It´s not just window dressing

The beauty of displays and the art of attracting customers through mere visual appeal dates back to the 18th century. But, how advanced is visual merchandising in the GCC?


Visual merchandising
Front display of Louis Vuitton store on December 5, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand

Over the years, the marketing and advertising world has recognised visual merchandising as more than a mere task – a tool that can catalyse branding strategy and ultimately affect sales and profitability. Visual merchandising plays a vital role in attracting, engaging and motivating a passing customer to walk in to the store. As the GCC warms up to international marketing practices, they are progressively making room for visual merchandising.

“Windows create the first impression on target customers and that is what draws them in. Hence, more the footfall, more the sales,” says Ashwathy Shyamkumar, brand manager at Jawad Business Group, a major fashion, food retailing and distribution enterprise headquartered in Bahrain and operating across Middle East.

In the retail industry, the strategic focus is always sales per square footage – average revenue that can be generated for every square foot of sales space – and optimising this space is important. Employing the art and science of this marketing tool might just be key to converting a mere window shopper to a walk-in customer.

“A window can contribute up to 20 percent in terms of getting a customer into the store,” Ghayd Chammas, senior marketing specialist, Azadea Group tells bq. “The store concept and design is also a big plus. The collections are strategically put in a way to create a flow, a brand identity. Hence, this creates a clear visibility of the collections and sections in the store, giving the customer a clear and precise structure of the store layout.

On the second and third visit, the same customer can directly identify the sections, making it easy for them to locate what he/she needs, increasing his/her purchase basket subconsciously.” Azadea Group is a leading fashion and lifestyle retail company present in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North Africa managing more than 50 international brands.

East vs West

In comparison with western and European markets, the GCC is still far behind in terms of creativity and innovation. For instance, creative window displays are not as huge here as in other countries. These regions have had the advantage of artists like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, who created exciting window displays throughout the twentieth century. The retail industry in the Gulf region although profitable, is still in its nascence, and visually speaking, has a lot of catching up to do.

Restrictions are high in the GCC. Municipality rules and regulations are

not very flexible with regard to nudity/animals/religion. Personification is strictly prohibited for instance, and foreign cults and religious practices are not allowed to be promoted in certain countries, according to Chammas. “Some window concepts are perfectly compatible with these factors, and are in turn a source of inspiration. Also, in some countries we lack proper qualitative resources to design the concept sent by the brand,” he explains to bq.

A brand always has their flagship store looking its best and the other outlets follow suit, according to Shyamkumar. “Being franchise partners, we cannot always ensure 100 percent up-to-date windows – with latest concepts and flexibility as the European market – due to numerous reasons. It could be the budget allotted for the brand, the ministry rules or the availability of resources,” she says.

“This doesn’t mean that high street retailers do not have spic and span windows. They are always merchandised in accordance with brand standards, and kept visually appealing. High-end brands however, tend to spend more on window displays and creativity, and that is evident throughout the Middle East as well.”

Window display at Salam Stores at The Mall, Doha, Qatar

Bigger bucks

Budget constraints seem to be a common reason for lagging behind. “Window budgets in foreign markets are much bigger and are controlled directly by the brand, so the investment pumped into it is much larger, giving them more room for creativity,” Chammas reveals. “The choices are limited and monopolized.

This means high prices due to high demand, putting brands from all categories in a very tight situation and experiencing budget constraints. Even some big players like Ralph Lauren, Massimo Dutti, Dior etc. possibly can’t find the appropriate budget to design an integrated marketing plan covering an outdoor/magazine/in-mall campaign.”

Shyamkumar feels that the region has come a long way with regard to advertising with newer approaches, right from advertising at airport terminals to reaching out to local bloggers. “There isn’t much of a gap to fill,” she says. Chammas agrees: “The only constraints that we have are the laws and restrictions on using our full creativity. In a country like UAE – Dubai for instance, they don’t lack anything.

