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Category: Merchandising

Why Signs Increase Sales

Whether you agree with them or not, I have found a lot of value in personality tests such as Myers-Briggs. They have helped me understand my own choices in life and also helped me understand why we don’t all see eye-to-eye on everything. It also helps that I had an expert on these types of tests explain to me exactly what they show and their shortcomings.

One thing he taught me was a new definition and understanding of the terms. For instance, I always believed Extrovert meant outgoing and Introvert meant shy. They don’t.

Extrovert and Introvert are just two different ways we energize ourselves and recharge our battery. They have nothing to do with shyness. Extroverts (like me) get our energy from interacting with others. We seek out crowds, groups, hanging with friends, because it picks us up. Introverts, on the other hand, get their energy from being alone. They can be every bit as engaging and fun-loving and outgoing as anyone else, but that exhausts their energy. They need alone-time to recharge their batteries.

Introverts aren’t shy, they are just cautious with whom they will expend their energy.

Before I learned this I would have been surprised to find out that, like the population as a whole, half of my staff identified as Introverts. This helped me understand why certain people liked solitary jobs more than others.

I also learned why signs are such an important element of your merchandising displays.

Great use of signs in a Game Dept


Rick Segel told a group of baby store owners once that signs increase sales by 43%. He never told us where that statistic came from or why, but he encouraged us to put up more signs on our displays.

Now, with my new understanding of Introverts, I started to see why. Introverts would rather read a sign or read the side of the box to get basic info than spend their energy interacting with a salesperson. It isn’t that they won’t interact, but they want to know as much as possible before asking their questions. They want to formulate the right question so that they don’t have to ask too many questions.

There is another group of shoppers who also prefer signs over salespeople. I belong to that group. Men.

Men communicate differently than women. Men speak vertically. Did what I say make you think higher of me or lower of me? That’s the reason why we won’t stop to ask for directions. We don’t want to admit we don’t know. That is also why we don’t actively seek out a salesperson unless we know exactly the item we want.

If we’re looking for the Makita XT269M 18V Cordless Drill, that’s one thing. But if we’re just going in to look at cordless drills, not knowing exactly which one we want, we’re not looking for a salesperson because we don’t want to be asked a question we don’t know or show off our total lack of knowledge on the subject.

Men want signs to educate us before we have to interact with someone so that we don’t look foolish or stupid.

I’m an Extroverted Man who is not afraid to admit when I don’t know something. Yet, I get this mentality fully. I can see how signs can make a difference.

With most of the men and most of the Introverts preferring signs before salespeople, now Rick’s 43% starts to make sense. Armed with that knowledge the most important elements of a good sign are:

  • Answers to the most frequently asked questions about this item
  • Benefits of owning this item
  • Price

Want to create a sign that sells? Ask you staff what are the two most common questions asked about the product and what are the two most beneficial reasons for owning the product. Put those answers on your sign and you’ll see your sales rise with the sign.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Before you rip me about how biased, inaccurate, wrong, or even dangerous these personality tests are, understand that I am not using them to label people but to give you some insight into differing human behavior. Introvert and Extrovert are tendencies and preferences. In reality the majority of us are often a little of both with a tendency to lean one way or the other. Likewise, not all men are afraid to ask directions. These generalizations about our tendencies and preferences, however, give you an understanding how to adjust your business in a way that best suits your customers.

PPS My free eBook Merchandising Made Easy (pdf download) is on the Free Resources Page under the heading “Improve Your Money” because it is part of Inventory Management, but it fits equally well with Customer Service and your customer’s shopping experience. Think of Merchandising as a tool you have that sets you apart from your competitors. It is one of your competitive advantages over the Internet.

Building a Browsing Store

Amazon wasn’t built for browsing. Oh sure, they have a fully-functional search engine, one of the most heavily used, but most people go there only when they know or have a darn good idea what they want.

According to a study done late last year, Amazon was the top place people searched when they knew what they wanted, but other search engines such as Google were tops when people didn’t know what they wanted, when they were browsing.

Amazon wasn’t built for browsing. But the bigger question is … are you? This is one area where you can kick Amazon’s virtual ass. Are you maximizing this advantage?

The best displays tell a story.

Browsing is a visual game of Capture-the-Eye. 

When a customer walks through your door, what catches her eye? Where does she look? Do you control that or does she? Do you give her a place to look or not?

