Swati Bhalla
August 8, 2011

You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A First Impression

We've heard it again and again - "You never get a second chance to make a first impression".

Even though there are many influences at work in the shopping experience, the look of a store holds the most sway in enticing us through the doors. We even tend to sum up that initial in-store encounter in visual terms: a store is exciting, clean or well-organized or, at the other end of the scale, boring, messy, or overwhelming.

It is not enough anymore for a store to just look good from a merchandising or display standpoint. Who can afford to spend quantum amounts of time or money on improving a store's look without being assured of a healthy return on investment? Today, a store not only must perform by exciting and encouraging the customer to buy, but from the retailer's point of view, it must perform profitably.

Visual merchandising is comprised of six components: image, layout, presentation, signing, display and events. This article will focus on the component that lays the groundwork for all the other components -- image. Everything you do within the store -- how you develop your layout, your presentation, your signing, your displays and your events -- must fit into the image you choose to create.

Why Start With Store Image?
Image can be described as the overall look of a store and the series of mental pictures and feelings it evokes within the beholder. For the retailer, developing a powerful image provides the opportunity to embody a single message, stand out from the competition and be remembered.

As a rule, image is the foundation of all retailing efforts. While store layout, presentation, signing, displays and events can all change to reflect newness and excitement from week to week, season to season, they must always remain true to the underlying store image.

Studies indicate that a retailer has roughly seven seconds to capture the attention of a passing customer. The following elements combine to form a distinctive image that not only reaches out and grabs the customer' s attention, but makes a positive impression within those precious few seconds.

The Image-makers:
1. An Identifiable Store Name
2. A Powerful Visual Trademark
3. An Unmistakable Storefront
4. An Inviting Entrance
5. A Consistent and Compelling Store Look and Hook

1. Identifiable Store Names What's in a Name?
An effective store name sets the tone and provides a store' s identification by conjuring up an image in the customer's mind.

A store name should be easy to say and remember, indicative of the images and feelings you want the customer to retain and unlikely to sound dated in a few years.

2. Powerful Visual Trademarks
On Your Mark An identifiable trademark adds a visual image to the memory recall of a store name, by combining words and pictures, colour, shape, typeface, texture and/or style to make it stand out. Identifiable even in the absence of the store name, a successful trademark should be unique to you, indicative of your products and services, consistent with the overall impression you want to leave customers and be professional and well-designed.

3. Unmistakable Storefronts Traffic-Stoppers
Customers simply don't have the time to "read" into the store, so just as your store name and trademark -- the title of your" book" -- must provide instant recognition and recall, your exterior storefront -- the cover of your "book" -- must project a welcoming, clear and concise image of what' s in-store.

Traffic-stopping storefronts use a thoughtful combination of exterior architecture, signing and window displays to ensure a powerful first impression.

Exterior Architecture
A store's exterior look is often referred to as the architecture, and comprises aspects such as building materials, architectural style and detail, colours and textures. A store in a Victorian brownstone building, for example, will exude images associated with the building' s architectural era, such as cozy, tastefully cluttered and comfortable.

If your exterior architecture is not projecting the right image, consider painting or re-facing the storefront, adding or removing some architectural elements in keeping with your image, or consulting a designer to totally re-engineer the storefront.

The Store Sign
The store sign is a vital element of the storefront, identifying your store and beckoning the customer to take notice and stop. In realizing the value of a strong storefront sign, many retailers are employing new design techniques which include projecting or cantilevering the store sign beyond the lease line, adding motion, or using three-dimensional lettering and unique lighting applications to add depth to the sign.

If your storefront sign is losing the battle for visual dominance among neighbouring stores, consider re-painting it or adding more colour, making it bigger and bolder, incorporating your trademark, using new, more contemporary materials to create your sign, and/or adding motion or lighting.

Store Windows
A store's exterior windows or glass storefront provide an additional opportunity to reach out and grab the passing customer. Windows are integral in creating a positive impression since they offer an opportunity to begin telling your store's unique merchandise story immediately.

Many retailers underestimate the powerful pull of an effective window, treating the area more as additional stock space than the true image-maker and magnet it can be. This prime real estate should be approached as a showcase for the newest seasonal merchandise dramatized with props and themes in keeping with your store image.

Consider adding motion to your window with animated displays, turntables, fans, video screens or motorized pulleys.

The Customer's Vantage Point
In planning your storefront, utmost consideration must be given to the customer's vantage point. Place yourself in the customer's shoes in considering their reverie -- the speed at which they are traveling, their preoccupation-levels and the chances of getting them to stop. The more hurried and distracted a customer is, the less chance there is of getting their attention.

