Avoiding Visual Merchandising Mistakes

By asking a couple of key question, avoiding common mistakes and honestly assessing their stores’ approach to merchandising, pet specialty retailers can project the right image to customers.



Visual merchandising creates an engaging and interesting retail experience for customers, resulting in increased sales. Good visual merchandising communicates a pet store’s image, invites customers into the store, and encourages them to stay and shop.

Exterior and interior signage and lighting, window and in-store displays, housekeeping and more—all of these visual elements tell a story that helps determine how customers feel about a store not only while they are shopping, but long after they leave.

Who is the Customer?
Product selections and displays can communicate a lot about the customers a pet retailers has and the customers it wants. These demographics include where shoppers live, their economic status and age, the type and number of pets they own, and the hobbies and activities they enjoy with their animal companions.

Customers are drawn to what is visually meaningful to them. Designing displays that help shoppers envision themselves using the products in the store is one way to increase sales. That might include themed displays about a specific activity, like hiking with their dogs or horse riding, or props that help shoppers envision how a product is used.

What is the Price?
Price image describes how customers perceive a store’s pricing—as high, low or competitive. How retailers display products can be just as important as what items they carry in helping to visually communicate a target price image.

Industrial shelving, bright lights and lots of products massed together help create a value price image. Glass and wood cabinets, lower lighting levels, and displays with just a few, carefully chosen items, help communicate exclusiveness and luxury.

Avoiding Common Mistakes
Customers’ visual perceptions of a store influence how they feel about their shopping experience, both in the moment and after they leave. Avoiding the following mistakes will help increase sales, increase inventory turns and improve profit margins:

Poor Housekeeping—Maintaining the store and merchandise displays sends a message of service and quality. Common challenges include stray products on shelves in other departments; trash left on displays; finger and paw prints; clutter; and dusty, faded or torn packaging. The fix is simple: Routinely do housekeeping and merchandise recovery. Repeatedly remind associates that it’s all about the details.

Too Much Product—Too much product can be a common trap for smaller stores that are trying to maximize their product offerings. While a retailer may think that more merchandise results in more sales, that’s not always true. Too much product makes it difficult for customers to find the items they wish to purchase.

Too Little Product—Not having enough product is another common merchandising error. Out-of-stocks occur for a variety of reasons, including ordering errors and late delivery. Seasonal and promotional inventory presents a unique challenge. Customers expect stores to be well stocked with the products they want. If a store’s shelves or hooks are empty, it tells customers the retailer does not have a good selection or availability of products. This may send the message that the store can’t be relied on to carry what customers need.

To avoid this common merchandising mistake, spread products to fill the space until inventory arrives or fill in the space with other similar merchandise. Consolidate items into a smaller space and re-purpose the space for new, fresh inventory. Use the final few items of discontinued, seasonal or promotional product as props in displays focused on other merchandise. For example, if a store has one last cat scratching pole for sale, incorporate it into a vignette with cat mannequins, cat beds and toys.

Stale Displays—Displays that remain the same week after week become stale and can send a message that merchandise is old and unpopular, creating a perception that the store is also out-of-date. Customers want to shop at stores with the latest and greatest merchandise. Tactics to prevent displays from feeling stale include:

• Move permanent endcap displays from one side of the store to the other or to another location.

• Change endcap displays based on how frequently loyal customers visit the store. If regulars typically come in every two weeks, change displays at least that often.

• Change window displays frequently. If a customer sees something new or different, she is more likely to stop in to browse.

• Cross-merchandise more expensive products with complementary, value-priced items. Retailers can refresh the display every week or two with different accessories. For example, display a large aquarium with pumps and cleaning supplies one week, then with an assortment of substrates and decor, and finally with smaller tanks.

Homework Assignment
To assess a store’s visual merchandising, retailers should give themselves the following homework assignment: break the store into zones—exterior, each department, checkout, grooming area, etc.—and take photos of each. Often, the camera helps bring a fresh eye to things that may be overlooked simply because they’re seen every day.

Evaluate the photos as objectively as you can from the customer’s point of view:

What does the store communicate to customers?

What’s the store’s style? Who is the customer? What is the price image?

What is the store doing right?

What could the store be doing better?

This homework assignment can help retailers identify ways they can enhance their stores’ appeal to customers.

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. Since it was first launched in 2008, over 5,100 retailers have turned to Pet Store Pro for brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit www.petstorepro.com to register and begin using the program.

This article was adapted from “Advanced Merchandising,” one of 25 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover exterior and interior visual merchandising, common visual merchandising errors, and implementing an impulse merchandising plan. The chapter also includes downloadable worksheets to conduct an impulse merchandising audit and develop an action plan.


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