Designing the shopping experience

Designing the shopping experience

Regular customers of a home-grown apparel and furnishings retailer that has now spread its wings all over India swear that the stores under the chain have an irksome habit of continuously changing their retail design and layout. It is annoying to find hand towels on shelves where you picked your cushion covers from two months ago. Or to find men’s clothing right near the entrance where women’s kurtas were earlier stacked.

Similar complains about a branded grocery retail chain abound.

A few weeks ago, a male colleague returned miffed with his experience at the store of a premium menswear brand. “Are the shirts stacked by size, texture or colour?" he asked, sore with memory of having to constantly seek help while shopping.

The complaints are genuine and endless. Experts in the business assign part of the blame to the country’s young and inexperienced modern retail sector. Developed countries have 40 years of experience in the business and have mastered the art of retail design and visual merchandise to make their stores customer friendly and appealing, they say.

Meera Malik, a visual manager (international licensing) for Nautica Apparel in New York, believes organized retail is relatively young in India compared to the US or Europe and retailers are still in the process of understanding what works for their brands. Besides, often, companies do not set aside sufficient budgets for store design and visual merchandise as their value is still under-estimated.

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Lifestyle retail expert Nagarajan Subramanian, managing partner at Mumbai-based Entheos Consulting, says he would rate India at 3 or 4 on a scale on 10 for retail design and visual merchandise. However, he quickly adds some brands are an exception.

For better customer experience brands need to not only invest in store design but standardize it and ensure it is implemented by its franchisees.

Store layouts make the process of selection easier. For instance, men’s shirts are usually segmented on the basis of casual and formal and then by design (full or half sleeves), looks (stripes or checks), colours and sizes in each of these categories. Of course, there is no single yardstick for retail design as it would vary from category to category and brand to brand. You will never find a luxury store cluttered, for instance. While Louis Vuitton may display 30 designs, a bags store on Linking Road in Mumbai will display 300.

For better consumer experience, staff training is paramount as assistants need to speedily and relentlessly restore order in stores that are often ransacked by impatient and careless shoppers.

Malik explains that visual merchandise (VM) enhances store appeal and makes the customer want to buy. It adds colour to the store design canvas by creating an experience through window displays, product presentation, imagery, lighting, props and music. VM is the single most powerful tool used by retailers today to convey their brand identity and increase sales.

Clearly, visual merchandising is a means to an end. The end being higher sales through effective and consistent delivery of brand identity and cultivating a “I want to dress like this…" feeling in the consumer. Effective VM helps in conversions at the store level and builds an emotional connect with the consumer that keeps them coming back to your store, Malik says.

In India, visual merchandising is still patchy though the consumer is getting sophisticated with an eye for detail. Besides, the trouble with retail stores in India is that they are focused on sales rather than the importance creating an experience through visual merchandise, thoughtful store design for convenient shopping or staff training.

What companies need to do to address the complaints mentioned earlier is to focus on retail design and visual merchandise for which the push must come from the top: It must percolate down to the operations, marketing and buying divisions from the senior management.

That’s not all. Lessons can be borrowed from international best practices and implemented here. According to Malik, a lot of international brands convey their point of view through visual merchandising and store design. Never compromise on the brand vision, she advises.

Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint. Comment at