Merchandising Magic

Four tips for creating engaging and eye-catching merchandising displays, and upgrading and maintaining customer-friendly store designs.


Brookside Barkery, in Kansas City, Mo., is a two-time winner of the Retailer Excellence Award for merchandising.


An antique chandelier glows overhead, giving off just enough illumination to highlight a handmade distressed-wood fixture elegantly displaying its wares. Junkyard finds add just the right amount of kitsch, while baskets recued from a local thrift shop brim with goodies, and slight notes of clove and cinnamon hang in the air. It is the kind of store that makes its customers want to stay awhile, the kind of store that makes them want to stay and shop. 

Whether this fictional store is selling antiques and vintage collectibles or pet toys and 20-lb. bags of dog food, the goal is the same: to use effective merchandising and store design to attract shoppers and entice them to buy. And these days, pet specialty stores are just as likely to strive for enviable store aesthetics as shops in decidedly more design-minded retail sectors, such as fashion or lifestyle stores. Of course, it is easier said than done.

Great merchandising and store design often seem to be three parts magic and one part mastery, and not everyone is gifted with a strong aesthetic sense that lends itself to the creation of amazing store layouts and product displays. However, for those who are not naturally endowed with a flair for merchandising—as well as those who have matchbox-sized stores or simply want to refresh the look of their stores—there is good news. One does not have to be an artistic visionary or have a degree from Parsons School of Design to be a brilliant merchandiser. It simply takes a commitment to adopting and implementing a handful of effective merchandising and store-design strategies. Here are four techniques that retailers may want to add to their repertoire. 

Before selling to a growing chain, Dogaholics in Chicago displayed a keen sense of aesthetics.  

Sensory Approach
Merchandising, in the purest, most literal sense of the word, usually refers to the way product is laid out and displayed—in short, the way it looks. But experts urge retailers to stretch their notion of merchandising beyond the visual to consider the customer’s entire experience in the store; that means thinking in terms of all five senses. It is a strategy that Candace D’Agnolo employed during her tenure as the owner of Dogaholics, a Chicago pet specialty retail store. 

“You can touch on all five senses—smell, sight, sound, taste and touch,” she says, identifying smell as one of the most important, if only because of its immediate impact on people when they walk through a store’s front doors. 

D’Agnolo, who recently launched the Dogaholics pet business consulting company after selling the brick-and-mortar retail store to a national chain, says scented candles, plug-in air fresheners and a focus on cleanliness can go a long way in creating an aromatically pleasing setting.  
“In a small space, customers will walk right in and that will be the first impression you make,” she says.

While the impact of sound on shoppers may be more subtle, it is an oft under-utilized component of the customer experience in pet retail. Under the right circumstance, sound can have a powerful impact on shoppers. D’Agnolo—who still operates the Dogaholics service center offering daycare, grooming and training—used the music-streaming service Spotify to help enhance her shoppers’ experience in her retail shop. 
“I noticed that when we would play early Beatles music on a Saturday, people would hang out in the store longer,” she says, adding that storeowners should experiment to see what works with their unique store demographics. “On a Friday, we’d play cool, rock ‘n roll—that’s when we tended to get men shopping, our doggie dads. So we’d play some Led Zeppelin, or some bluesy, jazzy kind of stuff that you haven’t heard in a long time. Then they wouldn’t feel like they had to rush out.”

Of course, in pet specialty retail, taste is always key—at least as it relates to a store’s four-legged customers. Sampling dog treats is the most obvious and effective way of using the sense of a taste to inspire sales. D’Agnolo recommends giving treats to dog-accompanied shoppers to feed to their pets. This way, she explains, they are aware of their dog’s reaction to the treat—something they may miss completely if a staff member feeds the treat. A positive reaction from the pet may spark a sale. 

On the other hand, appealing to shoppers’ sense of touch is not an immediately obvious merchandising strategy. However, when you consider that studies have shown that consumers are more likely to purchase items that they pick up and touch, it makes sense to encourage hands-on interaction between products and shoppers.

“Things should be easy to reach and touch,” D’Agnolo says, adding that merchandisers should avoid building displays that make it difficult to reach out and grab the products. 

Still, while the aforementioned four senses should all be given major consideration when devising merchandising plans, the power of visual merchandising cannot be overstated. A creative use of color, wall art, signage and well-organized, eye-catching displays can coalesce to create a visual landscape that lures customers in and compels them to shop. And retailers need not break the bank to do that.  Photography, for example, can be a great way to add warmth and personality to a store. 

