The idea of a product having a unique story goes back to a time before there were retail stores. Back then, customers bought new products by visiting whichever family was the local expert and trading their own wares for something new. "You would go into a village and ask where to get some bread and you’d be told, ‘Go see Martha, down by the weeping willow by the stream; you’ve got to get there before noon and she will trade with fruits and vegetables,’" says Chris Miller, president of Pacific Store Designs, which is based in Garden Grove, Calif. In fact, he says, that history is buried within the word retail, which is derived from Latin meaning to "re-tell."

While stores no longer barter for products or describe their location by their proximity to the nearest body of water, telling a story about where products come from and their value remains an important part of retailing today. There are many aspects that go into creating a particular store’s story—the things that help differentiate it from the competition. Some of these things, such as having a unique product mix or offering excellent customer service, are well known among independent retailers. But there is one basic way retailers can stand out that is often overlooked: merchandising.

Design is one of the best ways to convey a store’s unique story to its customers. And yet all too often a store’s design is set up before the store opens and then never considered again. Or, worse yet, it’s a last minute decision where retailers just take a look around their space and decide where things look good, instead of thinking about things like register placement, traffic flow, and the initial impression customers get from the front-end of the store.

Each aspect of a store’s design conveys to the customer key information about the kind of store they are in, including what they should expect to pay and the quality of the products they will find there.  "It’s all about telling stories and telling them visually and very simply," says Christopher Studach, creative director at King Retail Solutions (KRS), based in Eugene, Ore., which currently works with both PetSmart and Banfield Pet Hospitals on in-store merchandising and design.

Crafting a Brand Message

Founder and owner of Dog-Gone Gifts, DeAnna Radaj knew exactly the message she wanted to convey when she opened her first retail store in Kansas City, Mo. As the store’s name implies, the focus was solely on dog gift products—no food items and no cat stuff. "We had people complain that we didn’t carry any cat items [… and] it would have been easy to cave and say, ‘oh, we have people coming in asking for cat stuff,’" says Radaj. "[But] how in the world did that go with our branding and what our mission statement was?"

Between 2000 and 2002 Radaj grew Dog-Gone Gifts from one retail location to a five-store chain with one store in Missouri and four in Wisconsin. Then, in 2004, Radaj decided it was time for a change. She sold her Missouri store to an employee and closed the rest, before turning her focus to design.

She is currently the founder/owner of Bante Design LLC, based in Charlotte, N.C., which handles design needs for a mix of residential, retail and corporate spaces. She talks about reopening Dog-Gone Gifts in North Carolina and has even begun to look for retail space. Her perspective, straddling the worlds of pet retail and design simultaneously, has given her unique insights into the value of design for retail pet stores.

"There’s just so much competition for [customer] attention," she says. But by providing carefully chosen focal points and creating a design that moves the customers’ eyes—followed by the customers themselves—through the store, retailers can make the store inviting and keep customers in the store longer, generating more sales as they discover things they might not have seen on a quick in-and-out trip, she explains. "[Design] is so important, especially in your entryway and in your window displays, to make them inviting," Radaj adds. 

An entryway sets the tone for a customer’s entire trip into and through the store. It needs to draw in shoppers who are passing by; that means having a clean, well-lit outside and an appealing window display. Miller stresses that it’s important to have a clean and clear storefront, without tape and credit card signs in the windows; he says stores just need to post their hours and whether they’re open or closed.

Of course, even conveying whether the store is currently open should be done strategically. The sign should stand out like a neon sign, and should use the "universal language" to make it obvious the store is a pet store—for example, by using a dog-bone shape, says Miller.

Creating Window Displays

When designing a window display, the first thing retailers need to do is assess where customers will be viewing from, says Studach. Are they seeing the window from a moving car? A major roadway? A parked car in a nearby lot? Are they viewing it as a pedestrian? And if so, how close?

"The vantage point is number one, because that tells you what kind of level of detail you can put into a window," Studach explains. "Essentially, the further away and the faster the view, the less detail you can put into it and the bolder you have to be."

Miller agrees. "Walk-by traffic displays can be more detailed, with movement and a design or a concept that people have a few seconds to absorb […] to entice them to come in the door, versus a drive-by where they just need to see something large and simple to show them it’s a pet store."

Regardless of vantage point, retailers don’t have long to attract a shopper’s attention, so they should aim to make the right impression with that first glance. According to Radaj, the key to doing that is creating a visual space where the eye can rest, but that still draws attention.

One way that can be done is by using a cohesive three-color palette. The primary and secondary color can be drawn from the store’s logo or design and should be complementary. The third color is an accent color to help draw the eye, and should be something that "pops." These should be applied based on the 60-30-10 rule, says Radaj—60 percent of the display should be the primary color, 30 percent the secondary color and 10 percent the accent color.

Another way to call attention to a window display is with movement. Perhaps one of the best year-round window displays available to pet retailers are live animals—for example, a pet store might have puppies in its window; shoppers will stop to watch them play. In mall locations, it’s not uncommon to have a pen near the doorway with bunnies in it in the spring. Even stores that don’t sell live animals can utilize this technique by strategically setting up adoption events in front of the store.