Think about your grocery store. When you walk in, what is the first thing you see? Produce! What is the most visually compelling item in a grocery store? Produce! Coincidence? I think not.

When a customer walks through your door her eye will be drawn to a focal point. Where that eye goes is dependent on three things:

  • The geometry of the store
  • The angle at which she enters
  • What you give her to see


Walk into your store and see where, based on the geometry and angle, your eye is naturally drawn. Do you have something compelling to see there? That is your Spotlight Spot. Put something cool, profitable, new, and visually compelling there.

Walk over to that spot and look around again. Where does the eye travel? Better yet, where do you want it (and her) to travel? Make sure all those options are easily visible from this location.

This is how you create a shopping path through your store, one visual display at a time. If you have a whimsical, boutique store layout, you can lead customers through your store one display at a time and make sure they see exactly what you want them to see.

If you have long aisles like a grocery store, the aisles themselves dictate some of your traffic. Your endcaps of each aisle become your most obvious locations for compelling visual displays.

But while great endcaps can draw customers and sell a lot of merchandise, they don’t get customers to go down your aisles. You draw a customer to each aisle by how you merchandise the first four feet of that aisle. The first four feet are what she can see from the main aisle. If it doesn’t catch her eye, she walks on by.

Once you get her to the aisle, you need something in the middle of the aisle that draws her gaze. If the shelves are all the same level all the way through, she’ll take a look, feel like she’s seen the whole aisle and walk on. You have to break the lines in the middle to get her attention.

(Note: you should try to keep the shelves the same level all the way to the visual break in the middle. If the shelves are constantly changing height every four feet then the aisle is a hot mess that won’t get people browsing, either. If they are the same level, they draw the eye down to the visual break in the middle.)

Merchandising is a game designed to encourage browsing and discovery. It is a game designed to control traffic flow and guide customers through your store. It is a way to put the products in front of your customers you want them to find.

To paraphrase Mark Twain …

Those who don’t merchandise their stores consciously have no advantage over those who can’t merchandise.


One question often asked about merchandising is how often to change up the displays. That answer depends on several issues. You should change your displays for any of these reasons:

  • The seasons change
  • The buying cycle changes
  • You have something newer to show off
  • You don’t have enough product to fully fill the display
  • Your product mix in your store is constantly changing

People will still come in asking for certain products or Brands. If you have a major draw, put that Brand in the back of the store to draw people in deeper. Then build visual displays to lead the customer back to the front of the store.

Build your store for browsing. Guide your customers through your merchandising to the products you want them to buy. Play the Capture-the-Eye game and you’ll capture her dollars, too.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS When you enter your store to see where your eye is drawn, also ask yourself this question … “How far into the store can I see?” The deeper the better. If you don’t have anything visual to draw the eye to your back wall, find something. The deeper people can see, the farther they are drawn in. That’s the other reason produce is always near the front of a grocery store. Not only is it visually compelling, you can look over it to see more deeply into the store.

PPS Not surprisingly, a website design is similar to the merchandising game. Each page needs to be visually compelling and lead you directly to the next action/page/display. If you have too much on the page, drawing the eyes all over, your web page is a hot mess.


Solving the Merchandising Equation

My dad had a super power. It was merchandising. He could take 400 square feet of product and fit it into 280 square feet of space with room left over. And it would look amazingly good! I think he would be a master at Tetris if he ever gets a handle on using a computer or video game console.

He didn’t need a plan-o-gram. It wouldn’t have worked in a store like ours anyway. The stock was always changing and always in need of rearranging. He could just look at the boxes, visualize it, and make it work.

I used to always say, “My dad is spatial.”

The Groovy Girl aisle

The challenge to our merchandising was our long aisles of shelves. We were closer to a grocery store in design than a boutique store. But unlike a grocery store where you might start at one end and snake your way up and down each aisle until your basket was full and your list complete, in our store we had to create visual pictures to draw people into each aisle.

I likened merchandising to a trying to solve a complex equation with several variables. We were trying to accomplish all of these goals at once with each aisle:

  • Organize everything by Category
  • Organize everything by Brand
  • Organize everything by size and color
  • Organize everything by price
  • Eliminate any wasted space or gaps between products
  • Make the first four feet of an aisle visually compelling and inviting
  • Make sure the bottom shelf products were visible and easy to read
  • Put the most profitable items at eye-level
  • Put some kind of visual break in the middle of the aisle to draw you into the aisle (either through color or shelf positions)

My dad could do all those things instinctively. I had to teach myself this skill through trial and error, through understanding why each of those bullet points was important so that when compromises needed to be made, I knew where to make them.

