Summer 2010
Writing on the Wall By Meera Rajagopalan

Article Resources

Chris Edwards
CMO, Edward Marc Chocolatier

Doug Fleener
President, Dynamic Experiences Group, LLC

Patti Harbin

Ken Nisch
Chairman, JGA

Bruce Smith
VP of Business Strategy, DMD Retail Design

Kathy Walsh
Homeward Bound

When you think in-store marketing and branding, do you ever think of using your store’s walls? While they might not be considered traditional marketing vehicles, a flat expanse of in-store space might just be crying out to carry your store’s marketing message.

Ken Nisch has noticed: When it comes to store walls, retailers think of using them to stock products, not sell them. “Walls are often the stepchild of retail marketing design,” says Nisch, chairman of Southfield, MI-based retail strategy and design firm JGA, which handled the design of stores such as Things Remembered, a chain of memorabilia gift stores and Little MissMatched, an apparel and accessory store for tweens and teenagers. But, says Nisch, retailers need to take their walls more seriously, adding that the floor and the wall and the synergy between them can create something really special for the store and work wonders to market a store’s brand image.

Different strokes for different stores

Retailers who pay attention to their walls agree. Kathy Walsh, of Homeward Bound in New Milford, CT, a store that sells home furnishings, apparel, and a range of other products, routinely displays local artists’ work in her store.

Walsh, whose children were educated in the Waldorf system, which focuses on free expression and artistic creativity, says that displaying local artists on the walls of the store just went with what she and her store stood for. “I felt like I wanted to highlight local artists and also give back to the arts,” she says, adding that the idea just flowed from there. Walsh donates the proceeds of the sales of the art on the walls to the local Earl Mosley School of Dance, which further helps build the store’s brand as a “community-centric” store.

Recently, Walsh held an art event where one wall of the store was completely emptied out, and an artist, cello player, and Broadway dancer came together to create live art. The artist painted and the dancer performed to live music by the cello player.

Patti Harbin of In-Courage, a gift store in San Antonio, TX, has her walls painted pink and lime green, and says the colors are instrumental in emphasizing the “fun” aspect of her store. Harbin says that bright colors uplift the mind of the customer, and that they fit well with the store’s tagline: Gifts that motivate, celebrate, and encourage. While Harbin does not change the colors of her walls, she regularly changes the products displayed on the walls, and that has helped her keep the store fresh, she says.

Edward Marc Chocolatier, a premium chocolate store has designed its walls at its Pentagon outlet to include elements that bring out the heritage of the 96-year-old store. The walls also effectively convey the idea of chocolates as gifts.

The front walls of this store are all glass, and invite the customer to take a look inside. One part of the store’s back wall comprises shelving units and a mirror. As for color, the walls are painted in rich and dark chocolate- hues, with some citrus accents thrown in. The pièce de résistance is a vintage black and white image of chocolate- making. This mural is set off to one side of the store and helps integrate the store’s history into its design. Chris Edwards, chief marketing and development officer for Edward Marc Chocolatier, says the store’s heritage and history is an essential part of its marketing and having it be part of the design, emphasizes its importance. The wall colors and the mural speak to an old-world feel and to decadence—both critical elements for positioning the chocolatier as a gourmet destination, Edwards adds.

When Toronto-based design firm DMD Retail Design worked on the design of Zootique, a gift shop at the Toronto Zoo, part of the design involved creating a frieze, which is a panel above eye level. The frieze included images of extreme close-ups of animal skins. In addition to helping with store branding, the images also served as a great conversation piece for shoppers, says Bruce Smith, vice president of business strategy at DMD Retail Design.

Product, product everywhere; not a space to store

As great as the idea is, it’s not always easy to focus on the walls when you’re running a gift store, says Smith. For one thing, because of the size and the nature of the business, typically the entire inventory has to be displayed in the store. “Gift shops tend to want to load them (wall space) up,” says Smith. “We can’t go around and take up a lot of it.”

Doug Fleener, president of Lexington, MA-based retail consulting firm Dynamic Experiences, says that gift shops have the arduous task of differentiating themselves from the other store in town with what might essentially be the same merchandise. In-store marketing, with the help of wall design can be very effective in differentiating a gift store from the other, he says. The key question to ask yourself before going in for any design or marketing relates to how somebody describes you, says Fleener.

He says that one of the most effective ways of doing that, especially when positioning the store against a chain, is linking the store to the community, the way Kathy Walsh has done with her local artist display on the walls of Homeward Bound.

Appreciating the art on the walls or the occasional event at the store may be one of the ways that Walsh gets a customer to stay longer at the store, a key ingredient in successful retail.

What can you do?

The first step, say storeowners and designers alike, is figuring out what your store is all about. “[Consider that] everything we merchandise or market is a voice,” says Fleener, “But are these voices saying the same thing? Is there a cohesive message in the store? If we’re not careful, too many voices become noise.”

Use graphics: One of the ways to catch a shopper’s interest is in creating a story on the walls, say some retailers. When Edward Marc Chocolatier was looking for a suitable graphic to decorate one of their side walls, the choice was obvious: a vintage photo of people making chocolate by hand, blown up into large murals. “It’s really important to take the story of your business and your product and be able to tell it,” says Edwards. “As much as they love your product, the customer must buy into [your] story as well.”

A similar strategy was used by retail design firm Gensler when they redesigned the McEvoy Ranch flagship store in San Francisco. The new design featured a huge mural of the founder, Nan McEvoy holding an olive seedling in her hands. Striking images such as these have become more readily available and inexpensive to use, making them one of the best vehicles for marketing the store.

Use paint: Using paint, as Harbin as done with In-Courage, can also be a great way to bring out the brand behind a store without breaking the bank, says Fleener.

Use merchandise: If the products allow it, Harbin also advocates using merchandise as an element of marketing on the walls. This can also solve the merchandising versus marketing debate. For example, Harbin used beaded artwork of animal figures and mounted them on the wall in such a way that they told a story. For example, she says, positioning figurines of a snake and an iguana facing each other on the wall can provide an interesting backdrop while also marketing the products and the store.

How much is too much?

One of the trickiest parts of working with design is knowing when to stop. Just as too much product on the walls can distract the customer, so too can too many design elements. “The gift shop industry can benefit from a few editors,” says Nisch, adding that everyone wants to create, but sometimes, it is important to leave the white spaces be.

Fleener agrees that it is important to know when you’re overdoing it. He says a retailer must understand the difference between decorating the store and marketing it, and ensure that the two objectives do not clash. “In general, the rule is ‘Do your walls and then take half of it down,'” says Fleener, adding that the tendency is often to overdo a design element.

Eventually, though, what matters is that the design “goes with the store” and encourages the customer to return to the store again, says Fleener. The basic principles of design are the same no matter what you are designing, says Nisch. “It’s almost like landscaping your backyard,” says Nisch. “I can put a fountain over here; I can put colorful plants over there. You want the eyes to draw you around and make the space look bigger.”

Fleener says that no matter which design elements are used, one factor determines sales most: the customer experience in the store. “That drives customers back to the store as much as anything else,” he says. “It’s amazing how much we forget that and ignore the customer sometimes.”

Mouse over images below to view.

Striking images such as these help emphasize a store’s marketing concept.

Meera Rajagopalan

Meera Rajagopalan is a freelance writer who writes for publications in India and the U.S. She has extensive experience reporting on niche businesses and can be reached at

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