When the holidays roll around, Jeff and Vicki McLeod like to change things up at the neighborhood grocery store they own and operate in Palouse, Wash.
Shoppers popping in for turkey gravy or a gallon of milk often get a visual treat that reflects the spirit of the time of year. One year, the market had a floor-to-ceiling display of giant candy canes made out of red-and-white Coke and Diet Coke 12-packs; they surrounded a Christmas tree built from green Sprite boxes and strung with orange Fanta packaging. On Valentine's Day, the McLeods worked with their beverage distributor to create a giant heart out of red, silver and black Coca-Cola packaging, framing it all with satin candy boxes and teddy bears.
Eye-catching displays like these are another way to connect with shoppers and help them stand out among other mid-size markets in the region, says Jeff McLeod, a veteran grocer who has operated McLeod's Palouse Market for seven years.
“It definitely attracts attention and can generate more sales," he says. “People want to know what you're going to put up next."
This time of year, as shoppers step up their spending on food and gifts, merchandising displays play a key role in the overall shopping experience, experts say. And the way the displays get to retail stores often involves more time and planning than the average person might suspect. That towering snowman fashioned out of cardboard beverage containers or life-size train made entirely of packaged cupcakes is likely part of a wide brand-building team effort that extends across many talents and businesses.
At Coca-Cola North America, the process begins with insights and engagement, says Dr. Richard Staten, director of strategic merchandising solutions.
“While merchandising development has a specific process, it is actually a part of several other interconnected processes that bring our brands to life in retail outlets," he explains.
Brand teams tap into research to identify a core creative idea that will resonate with their audiences, and agencies come up with new ways to deliver this idea to shoppers. Channel teams then identify key locations to activate in the shopper environment, and account teams collaborate with their customers to understand the strategies that influence the development to maximize display placement.
A design team then links these new ideas with a brand's “design system” – all the elements that come to life on the display itself, such as logos, shapes and colors. Finance teams calculate the return on investment from the cost and quantity required to build the new displays. Procurement experts negotiate to get the best price and delivery times, while suppliers produce the designs.
Finally, setting it all up takes anywhere from five minutes (for a fold-out rack) to a couple of hours of hard work and heavy lifting (for a giant lobby display). Watch this time-lapse video of two Coca-Cola employees building a football-themed display out of more than 1,000 12-packs at an Atlanta-area retailer.
“It's an integrated body of work from research to the field to make our merchandising solutions deliver impactful brand experiences to shoppers in the store,” Staten said.
The results can range from an end-cap display of Sprite bottles stacked in the shape of a Christmas tree to a steam engine comprised of hundreds of units of different Coca-Cola brands that takes over an entire grocery aisle.
Year-round displays are important, too, Staten says. The company's "Share a Coke" display, made with corrugated recyclable shelving, won several marketing and design awards in 2015, including Display of the Year at the Point of Purchase Advertising International's Outstanding Achievement Awards, as well as Platinum and Gold awards at the 2015 Design of the Times Awards. A few years ago, Coke worked with California-based grocery chain Stater Bros. on a reforestation campaign that raised $600,000 to replant trees destroyed by wildfires. Part of the campaign included an elaborate display in a Stater Bros. market featuring trees, the California state flag, and the head of Smokey the Bear made out of Coca-Cola packaging.
A commitment to the environment also plays an important role in merchandising design, Staten says, as all suppliers are required to follow specific “sustainability standards” covering materials, packaging distribution efficiency, modular architecture, low-impact life span, and production.
In addition to representing a specific brand, visual displays also have the power to create warm memories for customers, in the same way as piped-in music or a greeter dressed in a Santa suit might. Displays have become so creative and noteworthy over the years that some shoppers have taken to collecting photos of them and posting them on Pinterest and other social media outlets. Posts include seasonal themes like Halloween pumpkins, Thanksgiving turkeys, and the Easter Bunny; there are also store displays dedicated to baseball season, movie characters and local sports teams.
Visual merchandising is an important year-round tool in creating an attractive store, notes Karl Peters, a principal at the interior design studio DIE Creative.
"While retailers used to see visual merchandising as more as a seasonal display or sale message... now it is more of a constant refreshing and extension of brand values," he explains.
For store owners, it's also a fun way to brighten up the store and impress their regular customers.
"It's quite a process—all the work and visualizing that goes into the displays," Vicki McLeod says. "It all has to come together just right, but our customers really respond to them."
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