17 Retail Store Design Tips Guaranteed to Wow Your Customers

By Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender

COVID-19 put your store on hold for a few months but that doesn’t mean that it stopped you. Smart retailers used this time to tweak their sales floors, others underwent complete transformations. 

Those moves were – are – important because your sales floor is a living, breathing entity that requires frequent change. When your displays stay the same, and product adjacencies never move, customers become bored and will shop somewhere else for inspiration. You can’t afford to let that happen in your store; no retailer can. It doesn’t matter what you sell, these universal store planning strategies can be tweaked to fit any type of product and footprint. Here’s how:

Getting started

Shoppers waltz through your store’s front door every day; do you ever wonder what’s on their minds as they pause to take a look around? Those first critical seconds create a first impression that often determines how long the customer will stay and shop.

We do a number of store makeovers each year on all sorts of stores. We begin by observing how people shop the sales floor: Where do they go? Where do they linger? Which areas do they avoid or miss altogether? 

Afterwards, we take a hard look at what we call the BIG 3; the three critical things that must be assessed before beginning each job.

What to consider before redesigning your store

a. The Enablers. These are the important, but often overlooked things, that allow customers to shop comfortably. Enablers make shoppers feel welcome: Think displays and signing that attract attention, carts and baskets that do the heavy lifting, clear, easy-to-navigate aisles, and strong displays that make shoppers excited to interact with the merchandise, and most importantly, buy.

b. The Inhibitors. These are the potholes, the shopper-stoppers that disrupt the buying experience. Good examples are empty fixtures, messy or unorganized displays, product that’s stacked too high, or displays that are packed so tightly they turn customers away. The Inhibitors give us are a strong indication of how well the store is run.

c. The Impression Points. These things start outside of your front door – sometimes even in the parking lot if your store is free-standing or located in a strip center – and continue throughout the sales floor. Impression Points create the perceptions customers carry with them as they shop your store. They also contribute to what they share with friends afterwards. Impression Points create customer Moments of Truth – aha moments, both good and bad. A typical visit to your store could result in 25+ Moments of Truth.

How to optimize each area of your store: 17 tips

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Each of the following areas will help you set your sales floor to sell.

1. Get your window displays right

Potential customers should be able to take in your window displays in eight seconds or less. Your displays need to capture the eye and hold attention long enough for the passer-by to absorb what’s being shown and entice that person to come into your store. 

Intricate displays with lots of little parts are hard to set and the details are often missed by shoppers. Instead, create displays using props and larger products that can’t be missed in those critical eight seconds. Add vinyl lettering to the display that highlights what you sell, and consider replacing window displays with vibrant photo graphics that fill the space when the window size/shape is less than ideal.

2. Make the right first impression — in 10 seconds or less

Stand just inside the front door and look around. In the first 10 seconds inside your door shoppers are making value judgments about what they see, thinking “Should I grab what I need and then head to a store that sells similar things to linger?” You will want to view your sales floor from just inside the door each day, checking to ensure you are giving shoppers the impression you intended.

3. Think about store decor

The colors and textures you choose for your decor matter. Answer these questions: Do all the design elements you have chosen work together? Does the paint color on the walls work well with the flooring? Is your brand well represented?

Color affects people in different ways and some colors cause people to linger, others to leave. We use color in two different ways in store décor: primary colors (neutrals) and secondary colors (bold accent colors). 

Primary colors are used in 80 percent of a store’s décor to create a relaxed atmosphere for customers to shop and to make the merchandise stand out.  Accent Colors are used in 20 percent of the store’s décor to make it pop.  Think of accent colors as attention grabbers.

4. Check your sight line

While you are still at the front of your store check its sight line. You want shoppers to be able to see into and through the sales floor. Get rid of tall fixtures near or at the front that block product housed behind them. Make your displays visible by placing shorter fixtures near the front, and taller fixtures towards the rear of the store. Remember, the more a shopper sees, the more she’ll buy.

5. Work your Decompression Zone

Every store has a 5’ to 15’ area located just inside the front door that’s known as the Decompression Zone – its size depends on your store’s square footage. This space gives shoppers a chance to transition from whatever they were doing outside of your store to shopping. Understand that the Decompression Zone is a no man’s land and that shoppers will walk right by anything you place there. It makes more sense to place floor signs, carts, baskets, product displays, etc. just beyond the Decompression Zone where shoppers are more likely to see them.

6. Choose the right store layout

It’s said that 50 percent of your sales floor is never seen by shoppers so a big part of your job is to create and control how they shop on the sales floor. Yes, you can control how customers shop your store and it’s important to exercise that control. You don’t do this by building walls; you do it by strategically placing your fixtures.

There are many variations of layouts to choose from but here are the three most popular

Grocery stores use a grid layout where fixtures run parallel to the walls. Shoppers have been trained to pick up a cart at the front door and walk up and down every aisle. In a grid layout end features are the stars.

Best Buy, Target and Macy’s rely on a loop layout to move shoppers through the store. Loop layouts utilize a clearly defined main aisle that circles through the store like a race track. Loops offer maximum product exposure because the perimeter walls and gondola valleys are just as important as the end features. Loop layouts generally work best in a larger footprint.

Boutique and specialty retailers benefit from a free flow Layout. In this layout, customers shop the sales floor according to how and where you place the fixtures. Free flow layouts are completely flexible and easy to change.

7. Watch for desire paths

Have you ever skipped the sidewalk and cut across the grass because it was a quicker way to get where you were going? In doing so you created a shortcut called a desire path – you have them on your sales floor, too. Check your carpeting for excess wear in certain areas or spend time watching how customers shop the store. Once you identify the shortcuts they prefer, place displays directly in the middle of that space.