Morris Hite taught me something that always helped.

“Advertising moves people toward goods. Merchandising moves goods toward people.”

First and foremost your merchandising needs to be eye-catching.

You need to get the customer interested in wanting to see more. You need displays that “pop” and draw the eyes their way. Because of the design of our store with our long aisles, I focused on the first four feet of an aisle (the only part you can see while walking down a main aisle) and the visual break in the center. The rest fell into place after that.

Endcaps, tables, and free-standing displays are a whole different set of challenges. Along with being visually compelling and neatly organized, these need to tell a story. It takes a different set of skills and talents to make powerful displays that tell a story.

I never acquired that skill. I was more in the category of, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Fortunately I had some people on my team with a better eye than mine. I turned them loose on endcaps and free-standing displays.

Not everyone on your team will be skilled at merchandising. Some can learn. Others won’t. Cultivate the good ones, the ones with an eye for design and storytelling. Turn them loose on your store.

For everyone else, teach them to Stock, Straighten, and Dust.

  • Stock: pull all items from backstock out to the floor and make sure there is an ample amount of each on display.
  • Straighten: put items back where they belong and pull them to the front edge of the shelf
  • Dust: (yeah, this needs no explanation)

While bargain hunters (transactional customers) are willing to dig through heaping messes of products to find the best deals, your Relational Customers will lose trust if your store is a hot mess. You’ll lose sales when your customers (or even your sales staff) cannot easily find what they need.

There is an art to properly merchandising your store. There is also a science. Paco Underhill, in his book Why We Buy, outlines the science quite clearly. I read that book six times in the year I spent working on plans to completely remodel the store. It is worth reading (again).

By the way, normally I start a topic by discussing the “why.” Today I started with the “what.” Tomorrow I’ll tell you why those first four feet and the visual break in the center are so critical. Stay tuned.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I hate stores that are a hot mess. I won’t go in them. My mom is the same way. She gets physically ill in messy stores and won’t go back no matter how good the deal. But we both love stores where the merchandising style could be called “whimsy.” Surprise and delight us. You’ll win. (By the way, we aren’t alone. There are many shoppers exactly like us.)

PPS Yes, there is a FREE eBook on the Free Resources page called Merchandising Made Easy. You should check it out.

By Brand or By Category?

In the early stages of my running the baby department at Toy House one of our staple companies for car seats and strollers was Graco. They had several nice car seat and stroller combos in great fabrics. I even had a customer drive from Canada one night because we were the closest store to have the Graco stroller in the fabric pattern his wife desired.

Graco also had playpens and highchairs they sold in the matching patterns. My Graco sales rep would beg and plead with me to display the entire collection together. “You’d sell more if you did,” he would tell me.

He was right, too. If I displayed all his items together as a collection, I would sell more … of his stuff.

Customers would then have a matching set of car seat, stroller, highchair, and playpen (not that the car seat or stroller would ever be in the same vicinity of the highchair or playpen).

This does beg the question, however …

Do you merchandise by Brand or by Category? 


Pros: When you merchandise by Brand you are making a statement. “We carry this brand.” Department stores do this a lot. You can find the Levi or Docker section in most clothing stores. This style of merchandising makes it easier for customers who shop by Brand, who come in looking for a specific company’s offerings. It also makes it easier for customers to know what brands you carry and, by relation, what kind of store you are.

Also, you can often get point-of-purchase material from the Brand to help decorate your branded sections. Vendors love branded sections because, like Graco, they know when you create a branded section you will sell more of their Brand.

Cons: One problem is how often a Brand will have products that fit into several categories. Creating a branded section makes it harder for customers to compare similar products from different brands. It also makes it harder for your staff to easily show off two or three solutions to the customer’s problems. The curation process becomes complicated.

The other problem is if you have a branded section you are likely taking those branded items out of your category-merchandised sections, making it harder for category-shopping customers to find those items.