This concept is also probably one of the reasons that some of the pet specialty chains, such as Petsmart, locate their grooming area in the front of the store, with large glass windows so that those outside can admire the pets being groomed. In addition to attracting attention, this placement has the added benefits of advertising that the store offers those services and provides total transparency, building trust and making pet owners feel more comfortable trusting the company with their pets.

Designing the Front End

Once a store has drawn customers to its door, the setup they utilize in the front end will determine whether that customer continues. Miller says that stores have 28 seconds to make the right impression. They form an opinion about a store immediately, so it’s important to get those initial details right. "You go into so many stores and the floor is dirty, the light fixtures are out, they haven’t cleaned, and there is too much product," says Miller.

Assuming the store is cleaned regularly and well lit, a customer’s eyes then turn to the products immediately inside the door. This is often the area that makes or breaks a retailer. Each store should determine if its best strategy is trying to sell a few high-ticket items or many small-ticket items. Retailers with high levels of foot traffic can benefit from having a variety of items with low price points that make good impulse buys, offering a chance to increase average basket size. Other stores will benefit more from selling a few larger-ticket items; higher-end boutiques, for example, can use this to convey their status and to tell that story.

Regardless of which strategy a store implements, it’s vital that the area doesn’t become overstocked or else customers will feel like they’re being pushed right back out of the store. Retailers should develop a marketing plan with a promotional calendar that includes key endcaps, focal points and "wow" statements. Each month, or at least every season, there should be a designated theme and products displayed in the front end—as well as displays throughout the store—should all be developed around that concept.

When done correctly, carrying these changing concepts from the window display, through the front end and into the store’s endcaps—even using them to influence the featured items in an aisle—creates a sense of continuity that makes a customer linger and browse, and the longer a customer is in the store the more likely they are to make a purchase.

Special Displays and Endcaps

Endcaps and interior displays should be developed to fit within the store’s current marketing theme in order to complement the overall design of the store, but retailers should also make sure that they stand out. "I think more and more customers almost shut down [displays like endcaps] because they’re flowing [through the store] looking for their products, and they typically go down aisles and find what they want," says Studach. "So in order to stop someone, you’ve got to do something visually arresting."

As with a window display, the idea when designing an endcap is to create a place where the customer’s eye stops. "It can be a mass of color, it can be something unusually and perhaps larger; perhaps even by creating some kind of really beautiful, emotive, simple message on a banner set over the top of [the display…]," explains Studach. "There are a lot of different things that we can do to create focus and attention."

And as with the front of the store, retailers need to be careful not to overcrowd displays. "An endcap is supposed to have one or two buying decisions," says Miller. "And if there are two buying decisions, they need to be related, such as a cat pan and cat liners, or a cat pan and cat scoop."

He adds that there should also be a clear value price point for why those two items are there—buy one, get one; a percentage discount; or a package deal.

Additionally, retailers should limit themselves to one sign per display. "Only one," says Miller. "A lot of people put four signs on an endcap that say the same thing. It becomes a visual train wreck at that stage of the game and takes away from what you’re trying to display." And he has a special tip for retailers when it comes to endcaps: "Remove one of the products to show that buying has started—it will trigger more impulse sales."

The same techniques hold true when setting up solution centers within a given aisle. Setting up a mini-display within the aisle breaks things up. When shelves all line up and create one continuous line, customers’ eyes follow that line and it leads them to scan rather than focusing on any specific product.

Creating vertical color blocks—areas where a brand or a color line up vertically—stops their eye and allows it to move up and down instead. Retailers should be careful not to overuse this technique, however, or it will make the shelves look busy. Miller recommends using it no more than once every 40 feet.

Although color blocking can’t be used frequently, Miller recommends varying techniques so that aisles are broken up into three-foot or four-foot increments by doing things like stagger shelves. "Tell your story in four-foot sections—don’t try to tell it in a 16-foot section," he explains. Breaking long stretches of product up this way slows down the shopping process—customers stop to look at one section then move slightly further down and stop again—which ultimately leads to more sales.

There is one additional aspect of in-store design that retailers should heed: lighting. "You can have the best design, the best layout in the world, but if it’s not well-lit—if you can’t see it—it’s worthless," says Studach. Good lighting helps a customer see what you want; again, it helps the eye stop to rest in one area or another.

"People, like bugs, are attracted to light space [and] illuminated color," says Miller. "The light attracts the eye; it attracts appraisal. They pick up the product, read the label and buy it. There’s a whole science to it."

Well-lit retailers utilize various levels of lighting—from general, ambient light to accent lighting, designed to call attention to very specific areas or products. Each type of lighting does something slightly different and differences between types of lights and their bulbs—some of which are whiter and cooler, some of which mimic natural light and some of which have a warmer feel—set a different mood.

By using different levels of lighting the store becomes more sophisticated and appears to have more depth; customers are drawn in and carried from focal point to focal point. Then, before they know it, they’ve browsed the entire store and seen all the store has to offer and, assuming the store has already differentiated itself through good product selection and customer service, they are formally converted from one-time shopper to loyal customer.