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Essay of the Month


THE ART OF STORE FRONTS

by Richard B. Harper
Highgate Springs, Vermont

      This is, in a perverse and high tech way, a pretty cool story.
      Swanton Village is in the midst of downtown redevelopment; every other Town with a downtown has store owners who employ the art of store window marketing. While traveling in Florida, I took advantage of the environs to look at how "store art" works in a different locale; this article is intended to spark some new thinking locally about store window decorating.
      Macy's flagship store in New York has one of the best known window displays in advertising. Part of its fame is the result of good branding (every visitor already expects the Macy's windows to be interesting) and the rest comes from the simple fact that they always are.
      By itself, a huge range of products stacked in a local store's windows will not attract buyers, so how does a store owner stop potential customers from just walking by?
      Encourage them to peek in the window.
      In collaboration with the Museum of American Financial History and the U.S. Treasury, the Macy's 34th Street window is currently exhibiting the "Bonds of Patriotism," a display of World War era liberty bonds and promotional posters, contemporary Treasury bonds, and the current New York City Recovery Bond.


      The Marathon, Florida, K Mart has no store windows, but they do have a 100-foot ocean-blue Whaling Wall mural that faces the Overseas Highway.
      Wyland's 84 life-size Whaling Wall murals are seen by perhaps 1 billion people in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, Mexico, France, and New Zealand each year. His goal is to have 100 murals completed by the year 2011 and to continue to raise the planet's environmental consciousness about the oceans and their inhabitants.
      What does art or history have to do with a department store?
      Public interest.
      Grand public art such as Wyland's not only changes people's attitudes, it also attracts business on a large scale. Customers who make a special trip to enjoy store displays will often stop in the store, now or later. This is one part of building a customer relationship and creating the desire to buy locally.
      Flowers in Paradise in Key Colony Beach, Florida, has no real flowers in the window. Instead, they have pastel graphics and a painted window and door. It catches the eye, but it is static and hard to change.
      Windows tell the shopper what is found inside a store. They can show if a store is trendy or funny or practical. They can test new styles entering the local market. If a shopper falls in love with a T-shirt, CD, painting, refrigerator, or dress in the window, the chances of a sale increase ten-fold.
      Hot Hats in Key West relies on bright white funky architecture, a primary yellow sign, and an ever-changing hat rack to capture tourists and local trade alike. Stacks of hats caught everyone's eye (including mine) as I drove past.
      Window displays at some stores are a staff effort. The display can evolve as one employee enhances what another has done. One person might start the display with a large, colorful shipping crate. Another, on a different shift, could position a locally produced CD and two hot sellers from the store to build out the content. A third adds the newest arrival and an old transistor radio. The employee who started the display sees the additions the next day and exchanges some ruby slippers for the red dress. That ongoing evolutionary change keeps the window fresh every day and builds customer and passerby interest.
      Produce Express is one of several stores in a small strip mall. Each store has changed the shape and color of its facade; the tropical green produce store exhibits fresh fruits in ever changing bins.
      Large department stores may have entire divisions working on window displays. Corporate art directors plan weeks in advance of receiving new merchandise. Some pick a single manufacturer to spotlight each week. Graphic design personnel sketch the display. They build or buy or cobble together props. They understand lighting.
      Sun Lion Jewelry, also in Key West, would be just another jewelry window with sparkly stuff and decapitated necklace models if they didn't have a mascot. Who would not stop for a stuffed lion that big? Despite the saddle, they would not let me ride it.
      At Christmas, people deliberately venture downtown to view the colorful, pretty, animated, vibrant displays. The rest of the year, those same customers usually see the same stack of merchandise arranged the same way it was yesterday. It becomes simple background clutter with no chance of driving customer loyalty or interest.
      The window display composition, like a great print advertisement, must have balance. The viewer's eye should see the entire display while being led to the product or the manufacturer's name. (Some stores experimented with kidnapping passersby but found that practice actually reduced sales.) Here are some better tips to keep the customer's interest:

This article originally appeared as part of our weekly ArtBits series. It is copyright (c) Richard B. Harper, 2002



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