When to use: 

  • When the Brand is strong enough to drive its own traffic to your store
  • When the Brand is willing to give you point-of-purchase materials and help you build the section
  • When the Brand is willing to give you special deals such as exclusive products, better margins, freight or dating programs, etc.
  • When the Brand fits into your Core Values as a store
  • When there is a dominant Brand in your store or in a category
  • When customers come in asking specifically for the Brand, not the product


Pros: Merchandising by category helps shoppers compare brands more easily. It helps your staff curate the selection more easily. It helps you find solutions for your customers more easily. It is far more customer-centric than branded sections. But …

Cons: It is less visually appealing. It takes more work on your end to make the displays attractive and keep them organized and neat. You potentially lose out on special discounts and deals from the vendors. You and your customers have to look harder if you are searching specifically for one Brand. You don’t get to take advantage of the power of the Brand.

When to use: While this style may be more customer-centric in terms of finding specific solutions to specific problems, and your store is hyper-focused on solving customers’ problems, it isn’t always the best method. Use it only:

  • When there isn’t a dominant Brand in that category
  • When you have several different Brands in that category
  • When customers regularly compare Brands in that category
  • When customers come in asking for the product, not the Brand


The best approach is to find some combination of the two. You have to look at each Brand and Category separately and decide which style will help you sell the most product and solve the most problems. For instance, we found our Preschool Department sold best and was easiest for customers to navigate when we divided it by age and development, but Duplo —a LEGO product for preschoolers—sold better when it was in the LEGO-branded section on the other side of the store.

You can even do a branded section within a Category. It gives you the benefit of both worlds by making the Brand stand out in your customer’s mind and giving your customer the chance to more easily compare Brands.

The key is to do your merchandising consciously with thought and design, taking into consideration how your customers prefer to shop those Brands and Categories. Remember first and foremost it is all about the customer.

Build your merchandising around what suits your customer’s needs best.

Then add in one more element—Surprise and Delight. Add fun little things into every display that catch the customer’s eye and makes her smile. It might be a funny sign. It might be an out-of-place-but-totally-fits product. It might be a quote. It doesn’t have to be big or obvious. In fact, the more obscure, the more someone who sees it will be delighted.

At the end of the day your job is to affect your customer’s feelings and mood. A happy mood is a buying mood.

“If shopping doesn’t make you happy, then you’re in the wrong shop.” -Mimosa Rose

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS The Brands spend billions of dollars in advertising to get people interested in them. When you carry a brand doing this, there is value in your store being recognized as a source for this Brand. Customers often called us the “LEGO store” or the “Thomas store” because of our LEGO and Thomas the Tank Engine branded sections.

PPS One other element that will take your merchandising to the next level is signage. It is such a big deal it gets its own post. We’ll talk about what goes into a quality sign tomorrow.

Where Are the Employees?

Last year I did something I had never done before. I went shopping on Black Friday. No, not in the early morning hours with all the mobs. I’m not that kind of shopper. I went out in the afternoon to see what the stores looked like after the mobs had left.

It was exactly what I expected. I had to fight the urge to want to straighten and re-merchandise the empty, messy shelves. (I actually did some straightening in Target just to get it out of my system.)

Some of my former employees have reported the same feeling. They find themselves straightening racks and displays constantly. If you’re a merchandising neat-freak like we were, I’m sure you’ve done the same.

This was taken mid-day on a Saturday in September!

Just recently one of my former employees was in Macy’s. She was straightening a rack, as is her habit. Nearby was a group of young men searching for an employee. They were singing, “Oh Macy’s employeeeeeee. Where are yooooouuuu?”

They saw her and asked hopefully, “Do you work here?”

When she said, “No,” they returned to their singing and standing on their tiptoes trying to find help in the cavernous and employee-less department store.

As she told me this story, two thoughts came to mind …

First, if your employees don’t have that urge to straighten and rearrange the displays in other stores, you haven’t trained them well enough.

Second, the lack of well-trained employees on the sales floor will be the downfall of the department stores, not Amazon, not the economy, not their failure to latch onto some shiny new tech, not their website, not their omni-channel efforts, not their advertising.

All the traffic in the world won’t matter if there is no one to take care of that traffic.

Don’t make the mistake that has shuttered the stores of JC Penney’s, Sears, Bon Ton, Younker’s, Elder Beerman, and so many others.

Train your staff well and have enough of them on the floor to make a difference.

That will be the winning formula this holiday season.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I used to have a red polo shirt. I wore it into Target once. Once. Retailing may be one of the lower rungs on the employee food chain, but when you find the right people and train them well, you get a team where retail is in their blood. They will get mistaken for employees in other stores on a regular basis. That should be a goal you strive for your team—to have the kind of people who want to make the shopping experience better no matter where they are.

