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My Conundrum and How to Get Past It

I had a sales rep who got mad at me because I refused to display his car seats, swings, high chairs, strollers, and play pens in groupings by their fashions. He had proof that I would sell more if I sorted them by fabric pattern instead of by product type. My argument to him was that customers didn’t buy a playpen because it matched the car seat fabric. Heck, the two items would never be side-by-side after the shower anyway.

My belief was that fabric pattern was a secondary choice after product features and benefits. My belief was that grouping those items together might help his sales by getting customers to buy more of his products, but my staff was skilled enough to find the right car seat, stroller, high chair, play pen, and swing to meet the customer’s needs regardless of fashion.

I was right.

So was he.

This merchandising battle between Brand and Category played out several times throughout the store. Was it better to merchandise all one brand together or merchandise all one type of product together?

More often than not, I fell on the side of putting similar products together first. This, in my mind, served the customer better because she could more easily compare competing brands of the same product she desired. If she wanted a shape sorter, she could find all the different shape sorters from multiple vendors in one spot, making it easier for her (and my staff) to debate the benefits of each one side-by-side.

Because of the size and breadth of our store with over 500 vendors and over 30,000 items, we mostly sorted by category first, and then by brand.

But there is a lot of merit in sorting your merchandise by brand first, and then by category, especially if you have a smaller store.

Brand loyalty still exists. Many brands have spent a lot of time marketing and advertising themselves and building a relationship direct with the consumer. You have customers coming in daily asking for certain brand names. Sections merchandised by brand help foster the emotional connection customers already have with that brand. The customer also begins to associate that brand with your store, and thinks of you every time they see a brand message.

Branded sections are more visually appealing. The packaging is often the same coloring and style which helps to make a completed look. Some brands also give you posters, shelf-talkers, and signs to help you dress up the branded area. Since the goal of merchandising is to get customers to look at the product, the more visually appealing, the more likely the customer will stop and gander.

Plus, in a small store it is easy enough to compare similar products from different brands because you don’t have as far to go.

The downside? Branded sections need to be well-stocked to work. Once your inventory gets depleted, those sections look worn, tired, and uninviting. You can’t fill in with other items from other companies like you can with a category-sorted merchandising plan. You have to commit to higher inventory levels to make it work best.

It took me a while to wrap my head around this merchandising concept—even though I was already doing it with LEGO, Playmobil, and Breyer. Those companies were easy, though, because the brand only existed in one category. To fully appreciate the merits of both styles I had to ask the most important question … What serves the customer best?

When you ask the right question, the answer becomes more apparent …

Both styles of merchandising serve the customer best. One style serves the product-driven shopper best. One style serves the brand-driven shopper best.

If you have brands that drive their own customers, put those items together in one spot and keep it fully stocked and visually inviting. Everything else, sort it by category first.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS When you start building your branded sections, contact the company for materials. They often have free stuff they can send you. Then take it to the next level by doing your own creative work. That picture was our Groovy Girl department, designed by my staff. Our cost was about $90 in material. I had customers begging me for that canopy when we closed because of how much they loved it.