There are a lot of ties in life. In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. In the hiring process, a tie goes to the boss's son. Well, for customers choosing between competing stores, a tie often goes to the graphics.
Think about it: how many times have you as a consumer had to choose between two places where the prices and service were almost identical? You still made a choice, didn't you? Whether you knew it or not, it was probably the store that was most visually pleasing that won out.
Pizza parties have long been a favorite of children for their birthdays and yet, until the 1980s, many local parlors were in competition. Did you notice what suddenly happened? Chuck E. Cheese's and its like came around and stole the show. Sure, there were video games, but more than anything, it was those singing computerized animals that kids remembered. That's what we call a brilliant graphic! Okay, your budget may not have room for a grizzly bear that belts 'em out like Tina Turner, but let's look at what you can do to give your store a strong visual edge.
Before you contact an expert to help you, sit down and really ask yourself what kinds of images tell the story of your store. Honestly, there's nothing that can reveal Harley-Davidson as well as a picture of someone on a silver-chromed motorcycle with the wind blowing through his hair. Or if you're a ski equipment company, you want your images to reveal the outdoors and the brimming joy of flying down that stirring white powder.
Write down about 20 things that you think of to visually express the main positives of what you're selling. Remember that you have only so many opportunities within your floor plan to reveal these images. Like a television constantly switching channels, it's annoying to have store images shoved in your face every few feet. Be subtle but effective in the ambience you're trying to create.
Once you've sat down with a specialist to help bring your in-store images to life, figure out the lighting that's most appealing. Stores forget this step, not understanding its importance. Ever been to an art museum only to see a beautiful painting with an ugly frame? It kind of takes away from the painting, doesn't it? The same is true of great images when they have bad lighting. Don't skimp on light boxes that provide the kind of backlighting that will allow your colors to be as vivid as possible.
See the sign
Of course, a store with wonderful in-store images is nothing without a first-time customer to see them. That's why there's nothing like an inviting sign in front of a store to draw them in. Yes, there have been gimmicks that go back decades, like "mistakenly" putting your sign upside-down so people will come in and tell you about it, but the customer is much more savvy now. Instead, give them something visually pleasing, like the trademark golden arches, or the circular green-and-white emblem of Starbucks, and they'll be hungry and thirsty even if they just had lunch only an hour before. And although there's no Starbucks Sally, there is a Ronald McDonald, so there's nothing to say you can't have a character of your own as part of the sign, as long as it furthers your brand and doesn't cheapen it. Remember: cutesy is out, creative is in.
It's also important to see the writing on the wall (or, more accurately, the wallpaper) and decide whether in-store papering or painting is the answer, or if it's a combination of both. Think of the golden arches again. Ever heard someone say, "Let's go to the nice McDonald's?" It's true, just miles apart, you might find one Mickey D's painted in cheap colors, while another one may have a cozy artistic feel that welcomes you with open arms. So always ask yourself if your store is the "nice McDonald's" among your competitors.
More than the store
It's not just what's in your store or immediately outside that represents your business graphically--it's also catalogs, flyers, and any other advertisement. One prime example would be the Neiman Marcus catalog and how it extends the brand. Even though the clothes change year to year, the paper has a certain look the customer can depend on, almost as if you could know the catalog even if you didn't see the store name printed on it. Call it junk mail if you want, but Neiman Marcus has customers spending hundreds, even thousands, without ever stepping inside their doors.
Therefore, when you're putting together anything visually, you have to ask yourself if it reinforces the brand or just confuses the consumer. It's important that you let creative people do their job, but don't let their ideas get in the way of what you're trying to sell. Maybe they like alternative colors for ads or flyers because it suits their sensibility, but it may not suit the eyes of your conservative customers.
And it's not just taste, but age to consider. For example, walk into Levi's and you're likely to see images that reflect teenagers or 20-somethings. But if you're of an "older" generation you've been wearing Levi's forever, yet the company's no longer trying to appeal to you. That's a mistake because the market is still there, it's just been forgotten. Make sure to understand the full expanse of your demographic and keep them all in the loop on a regular basis with whatever graphics you use.
Change is good, unless it's not
It's always important not to wait years and years between updates of your graphics. The customer wants something fresh. Still, doesn't a Big Mac taste the same now as it did ten years ago? Why? Because you don't mess with the special sauce. Figure out what that special sauce is in your business graphically--whether a certain insignia or lighting--and don't change it just for the sake of change. If something's working, that's terrific. But if it's not and you're afraid of change, you can be certain one change is inevitable: the cash flow in your register.
Bruce Olans is co-founder of Lincolnwood, Ill.-based Total Resource Group (TRG). The company specializes in "Store in a Box," which provides everything needed to open a retail store.
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