Visual Merchandising with Stephen Dempsey

12 Aug 2013

Visual merchandising is an important way of attracting the attention of potential customers. So how should you curate your pop up shop window display? Appear Here interviewed, Steven Dempsey, one of the most sought after window dressers in the UK, and the visual merchandising manager for Peter Jones, Sloane Square to find out.

What do you find most satisfying about your job?

It’s hard to identify one area that I find most satisfying as my job has so many different elements to it that I can feed off however, I do love the immediacy of Visual Merchandising. By that I mean you can change the entire look of something, whether it be a mannequin, a fixture, a window or even an entire department, in a relatively short space of time and you can see and feel the results instantly from the changes you have made by the way customers then shop.

Creating window displays offers a fantastic opportunity to cast a fleeting retail spectacle, much like a pop up shop - What inspired you to work within a visual merchandising role?

Believe it or not, my favourite film when I was young was Mannequin, so it seems I was destined to work in VM somewhere along the line. VM seemed to offer everything I wanted in a career - a channel to express myself, and an opportunity to work alongside likeminded people with similar interests.

Jubilee, Peter Jones

Walk us through a typical day in your role as Visual Merchandising Manager at Peter Jones.

We start at 8am every day with a team meeting where the section managers divide up the jobs for the day and we discuss any important notices that affect the team or the wider business. My day can then take any one of a million different directions but they generally include a top to bottom walk of the store to ensure we look as best we can and a number of meetings, whether they be progress update meetings for projects already started or meetings to discuss future requirements that may need VM input. These meetings will usually require me to sign off plans or suggest alternatives if they are not suitable and ensure that all stakeholders are up to date with any changes. My job requires me to interact with more than just my store so I can also find myself liaising with colleagues at head office to offer support to an upcoming Press Show or meeting with new Brands to discuss new collaborations.

Can you talk us through your thought process whilst curating a window display, starting from the inception of an idea to the point where the display is unveiled to the public?

Ultimately a window is trying to sell something to a Customer regardless of whether it’s a product, a brand, a lifestyle or even an idea, so your audience needs to be front of mind all the way through the process. Once you have the thing you are promoting, you need to decide your chosen direction for the window by asking lots of questions like: who am I trying to target with this item? How will they use it? Where will they use it? What else could I show with it to enhance it or make it better? What are the features and benefits I need to illustrate to the customers? Why will this make their life better? Window displays need to be conversational, they need to talk to a customer and tell them a story that they find interesting and that is the crucial point in the planning process.

Now we know why we are promoting the item we can look at building a story around the product which can be literal e.g. a Spring window full of plants and flowers, or it can be viewed from a different angle e.g. taking the word “Spring” and boiling it down to its individual parts like what colours the word evokes, what shapes would you relate to the word and is there any wording that can back up the emotional side of the word. Both these directions are effective but you need to work to support of your Brand image and not cause confusion. An example of this would be a store that is famous for selling Classic clothes trying to dress their outfits on young mannequins in a contemporary setting.

Once you have your idea you need to gain support and backing from your stakeholders and at this point it’s a good way to gauge the reaction your customers will have to your window by the way your colleagues react to your ideas. After you have gained the support and made any necessary changes you need to brief any suppliers you may require to help construct the window and also the team who will be installing the window will need communicating with.

Once all the orders are placed, the deadlines are agreed and met and the window is installed, you can begin to measure the success of the window through monitoring the sales of the items used. Window displays need to be commercially viable and if you are not seeing sales you need to quickly understand why and tweak your displays accordingly. Some reasons for this may be it was badly ticketed, the stock was difficult to find once you were in-store or it could be that you hadn’t correctly identified the right stock at the planning stage which sometimes you just have to put down to experience and not make the same mistake again.

Peter Jones, Props

Is there more scope for elaborate and creative designs these days?

When I first started in the VM world there wasn’t many retailers who were doing windows really well. They were cluttered and confusing as most tried to cram as many messages into them as possible and they were generally variations of a theme with no real stand out stars among them. But with the advent of shopping becoming the nations favourite pastime, a competition to get the greatest amount of footfall was born and the easiest way to attract walk in custom is by having impactive and relevant window displays. This led to a boom in the design of windows and not just in London. The high streets look better for it and the windows are now a true representation of the brand to the point where you don’t even need to see the brand name now to identify what window belongs to whom. In general, the window schemes are far more elegant and refined than they used to be and the thought and time put behind them has increased dramatically.

In terms of the strategic planning behind window dressing, how far in advance do you need to plan for special events?

We are lucky to have a Head Office behind us who looks after the wider seasonal calendar so they plan promotions like Easter, Mothers Day and Christmas for us and we then order there schemes when necessary. In terms of their timelines, Christmas 2014 will be designed before Christmas 2013 is installed in shops. This is to allow for the sign off process and the ordering process to be managed effectively. Smaller promotions have a smaller lead time and are designed about 3 months in advance of the promotion date. This allows us in the branch to really focus on our local customer, so we can plan for those unique moments in our locational calendar, like Chelsea Flower Show for Peter Jones or the Edinburgh Fringe for Edinburgh John Lewis. We would usually allow 3 months from briefing to installation to ensure we have looked at it from every angle and also aligned the PR teams to help drive the awareness of the promotion.

Peter Jones, Valentines

What influences your creative decision when developing window displays?

I take inspiration from everywhere for the windows we produce and it can be something that seems so small and yet by dissecting the initial idea you can fill an entire 20m window run with it. I look to music videos and magazines as much as what is happening in the retail industry to help grow my ideas. The new world of social media is a great place to do research with Pinterest as your worldwide mood board and facebook and twitter for trends.

What 3 qualities would you say are integral to being successful within this role?

Resilience - You need to be able to take the negative feedback, not every idea is going to be a good one or loved by all.

Creative - You don’t need to be amazing at drawing to be a great VM but you do need to be able to see things from a unique viewpoint and think creatively as well as act creatively in the way you complete your VM.

Passionate - You really need to love what you are doing, if you don’t it will show in your work.

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