The Internet Isn’t Winning

You’re losing.

Case Study #1

Image result for a5 scooterMy son wanted to buy a scooter for getting around campus. Not an electric scooter, mind you, but a simple two-wheeled scooter similar to the one he had as a child but with higher handlebars and a larger weight limit. He is a college student with Amazon Prime. He researched it online as do most kids his age. He could have bought it and had it in two days. Instead, since the website said Walmart had it, he asked if I would take him to Walmart.

Two stores later, no scooter, no sign of that scooter having ever been in either store. Guess where he’s going?

Case Study #2

A friend needed a specific type of blood sugar test strips for the machine she got. The store where she used to get them had an empty slot on the shelf for over a week. Two other stores she tried didn’t have that style. Another store had them but for over double the price.

Guess where she went?

Case Study #3

I went shopping with my other son. He has particular tastes when it comes to pants. The last style that he liked has been discontinued. After trying several stores and pants we finally found another style he liked at REI. They had one pair—in one color—in stock in his size.

“You can get more colors and sizes online,” said the clerk.

Case Study #4

Another friend was in Dick’s Sporting Goods. She found a pair of shorts she liked but not her size. The clerk, after telling her they didn’t have her size, didn’t even offer for her to go online where she not only found her size, but also found they were on clearance, even though no one had bothered to mark them as such in the store.

Case Study #5

Another friend told me she stopped shopping at Younkers because the prices at the register never matched the prices on the shelves. Sometimes the prices were higher, which meant she had to get someone to go look at the shelf tags while customers lined up at the register behind her, and then fight for the right price. Sometimes the prices were lower, which, had she known, she would have bought more than one. Either way, each trip to the checkout was fraught with anxiety and stress.

I could go on and on about several times the customer service was so poor, the selection so lacking, or the experience so frustrating, that the best solution is to avoid going shopping in brick & mortar stores at all.

When I moved back to Jackson in 1993 the Jackson YMCA was transforming one of its squash courts into a rock climbing gym. Because I had led rock climbing trips before, they hired me to supervise it. When I met with my new staff for their first day of training I explained to them that there were NO regulations guiding how rock climbing gyms should be run, mainly because these gyms were relatively new and there hadn’t been enough injuries or accidents or insurance claims to force those regulations.

I told the staff that we would NOT be the cause of any such regulations. Our gym would be run at the highest standards of safety. We only had two incident reports in eight years and no major injuries.

Today you need to have the same conversation with your staff.

Your store will not be the cause of driving anyone to the Internet to do their shopping.

  • Your store will have the must-haves in stock.
  • Your store will have the merchandise properly displayed, priced, sorted, and available.
  • Your store will have a staff that knows the products inside and out including not only what you sell, but the most popular products you don’t sell (and why you don’t sell them).
  • Your store will be the store that offers solutions to problems.
  • Your store will be the store that makes checkout a breeze.

That’s what keeps people in the store and off the Internet. That’s what winning in the store looks like.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS My son is living proof that even today’s youth still want to shop in a store. The stores just aren’t doing their job of making it worthwhile. Worse yet, each poor brick & mortar experience reflects poorly on all brick & mortar stores, especially when it happens at an indie store that is supposed to be the pinnacle for customer service.
Don’t be that store that brings everyone else down.

If You Have to Ask …

I stood up on stage in front of a crowd of retailers and said, “If you have to ask how much it costs, …”

The crowd answered in unison, “You can’t afford it!”

That quote is attributed to J.P. Morgan and is so common and pervasive that if you say the first half, almost everyone can tell you the second half. So why do so many stores put out merchandise without price tags forcing customers to ask?

Michigan was the last state in the union to get rid of its pricing rules where every product that could be priced had to be priced. The Michigan Retailers Association was against this rule because it put an undue burden on large retailers having to price out every single item.

Imagine the cost of all those price tags and the staff necessary to tag all those items. Oh the outrage! (sarcasm intended)

Frankly, as a consumer, I loved that law. I hate having to walk around the store looking for a scanner to verify if the price on the shelf is correct (if there is a price on the shelf at all!) I find it annoying when items aren’t priced. Many of your customers do, too.

Putting price tags on products is not a cost issue. It is a customer service issue.

