Engaging Rural Retailers in Visual Merchandising

Article excerpt

Rural retailers face substantial challenges in trying to succeed. One challenge is to compete effectively with the visual merchandising displays of larger and more urban stores, given the limitations rural retailers have of money, expertise, and time. This article outlines a service-learning project that responded to an identified community need. Through this project, visual merchandising students demonstrated to small rural store-owners how to implement low-cost, effective visual merchandising concepts and techniques. Students experienced real-world practice and exposure to the issues with which small business owners must contend. Business owners, students, and the University worked together on this local community development issue.

Rural retailers face a multitude of pressures in their struggle to succeed, including static or shrinking markets, better and quicker access to larger markets, increasing price competition, and new marketing outlets such as television shopping channels, and the Internet. A challenge for the rural retailer is competing with urban stores in visual merchandising. Visual merchandising, or the "silent salesperson," is defined as "establishing and maintaining the store's physical (and mental) image in the customer's mind, providing support for the rest of the store's selling effort" (Bell & Ternus, 2002, p. 18). Stores in large markets use visual merchandising regularly. Many rural and small business owners, however, face barriers of time, money, and expertise in trying to compete with such displays.

A visual merchandising service learning project was designed and implemented by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service (OCES) and the Oklahoma State University Department of Design, Housing, and Merchandising (DHM). Students helped rural store owners develop and expand their visual merchandising skills. Goals included:

For store owners:

* Use visual merchandising in the marketing strategy

* Demonstrate effective, low-cost visual merchandising concepts

For students:

* Experience real-world visual merchandising

* Increase the awareness of the issues facing the small business owner

For the University:

* Fulfill the Kellogg Commission's challenge of being an engaged institution (1999)

BACKGROUND

Today, as a customer walks through any mall or large stand-alone store, he or she moves through a continuous themed promotional mix of visual merchandising. The visual campaign starts with the outside window and continues through the use of end-aisle displays, layout, fixtures, and signage, continuing to the point-of-purchase displays where one final visual push is made (Bell & Ternus, 2002). Once considered "making the store pretty," visual merchandising has become its own department in larger stores. The visual merchandising process promotes sales without the need for a sales associate (Bell & Ternus, 2002).

Research confirms the importance of visual merchandising (Janiszewski, 1998; McKinley, 2003); it has been found effective in increasing sales (Edwards & Shackley, 1992) and imperative in enhancing store image. Visual merchandising that can be effective include exterior displays, window displays (Edwards & Shackley, 1992; Gubernick, 1986), in-store displays (Food Facts, 2003; Lawerence, 1992), as well as the separate display components of signage (Edwards & Shackley, 1992) and lighting (Janiszewski, 1998). Given the possibilities of visual marketing, one might expect that all retailers would use it. For many small business owners, however, the need to create visual displays is just one more task in an already busy day (Yu & Muske, 2003). The owners are concerned with survival in a world where less than 40% of all small businesses last for 5 years or more (Small Business Administration, 2003). To the owners, who typically have little or no visual merchandising training (Yu & Muske, 2003), survival means doing the most important things first. …