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Retail Learning

Merchandising Tour: Cool ideas are everywhere if you look

Sharon Leicham engages her RAS to help find cool merchandising ideas at any trade show she goes to. Using Outdoor Retailer as her lab, she'll show you how to engage your RAS too -- even tell you what the heck a RAS is. Now that's cool!

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Visual merchandising ideas are everywhere. We sometimes need to turn on our reticular activating system to find them. The RAS (reticular activating system) is the automatic mechanism inside your brain that brings relevant information to your attention. It’s a fancy way of saying that, if we set a goal to find ideas, they will jump out at us.

For example: You are in the market for a new car and you have set a goal to buy a white one. A funny thing begins to happen. You are suddenly seeing white cars all over town when, in the past, you would have ignored them. You have activated your brain to visually hone in on your goal.

Get ready for the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2011 in August by setting a goal to find merchandising ideas and you’ll be surprised how many you’ll discover. I do that when preparing for the SNEWS® Merchandising Tours co-sponsored by Outdoor Retailer. I also spend a couple of hours on the last day of the show finding more ideas that I think fit the outdoor retail environment. And I always find them. Some take imagination to adapt to retail, others take creativity to implement, but all can get the visual merchandising juices flowing.

Here are just a few of the ideas I found during our most recent Merchandising Tour:


Mittens are hard to display. I think we can agree on that. There are many different patterns, colors and styles. It takes some moxie to figure out how to display them. The Peapack Mitten Company came up with ideas that are both effective and inexpensive. The company used everyday props like picket fencing, baskets and shelf-sized pine trees to merchandise its mitten line. The lidded baskets were great for stocking a good supply of mittens and the inside top of the basket opened up and served as signage. Short lengths of picket fence were ideal for showing individual mitten styles and giving them shape. The lighted branches in the rear of the booth as well as the colorful drawing on the back wall drew attention to this idea-filled booth.

I was intrigued by the “bagless box” concept I found in the Cougar booth. The company ships it footwear in attractive “message boxes” to help customers purchasing their products avoid the use of shopping bags. The boxes have the company tagline in bold black and were used as signage when hanging on the booth sidewalls. That sparked the idea of using white shirt or sweater boxes with bold messaging for in-store signage. The large message sign on the wall around which the shoes shelves were arranged also drew attention. If you have a message you wish to convey (and don’t we all?) make it big, black and bold and consider putting it on something unexpected.

The show was full of ideas and I found another whiz-bang one. Actually it was in the Whizbang booth! The small 10 x 10 booth popped with its floor of red carpet tiles. I love the idea of using carpet tiles to define areas in a store. They can be placed over existing flooring when creating special displays and they are easily removed, stored and reused. There are lots of colors available but these tonal reds in the Whizbang booth were like a visual stop sign. We stopped, we saw, we liked. Note: Some of the best floor tiles are available through the FLOR Company at

Prana never ceases to excite and the display at the corner of its booth was a motivating call to action. The giant ball of plastic bags entwined with bamboo strips was an attention-getter and traffic-stopper. The sheer size was as impressive as the double meaning of the message, “Plastic…It’s Not in Our Nature.” How do you get your messages out? Why not start your own plastic recycling by urging your customers to bring their plastic bags in to your store and depositing them in a ball like Prana’s or a large plastic tube, netting or oil drum. What ever you choose to use make it big and visual to entice customer interest. They will have fun watching the collection grow and you will be asserting your commitment to protecting the environment.

You don’t have to wait for the next Outdoor Retailer to rev up your RAS. Make it a priority to find visual merchandising ideas wherever you can – other stores, magazines, online. I’m confident that you will find them and my hope is you will incorporate them in your displays. I would love to hear about what ideas you find and how you have used them. Let’s chat online in the chat room.

Would you like to join Sharon Leicham, author of “Merchandising Your Way to Success” and merchandising editor for SNEWS®, during Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2011 for the fifth Outdoor Retailer Merchandising Tour program, co-sponsored by Outdoor Retailer and SNEWS? Email to put your name on a contact list for more information and to ensure your name is on the registration list for the next Outdoor Retailer Merchandising Tour Program, Summer Market 2011 — spaces are limited.