I’ve talked before about how signs increase sales because a large percentage of the population would rather read a sign than interact with a salesperson. Price tags are the lowest hanging fruit on the sign tree.

Price tags are one half of the Value Equation (Perceived Worth versus Actual Price). Without a price, a customer cannot finish that equation and make a decision to buy on her own. Many of those customers walk away without asking an associate for help.

Image result for if you have to ask how much it costs you can't afford it“If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.” J.P. Morgan

That quote popped into my mind last weekend while I was shopping in Dillard’s. They have a nice Big & Tall section that has mostly served me well since I discovered it. Several items, however, were not priced. I couldn’t help think how often I moved on to the next item that was priced rather than look for a sales associate.

I’m not your typical male shopper. I will ask for help … if it is convenient enough. Unfortunately, more and more stores are cutting back on their sales force, leaving fewer and fewer sales associates even available to help me.

This is the downward spiral of customer service that is driving customers to the Internet. Yes, pricing your items is a Customer Service thing. If you aren’t pricing every individual item that you possibly can, you aren’t offering good customer service.

If you aren’t pricing every individual item you possibly can, you’re losing sales.

In the big box stores I can take an unmarked item to a scanner somewhere on the floor. In a smaller store I may just scan the UPC with my phone and buy it online right in front of you.

I hated when Michigan finally gave up the price tag rule. It meant worse customer service for consumers in general. It meant lower costs for all those big-box competitors that didn’t care about customer service in the first place, and it drove more people to the Internet for shopping just to avoid the lousy customer service they got from the big retailers.

Yeah, it gave me a chance to outshine the competition with superior service, but for most people it lowered their overall perception of brick & mortar shopping in general. All boats sink with the tide, too.

You might think buying all those price tags and paying staff to tag all those items costs too much. I will tell you that by not properly pricing your merchandise, it is costing you far more.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS The last thing you ever want a customer to think is, “I probably can’t afford it.” Yet since that J.P. Morgan quote is so pervasive, that is exactly the thought in their head every time they can’t find a price. I can’t make that quote or that thought go away, but I can encourage you to eliminate that thought in your store. Make your pricing crystal clear.

PPS One other benefit of pricing all your merchandise is Trust. If your stuff isn’t marked, it looks like you’re hiding something or playing games with your pricing. That undermines trust, which undermines relationships and loyalty.

Teaching Your Staff Product Knowledge

One of my favorite activities when I was a camp counselor was something we called a Dutch Auction. For the Dutch Auction, each kid in our cabin would take his pillow case and put ten items in that pillow case. With our collection of items we would head to the Auction. At the Auction the support staff played judge. One person would call off an item to be “auctioned” such as a purple toothbrush. Your cabin would have to look through your collection of stuff to see if you had a purple toothbrush.

Image result for purple toothbrushIf you did have a purple toothbrush, you showed the judge and your team got a point. If you didn’t, you tried to come up with creative alternatives that the the judges might agree was a “purple toothbrush.” For instance, if you had anything purple, you would take it up to the judges and begin “brushing” your teeth with it. The more creative you were, the more likely the judge would give you a point.

I loved this activity because of the creativity and imagination required to get a point. I loved this activity because it got the kids in the cabin working together, especially when they called for the “longest shoelace” and everyone started pulling out their shoelaces to tie them together into one long lace. I loved this activity because there was always laughter and always out-of-the-box thinking. I loved this activity even though I almost lost my first camp counselor job my very first week when my senior counselor and I taught our sixth-grade boys an inappropriate chant (we still got a point and we made the whole dining hall roar with laughter, so it couldn’t have been that bad??).

Are you surprised I adapted the Dutch Auction into a staff training?

We’ve all heard the mantra of selling Features and Benefits. What happens, however, is that we spend our whole time training on the features of an item, without really exploring the benefits. Yet it is the benefits that actually sell the item.

Let’s define those terms:

  • Features = what a product does
  • Benefits = how using that feature makes your life better

Features are just facts and data.

Benefits are the visualization of the product solving the problem you’re trying to solve.

Benefits are the results you get because of the features. Benefits are emotions and feelings. Knowing the features is only half the battle. You have to know what results and feelings those features give you.

So, I held a Dutch Auction with my staff. I broke them into teams and sent them out to get three new products each from the shelves. Then I started calling off the items I wanted to see.