Their advertising tools, mediums and visibility are extremely high.

In Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, however, advertising tools are not as visible in terms of billboards or unipoles, as in London for instance, on busy streets.

The solution is to add more qualitative eye-catching advertising mediums.”

Salvador Dali window design
Salvador Dali window design

Keeping up consistency

Great visual merchandising campaigns date back to as early as the 18th century. Selfridges was one of the first brands to bring window displays to life, so to speak, leaving their lights on even at night, for passersby to look, no matter what the time was – revolutionising the visual merchandising industry. Notably, even to this day, some brands have distinctively positioned themselves in the advertising world and while their extended families in the GCC might not meet the same international standards, the concepts are more or less similar.

“There might be slight changes due to a variety of reasons, including budget limitations. Material used locally may not meet the same international standards, but looks quite similar to it. This slight touch is what makes the difference. That’s what makes it perfect – the extra amount invested in organising a wonderful looking window. Local companies have their own window concepts and they are usually designed according to budget, so they might not want to put all their efforts in a display,” Chammas elaborates.

With regard to campaigns, local companies still have some catching up to do to match global standards.  However, according to Chammas, QELA, Qatar’s first homegrown luxury brand, owned by Qatar Luxury Group, is an exception with their positioning of the brand among the top players. “A well-known international model was used and the boutique display is quite luxurious,” says Chammas.  International window concepts are usually applied to their GCC branches.

Shyamkumar feels that the region needs more consistency. “Brands like Mango are consistent and clean in visual merchandising whether it’s in Spain, Qatar or Bahrain. Everything is kept simple and neat whilst having a strong visual appeal to drive the customer in. Keeping the windows less crowded and on point, is what the GCC market really needs and consistency across all outlets, is key.”

The bigger picture

Realistically speaking, there is huge potential for this industry. With the retail industry in the GCC progressing successfully and at a rapid pace, its impending contribution to the micro and macro economy can’t be ignored. With countries like UAE and Qatar investing heavily in bringing new brands to the region, expanding their existing footprints and revolutionising the retail landscape on the whole, job creation is a significant function of this miniature universe.

Chammas breaks it down: “If you take another look at hierarchies, brands need regional window dressers who coordinate with brands on guidelines and strategies and spread the tasks to local markets. Local window dressers/coordinators will be in charge of implementing the guidelines. Therefore, on average you would need one window dresser locally for every five brands, and considering the amount of shops present in the region, we can estimate more than 200 positions on local levels easily.”

Window dressing and in-store displays are usually the combined efforts of the store, brand and the visual merchandising team and all big players have senior and junior visual merchandisers across all regions. Is outsourcing this function a feasible and economical approach? Shyamkumar and Chammas don’t think so! Chammas says it is not a regular practice to do so and explains the visual merchandiser is always an in-house one, coordinating with franchiser guidelines.

His work is, of course, monitored by the franchiser. “It is actually more expensive to hire someone. Why spend when we have the ability to train our store staff or better yet, train an employee to be the area visual merchandiser?” questions Shyamkumar. “The brand itself travels to the GCC to fix the windows and other displays,” says Chammas.

In the higher income earning segment, brand loyalty is an evident trait and can effective visual merchandising really work around this? Visual merchandising as a science has proved it is linked to brand loyalty and the region needs to make small but significant changes or improvements to successfully tap this. If a customer is loyal to the brand, irrespective of the window, he will always show up. But if he isn’t, the smallest detail will make him change his mind. Thus, the display is not a small detail at all.

The store should be warm and inviting to loyal customers, and attractive to strangers, according to Chammas. Even the smallest change like updating mannequins or the window wall paint can pose as a good or bad turnaround, in Shyamkumar’s opinion. She concludes: “As long as the outfitting is kept at its best, it can draw good footfall. Even if they’re loyal to another brand, refreshing windows weekly can drive customers in. If they like what they see, they come in and buy. It’s as simple as that.”



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