Often, plans that look good on paper fail miserably because they are developed from the retailer's vantage point, not the customer's. Many retailers plan their storefronts based on a "head-on" perspective, which entails a direct 90 degree-angle approach. But is that the customer's vantage? Not typically. Usually, the direction of customer traffic flow is influenced "by the location of a parking lot, a public transportation terminus or some other physical feature...displays canted or slanted to that dominant direction of traffic will get more serious attention."

To increase the chances of customers noticing your store, consider the following: What direction and angle is the customer coming from? Is your exterior sign visible and legible from a distance? Is the traffic predominantly drive by or walk by? Are there any discernible traffic patterns and at what speed are they moving at various times of the day? Are your store windows easy to read from the distance the customer will first notice them?

One brilliant pet retailer made sure that dog-walkers didn't pass by his store -- he placed an antique fire hydrant right beside his entrance!

4. The Store Entrance
The entrance to the store is the division between the outside and inside environments. Mall retailers have an easier chance of luring customers into the store with a wide, open entrance, creating a seamless entry from the mall to the store. Retailers who depend largely on impulse traffic should try to create an open storefront, either by removing storefront barriers completely or by creating an unobstructed view into the store with a glass frontage.

Street retailers and some mall tenants who require portals due to climate control or a need for intimacy or security, have less opportunity to give customers a tantalizing taste of the interior, therefore have a greater challenge of persuading them through the door. For these retailer, an unobstructed and welcoming doorway combined with a great window display can provide the lure.

In all types of store entrances, customer's need to get the impression that they (and their children) will be comfortable and welcome. Obstacle courses, visual clutter and "Do Not" signs on the doors are negative turn-offs that often result in a negative first impression and a lost customer.

Multiplying Positive Impressions
Creating a consistent positive impression is important -- particularly so if you have more than one store. Customers should be able to recognize and identify with your store, whether it is in Victoria or Moncton. Even if your multiple locations differ in size, shape, design and even merchandise mix, you can create continuity of image by having common elements throughout the chain. Consider applying the same store trademark to all of your marketing, storefront and in-store applications, extending some common exterior elements to all of your stores and/or using similar props, treatments and themes in your store windows.

5. By Look or by Hook Getting the Customer In
Within the first few seconds of catching their interest, the customer' s focus moves beyond the store's exterior for a visual scan of the interior while they mull over whether to enter or not. Getting a customer through the door is indeed a victory.

In most instances, customers are either on a mission to make a planned purchase (the Seekers), or are shopping for amusement, entertainment or ideas (the Browsers).

Seekers may plan a trip to your store to make a premeditated purchase or may decide to enter because they are comparison shopping for something specific. For the seeker, a deeper look into the store must reinforce their confidence that the store will have what they are seeking and that they can get in and out easily and quickly.

Browsers are more inclined to enter a store impulsively, drawn by the overall impression that a store has something they should check out. For the browser, a further look into the store must plant a seed of interest and hook them in.

For both seekers and browsers, the deeper glance into the store and the resulting decision -- to enter, or not -- is often attributed to the overall store look and a compelling hook.

A Visual Look
An inviting entrance is crucial in stopping the customer and establishing a positive first impression, but if the inside store messages create feelings of inconsistency or confusion, all is lost. For example, a clear and well-articulated store entrance that is followed up with a barrage of inconsistent aisle patterns, sloppy merchandising and confusing signs signals to the customer that the exterior image will not be fulfilled on the inside. Truly impressive stores are consistent in all efforts from the storefront right through to the stockroom.

A Visual Hook
A visual hook is a call to action that diverts a customer's attention to your store with a "Stop! There's something here for you!" Powerful visual hooks are created by marrying other visual merchandising components for a more memorable first impression. An exciting entrance presentation, an effectively signed promotional offering, a powerful interior display, in-store animation or events all serve as magnets to draw the customer in. Successful hooks ensure that the impressions they project are consistent with the store's overall image.

Well-executed hooks hold tremendous appeal for the customer, particularly the browser. A fashion retailer, for example, recently created a compelling hook for one promotion using the sights, sounds and smells of the Orient. Sales associates posted at the entrance offered fortune cookies containing discount coupons to customers. Large colourful posters, banners and Oriental art and props throughout the store windows and interior carried the theme further. Even the air was filled with the subtle sounds of Oriental stringed instruments and lightest whiff of incense.

Just like the above example, many of today's retailers are extending their store hooks into the realm of sensory appeal for a total image package. But to ensure the result is appropriate, you need to understand the psychological effect of sight, sound and smell on the consumers.