Show me an item that …

  • Helps a parent save time
  • Helps a child become more coordinated
  • Fosters a better relationship between siblings
  • Makes bedtime easier
  • Teaches better manners
  • Teaches compassion
  • Increases planning and organizational skills
  • Fosters increased cooperation

You won’t find any of these outcomes on the packaging of any of the toys we sold, but those were real benefits our customers were hoping to achieve.

By playing this game, my staff began to look at the new products with a different mindset. They began imagining the benefits of each item, thinking about the product from the end result point of view.They went beyond what the item did to how the item made your life better.

We followed up this exercise with another one, a fill-in-the-blank I called It does/So that.

This product does (feature) _____________, so that you (benefit) ___________________ .

Everyone grabbed three new items and shared three It does/So that statements. By the time we were done, we knew the benefits of 36 new items.

Not only are Dutch Auction and It does/So that powerful ways to get your staff thinking more about benefits than features, they are fun, too. Plus, they get your staff thinking outside the box and working together. Win-win-win.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Another way to put it … Features are about the product. Benefits are about the customer. It is always about the customer. Always.

PPS Want to make your merchandising stand out? When you make a sign for a new product or category, make it about the benefits to the customer instead of the features of the product. You’ll win far more hearts faster than ever before.

Product Selection – Curation or Saturation?

I went to visit a fellow toy store owner in Cleveland. At that time Michael had three stores in the area. The store I visited was on the opposite spectrum of mine in terms of size. He had about 1,100 square feet of selling space. I had 16,000 square feet of selling space. Yet we were both successful toy store owners in our markets. I love seeing stores like his and discovering the creative ways they show off all the wonderful and unique products they carry. I often saw many of the same brands we carried.

We got to talking about the different challenges of running small versus large stores and one of those challenges was buying product to fill the shelves, especially something as simple and common as jigsaw puzzles. Michael had about 4 feet of space dedicated to jigsaw puzzles. I had about 44 feet of space.

Michael said, “It must be hard for you to buy puzzles to fill up all that space.”

“Are you kidding? It’s easy, I just go through the catalog and buy them all and let the customers decide which ones I should reorder. I think it would be way tougher trying to narrow it down to only four feet.”

That was the big selection difference between our stores—Curation versus Saturation.

Both methods have their pros. Both have their cons. Both can be used as your calling card to advertise to potential customers the advantages of your “Selection.” (As I said in a previous post, the customers you can most easily steal from your competitors are customers who shop the category killer in your industry for the Experience and the Selection.)

This was just the young kids puzzles. Opposite that was another 44 feet of jigsaw puzzles!


Saturation is when you give your customer all the possible (or likely) options for any given product category. I found it was much easier, when buying jigsaw puzzles, to pick the ones I didn’t want than to pick the ones I did want. I often heard myself telling the rep, “I’ll take everything from that collection except this one.”

In a store of my size, Saturation wasn’t only easy, it was necessary. We needed a lot of product to fill our shelves and make our store look full. We used that method of stocking for many different departments and categories. We also played up the strengths of Saturation by pointing out that we carried more toys from more vendors than any other toy store in America—even Toys R Us! We bragged how we were the largest toy store in America because of it. (He who has the most toys wins!)

The downside to Saturation was twofold.

First, we had a lot of products that didn’t sell well. We had more than our fair share of slow movers. I solved that problem by having an annual clearance sale every July to get rid of the merchandise that didn’t move. Our inventory turns, however, were lower than the average for indie toy stores.

Second, sometimes we overwhelmed our customer with too many option. Analysis Paralysis. To overcome that I needed to have a staff that knew our products inside and out. We spent a lot of time training the staff to curate the selection after the customer explained what she needed.

Your Category Killers built their entire business models around Saturation. Saturation appeals to the customer who wants to browse and sort through the options. Saturation appeals to the customer who doesn’t know what she wants. Saturation makes you look like the expert. Bigger, better, bestest.

When these stores first opened up they were amazing. Nowadays, however, that saturation (especially without a knowledgeable sales staff) seems overwhelming or simply a waste of time and space. Many of these same stores are now building smaller footprints because they realized they don’t have the payroll to staff such a huge store properly.


The other side of the coin is Curation—when you pick only the best items or options to offer your customers so that they don’t have to make any tough decisions.

Curation is great because it streamlines the process for the customer. It is attractive to that same customer who didn’t know what she wanted because it takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for her.

A carefully curated product selection can also send your customers the message that you are the experts in your category … As long as you have first earned their trust.

