Window displays: nostalgia in the digital age


12.18.13 Thumbnail HolidayStoreEven in an age of stealth marketing and covert advertising, that most transparent brand messenger – the window display – remains a powerful tool for identifying and defining a store to passersby.


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12.18.13 Blog HolidayStoreVIVIAN MCINERNY | OB BLOGGER

You don’t have to love the commercialization of Christmas ala Sarah Palin to feel a twinge of nostalgia for retail windows this time of year.  Seasonal holiday displays have tugged at consumers’ heartstrings and pocket books for almost 150 years. Even in an age of stealth marketing and covert advertising, that most transparent brand messenger – the window display – remains a powerful tool for identifying and defining a store to passersby.

“A window doesn’t have to sell a piece of merchandise,” says Linda Cahan of Cahan & Company, a visual design and merchandising service. “It sells the gestalt, the feeling of the store.”

 An author, educator, and consultant of visual merchandising based in West Linn, Cahan’s diverse clientele have included Saks Fifth Avenue, Lancome, Hickory Farm, Stash Tea, Pantaloon of India, and Rori of Venezuela.

“Creativity doesn’t equal cost,” says Cahan of visual display.

She recalls a favorite shop window that offered a peek into a monochromatic laundry room with green walls, green floor and green appliances. Several bright red socks appeared to be inch worming their way from the washing machine to clothesline.

Retail chains tend to spend big on their flagship store windows and not on their regional branches. Macy’s in New York features a snowy wonderland. Downtown Portland has less ho-ho and more ho-hum. Portland’s independent merchants are more likely to put on a creative show. The windows at Mario’s, a sophisticated apparel store in downtown Portland, currently include a collage-like tree made up of assorted toys, trinkets and flea market finds. Linger a while at the window and you’ll make out cookie cutters, tiny dolls, framed photos and other odds-and-ends reminiscent of many family trees, both literal and figurative. 

At Tilde, a lifestyle shop transparent glass baubles seem to float through the storefront window along with artfully arranged gold tipped white feathers. It’s festive in a non-denominational sort of way. Display is a form of visual storytelling and a rare few merchants do it as beautifully as Richard Rolfe and Jake France of Boy’s Fort. Experienced set and interior designers, they transform their Portland store into intriguing and ever-changing vignettes customers want to live inside.

 “A store owner can’t do everything,” says Cahan. “One option is to work with students or hire sales staff with skills in visual merchandising.

“Tilde consistently creates something worth looking at and I don’t think they’ve ever spent over $60.”

There’s money in motion. Moving displays directly increase sales according to Point of Purchase and Advertising Institute (POPAI) studies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need cutesy animatronics. Barney’s in New York once hired a seasonal employee to play Sigmund Freud and sit in their “Neurotic Yule” window. David Rakoff’s hilarious essay about his fraudulent Freud experience ought to be every retailer’s holiday reading.

A moveable feast for the eyes can also be served up with computer monitors, changing lights or video projections. Again, imagination is better than a big budget. Full disclosure; an accountant may not agree with that assessment. But consider how Portland filmmaker Jim Blashfield photographed objects rotating on an old turntable to create visual effects for a 1985 Talking Heads video And She Was that can still amaze today.

Consumers are sensory creatures. Appeal to more of their senses. People respond favorably to retail environments that project a combination of sounds and smells, according to a 2003 marketing study conducted by Washington State University. The scents and sounds must relate to each other and their environment to be affective. For example, the aroma of gingerbread aroma and a recording of cheery carols in a lifestyle shop in December might work; lilac and heavy metal thrashing, probably not. If it’s beginning to not only look but also sound and smell a lot like Christmas these days, blame those evil scientists up North.

Expect more augmented reality displays in retail’s future. Sure, Google Glass currently inspires more jokes than use but it, or something like it, will be coming soon to a shop window near you. Imagine customers waving a digital device at a manikin to get real time information such as availability of specific dress sizes, or access to a digital recording of the designer’s runway show, or maybe a live feed of the factory where the garment was produced. Augmented reality is spanking new and its many uses still mysterious but this is America, dang it, and if we can buy it, we can figure out what to do with it. Remember when cell phones were for calling people?

 In the meantime, retailers with imagination will continue to entice customers.

 “Good window displays, compelling window displays, increase foot traffic for all the stores on the street,” says Cahan, “and the community.”

Forget fences. Turns out good windows make good neighbors.

Vivian McInerny blogs on retail and popular culture for Oregon Business.VivianMcInerny