Imagine you’re managing a café or food retail location, focused on creating the optimal customer experience. Now envision challenges that may stand in your way: limited or inconsistent offerings, or potential missed sales because of items not priced, placed, or promoted accurately. The chip shelves could look picked over, the fruit might be missing price markers, and overdesigned containers could be distracting from the vibrancy of the food.
Simple changes can elevate the environment, improving the customer experience — without a big investment.
Merchandising, or as we like to call it, Merchology, is not just about décor and surface-level enhancements; it’s a comprehensive strategy to drive customer satisfaction and sales. Lisa Bush, Director of Visual Merchandising, unpacks Merchology across the four fundamental “P”s of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.
It Starts with the Product
“What’s at the core is getting the product right,” Bush says. Getting the product right starts at the purchasing level. “That means making sure that you’re using the right ingredients sourced from quality partners or offering the right packaged goods,” Bush says. Taking these steps at the purchasing level will ensure consistency in quality and taste, while providing the right mix of offerings.
We simplify the purchasing process with plan-o-grams, or elevated diagrams that determine what products should be offered and exactly where they should be placed. Plan-o-grams span product categories and are a convenient tool to clarify product needs. Diversifying products can help a retail food space better meet customer demand. Provide both salty snacks and small indulgences for customer cravings — alongside healthy snacks, fruit, and water to promote convenient good-for-you options.
What does good product merchandising look like? Food looks — and can even taste — its best when it adheres to quality presentation standards. For instance, wrap sandwiches should be cut in half, to showcase their ingredients to browsing customers. Salad bars should be designed in a logical flow starting with the leafy base options, moving towards the end with final touches such as nuts and seeds. From serving plate to fork, a food’s presentation can have definite impact on the customer experience.
The Price is Prominent
A customer may have an item in hand, but a missing price can be the factor that makes them put it back on the shelf. Bush has seen this hesitation happen firsthand: “I witnessed a consumer come up to a cooler that wasn’t properly priced and see a product. The guest was intrigued about it being new and something she hadn’t seen before. But I overheard her say to another guest, ‘I’ll have to check that out sometime, I don’t know how much that was.’ She didn’t know if she was going to get to the counter and it would be four dollars when she really only wanted to pay two.”
To avoid missed opportunities like this one, provide prominent pricing. “It helps to educate consumers on what they should be trying and what’s within their budget,” Bush says. Communicate prices clearly with tags, labels, and signage and ensure pricing is correct and easy to find across menu boards and shelf tags. Make sure no item is left behind, including add-ons by the register.
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A Place for Everything
Anyone who’s ever visited a shopping mall during the winter holiday season has witnessed the effects of visual merchandising as it relates to our third “P”: place. Environment, from decorations and displays to colors and cleanliness, can have a powerful impact on the customer experience.
Our first strategy for place is making sure that offerings look full and inviting both at the beginning and the end of service. “We want to make sure that we increase and have additional product when needed — and also resize and scale back the amount of product without downgrading the experience,” Bush says. Reducing the size and depth of serving vessels from the beginning of lunch to the end, for instance, can eliminate the look of picked-over trays, “so that you’re giving the same experience to the consumer who’s entering around 11 o’clock to those who are leaving at 1:30, toward the end of lunch.”
“Secondly, we focus on focal points,” says Bush. “We want to make sure there are display and showcase pieces throughout the customer experience. Consumers pay attention to a given item for three to five seconds, so focal points help to drive traffic to something new or that we feel is special in our space.” Capture and retain customer attention with strategic use of color, both in signage and in the food itself. The colors of a dish should be the star; let them shine under warm lighting. Focal points can also influence additional purchase decisions; place add-on items at eye level so that consumers see the additional opportunities.
Finally, keep it clean. Uncleanliness can ruin a beautiful display. Fingerprint smudges on glass can affect an appetite. “A cracked sign holder or clutter on the counter can really turn a potential customer away. Especially when their expectation is that you’ve held true to your quality story,” Bush says. Keep your space navigable, neat, and inviting.
Playing with promotions
“Whether you’re selling food, packaged goods, or apparel — whether in a work environment, campus or sports arena, you should be thinking about that same connection to seasonality and promotion,” Bush says. “What holiday is it? Is it a social media influence day, like National Cookie Day or National Almond Day?”
Seasonal and themed days bring spice and excitement to a commercial food space. Change product displays and offerings at regular intervals to provide variety. Initiate interest in new products with limited-time offers, discounts, and sampling events. Especially for guests who visit the space every day, activations like this help to avoid a feeling of monotony.
All together now
“When you’re thinking about these principles, they work best when they work together,” according to Bush. It starts with the right product, then it’s how you showcase that product, which often means connecting it to a focal point. Then it’s the basics: keeping it clean, from floor to ceiling, down to the counter and the organization of making sure that employees have all the tools they need.