertiary messages are often highly relevant to a very small segment of the shopping public.  They may be fabulous offers, but their appeal is very limited.  Mature retailers find a better way to reach that valuable target market.  For example, a big box pet retailer will nearly always make dog and cat food the primary message.  Dog and cat consumables are the driving force in the store.  That means fish, birds and other pet messages are always going to be given secondary status.  The solution: create a bird or fish owner subcommunity and address the offers for bird and fish food directly to that target group.  Use social media, opt-in communities and micro sites to direct messages and offers to that group and leave large scale, in-store messages to the high volume/broad appealing offers.

Merchants (buyers), marketers and vendors who work in cooperation can find ways to meet their needs while eliminating Visual Pollution in the store.

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