8. Choose the right fixtures

Fixturing should add to the ambiance of your sales floor but it should never be the focal point: good fixtures let the merchandise stand out. You need basic fixturing like wall units, gondolas and shelving to maximize dollars per square foot, and specialty fixturing for feature displays such as Speed Bumps and displaying apparel. ADA requires a minimum of 32” in between fixtures so all customers can shop comfortably on your sales floor.

9. Optimize your Lake Front Property

There are parts of your sales floor that are more important than others; we call these areas Lake Front Property. Use this space to feature new, important and high-margin product. Merchandise the basics toward the rear of the store so shoppers have to walk past fashion and seasonal merchandise to get to them. If your store has a center door 90 percent of customers will enter and either look or turn to the right. Items here should be merchandised with particular care.

10. Cause a pause 

Speed bumps are the first displays a shopper sees when entering the store. Located center stage, speed bumps slow shoppers down and set the tone for what they can expect to find as they browse the sales floor. 

We like to create a focal point using nesting tables that are cross-merchandised with groupings of irresistible product. Tell a story! Why just sell a handbag when you can add-on a wallet, a makeup bag, keychain and maybe a scarf, too?

Remember this: Speed Bump displays need to be changed at least once a week, whether they need it or not. More often if they sell down or become shopworn.

11. Merchandise outposts 

Say you are at your favorite grocery store in the days before Thanksgiving. As you round the corner to get to the turkeys you have to pass a series of displays of other things you will need to complete your holiday meal.

These displays, called merchandise outposts, allow you to cross-merchandise throughout your sales floor. They encourage impulse purchases and are especially effective during the holidays to highlight immediate gifting needs.

12. Vary the heights

Displays work best when they incorporate height and depth, so add props and risers to table displays to add interest. Vary the arm heights on apparel fixtures, on gondola shelving and wall units. When everything is the same height nothing stands out.

13. Use the power of 3

Human brains are wired to seek out the asymmetrical, that’s why we are drawn to displays that feature products grouped in odd numbers, especially in threes. These odd-numbered groupings force the eye to move around, causing the shopper to see more of the items on display.

14. Be aware of the Pyramid Principle

The power of 3 also benefits from the Pyramid Principle.  This is where you place the tallest item in the center and flank it with the smaller items. The eye unconsciously seeks the tallest item first before scanning the smaller items at its side, creating a pyramid-like step down. Again, shoppers see more of what’s on display.

15. Follow the signs

A study done by Brigham Young University found displays with signs outperformed displays without signs by 20 percent. In the battle between sale and non-sale items, regularly priced merchandise outperformed sale merchandise by 18 percent when it was signed and the sale items were not. Bottom line: Your displays need to be appropriately signed.

Signing should be simple and easily understood at a glance. Think sentences not paragraphs, and follow this rule: Take the average age of your oldest customers and divide it in half; this is the smallest font size you can use for signing. Do not use anything smaller than a 30 point font so shoppers who wear reading glasses can easily read your signs without them.

16. Wrap it up

Inside your store, customers should never stop thinking about merchandise, even when they lined up to pay for their purchases. Display small, high profit, impulse items on and around the cash wrap. If you are lucky enough to have a wall directly behind your counter use it to tell a merchandise story or to showcase important products. If your store has checkout lanes, consider adding a queue with displays with impulse items shoppers have to pass through while waiting their turn to pay.

17. Perform the 360 Degree Pass-By

If you’ve ever witnessed a store associate lead a shopper to a display and say, “I know it was right here yesterday!”, you need to adopt our 360 Degree Pass-by exercise: a quick walk through every inch of the sales floor. 

In the five minutes it takes to do this exercise you will easily pick up on areas that need attention, product that needs restocking, displays to face or straighten, signs that need to be replaced, etc. Every person who works in the store needs to do a daily 360 Degree Pass-By at the beginning of each shift.

So, what’s the end goal? To create a layout that entices shoppers to walk your entire sales floor and to set irresistible displays that not only invite customers to play, but sell more product.

Store layout is an art but it’s also a science. The techniques shared in this article aren’t new, but they have been utilized by successful retailers for one simple reason: They work.

Before you start to make changes, grab your camera and take photos of your sales floor. The camera will see things the human eye misses and you will have a clearer view of what your sales floor actually looks like to a shopper. Next, mount a blueprint of your sales floor to a piece of foam core board and add a velum overlay so you can easily note planned moves – it’s much easier to play on paper before you start dismantling displays. And it you’re not still sure what to do first, give us a call. Together, we’ll brainstorm enough ideas to help you get started!

About Rich Kizer & Georganne Bender

Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender are consumer anthropologists, speakers, authors, and consultants who have helped thousands of businesses internationally in the retail, restaurant, healthcare, hospitality, collegiate, travel, tanning, beauty, funeral, tech, auto, sales and service industries since 1990.

They are contributors to MSNBC’s Your Business. They made Meetings & Conventions Magazine’s list of Meeting Planners Favorite Keynote Speakers and have been named two of Retailing’s Most Influential People. As global retail thought leaders, KIZER & BENDER are listed among the Top 40 Omnichannel Retail Influencers, Top 100 Retail Influencers, and the Top Retail Industry Experts to Follow on Social Media. Their award-winning Retail Adventures Blog is consistently listed among important retail and small business blogs. KIZER & BENDER serve as BrainTrust panelists for RetailWire and are partners and emcees for the popular Independent Retailer Conference.

Rich and Georganne are experts on generational diversity, consumer trends, marketing and promotion, and everything retail. As consumer anthropologists they stalk and study that most elusive of mammals: today’s consumer. In addition to yearly focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and intensive on-site studies their research includes posing as every kind of customer you can imagine. The result of their research is literally straight from the mouth of the consumer: solid ground level intelligence you can use to better serve your own customers.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.