“All of our photos are unique to us,” says D’Agnolo. “We found a photographer that we like in our area, and it did not cost a lot of money.”

No wall space to play with? Retailers without spare wall space to adorn can focus instead on making the displays and merchandising lining the walls as visually interesting as possible. Color-blocking, the use of non-traditional merchandising fixtures, or themed displays featuring a curated assortment of products related to a particular holiday, health condition, life stage or season can help retailers maximize their space while adding visual appeal. 

Two Salty Dogs Pet Outfitters, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, maximizes its curb appeal, while Ruff Life Pet Outfitters, in Petoskey, Mich., finds interesting ways to display its wares. 

Keep it Moving
Falling under the category of oldie but goodie, this next tip always bears repeating: Change things up. Static merchandising is one mistake retailer owner Gary Albert says storeowners should fervently seek to avoid. Albert, owner of Ruff Life Pet Outfitters, in Petoskey, Mich., says the goal is to routinely move merchandise around the store, so even when a store doesn’t have new products to display, return customers may still encounter items they have never seen before.

“For repeat customers, it’s like walking into a new store, because no one can see everything in a store their first and only time through,” Albert says. “For the customer, it gives them the opportunity to constantly discover new things that you might have had for a while.”
Naturally, with only so many hours in a day, the idea of finding time to rearrange product and displays may seem daunting to busy storeowners and staff. However, the task becomes more manageable by focusing on designated sections of the store that easily lend themselves to periodic resetting. 

Jason Heck, the marketing and media director for the Brookside Barkery & Bath—a two-location retail, grooming and self-service bathing business in Kansas City, Mo.—says the stores’ merchandising manager Alex Strawder hones in on key displays on a rotating basis. For example, she creates a monthly special section that highlights a brand that is offering a promotion. Then she also sets up shorter-term displays that leverage holidays, seasons of the year or specific product categories.

“If it’s incredibly hot out, we’ll set up a cooling-products display, with a sign showing a dog in a wading pool,” Heck says. “Alex is able to set up very appealing, eye-catching sections. That’s really important for us.”

He adds that it is also helpful when the space itself lends itself to hassle-free merchandising. “We have a large amount of wire wall, wire racks and grid wall, so we can really constantly shift things around and create a new looking section on very short notice and still have it be organized,” he explains. 

An example of Brookside Barkery’s professional signage. 

Signage and Sales 
Spectacularly arranged fixtures featuring a store’s most desirable products may be all that is needed to move some items out the door. But often, a little more prompting is required to get shoppers to appreciate all a retailer has to offer. This is where great signage comes in.

The sales floor at Two Salty Dogs Pet Outfitters, a pet specialty shop in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, only adds up to roughly 500 square feet, leaving little room for owner Don Kingsbury to layout his entire inventory. Displaying larger items such as pet beds and bags of dog food can be problematic. But well-placed signs let customers know that the store offers much more than meets the eye.

“I use a lot of signs,” explains Kingsbury. “I put small bags of all of the food we offer out there with a sign saying, ‘We have 14- and 28-lb. bags, please ask.’” 

He uses a similar strategy with his display of collars and leashes, where he posts a sign that instructs shoppers to ask for help if they don’t see the size they are seeking. “We probably have it out back,” Kingsbury says. 

Ruff Life Outfitters shows off its offerings to their best advantage.

The Merchandise Matters
Merchandising is also as much about the merchandise itself as it is about how it is displayed—particularly as it relates to which items a store chooses to highlight in special or rotating displays.  Albert is an advocate for identifying high-traffic spots in a store to set off top-sellers and new inventory.

“Merchandise your new items in places that the customers will see as soon as they walk in the door,” he advises.

On the other hand, sometimes retailers may want to shine a light on a quality product that is not getting much attention from shoppers, either due to the nature of the product or its current location in the store’s planogram. Heck says Brookside Barkery uses special display sections to highlight products that are not on customers’ radar.

“The merchandise we put in the special sections we set up is often something that hasn’t been moving that we are trying to draw attention to—things like supplements,” he explains, adding that a carefully curated selection of under-viewed products can create merchandising magic.
“We set up a section for older dogs and dogs with joint issues,” Heck recalls. “People went gaga for that.  We tripled our sales [in that category].

“Sometimes you get lightning in a bottle when you set up the right section, with the right signage, in exactly the right place.”


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