Curation without Trust is just a “poor selection”.

Here is how you win their Trust with your Curation:

  • Make sure you have the best solution available, no matter what it costs. If one of your competitors offers a better solution, you didn’t curate well. Be ready to defend why it is the best option. (PS You don’t have to sell a lot of that option, but you do need to have it.)
  • Make sure your selection is neat, clean, organized, and well-merchandised. If it looks like you don’t care about your products, no one will trust your Curation.
  • Make sure your sales team knows every product inside and out including how each item is used and the difference between the Best, Better, and Good options.
  • When you show a customer your options, ALWAYS lead with the Best.
  • If you don’t carry the “most popular” item in that category have a simple and understandable explanation why. (“We can’t get it,” or “It sucks.” are not good answers. Try “It is an exclusive to … but we prefer …” or “It doesn’t work as well as this option because …”)
  • Make sure you are never out of stock of the best selling option.

If you have a carefully Curated collection of merchandise, you can win the Selection crowd just as easily as if you have a Saturation of products. You do it by advertising that you’ve taken all the guesswork out of the equation.

Both methods can help you steal customers away from your competitors, but only when you do them right and with purpose.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS One big discussion taking place in the indie toy world right now is whether indie stores should pick up more of the mass market lines Toys R Us used to sell to try to win over those customers. The answer to that is Yes and No. Yes, if the product is both one of the best options to have in your Curated selection and also one that you can be profitable selling. No if it doesn’t meet those two criteria. More often than not the Category Killer had the “most popular” item. More often than not, that item was not one of the best options. As long as you can answer why you don’t carry the most popular item in a solid way, you’ll win over customers.

PPS Of the two methods for product selection, Saturation takes more money, Curation takes more time. If you have the resources (space and money), go for Saturation and combine it with a killer trained staff. You’ll be well on your way to becoming a Category Killer.

PPPS There is a Third Option. Curation with special order. The newer, smaller Category Killer store formats are using their distribution centers to order in the products they don’t keep in stock in the stores. They don’t want a customer walking out the door empty-handed. While this is the ultimate situation where you can get anything a customer wants in a day or two, it is built for the customer who knows exactly what she wants. Until your vendors can support you in that manner, make sure you have the right solutions and a staff that knows what you sell.

I Didn’t Steal a Bunch of Candy

I didn’t steal a bunch of candy. Oh, I could have. I bought some over-priced M&Ms at a candy shop on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. The checkout was at the back of the store in the most awkward place. I had to walk up a ramp, stand in a line, then stand in the entry way to the nostalgic candy area near the back of the store to pay for my purchases.

I watched customer after customer walk away from the checkout with a decorative paper bag into which they could have tossed tens or even hundreds of dollars worth of loose candy from multiple displays on their way to the front of the store. I don’t think they did. I didn’t. But I could have.

Sure, the store had cameras near the front door. But with the crowd that was in that store on a Saturday afternoon, beating those cameras would have been a breeze worthy of the Windy City.

It wasn’t just the shoplifting aspect that bothered me with the layout of this particular store.

The registers were side by side, but the line to get to them was beside them, not in front of them. If someone was at the first register, by the time it was your turn, you had to scootch around them to get to the second register. If someone big, or a party of two or more was at the first register, you couldn’t even see the tiny little cashier at the open register.

The registers were also poorly placed in the doorway to a special section of nostalgic candy. You know Nostalgia is one of my Core Values. I was excited to enter that section. I was a lot less excited waiting for the gal at checkout with her stroller that was blocking my entry to the area.

I suppose if you’re in a large city like Chicago, catering to the tourist crowd, you can overcharge for your goods to offset your shrinkage and create a layout that frustrates the heck out of customers knowing that they likely won’t be back anyway.

If you’re not in this situation, you might want to plan your layout more carefully.

Put the cash-wrap where you can see everything and everyone in the store, but also close enough so that once people check out, they can easily leave. More importantly, plan the line of customers for checkout so that they don’t block other customers trying to shop. Best of all, make it easy and intuitive for customers to know where to go and what to do when they are ready to check out.

I know there is a train of thought that says you want a layout that gets people to the back of the store. Using your checkout as the lure, though, is not the best way to accomplish this, especially in a store that has a ton of traffic and sells easily-pocketed items.

This kid definitely wasn’t as enthralled with this candy shop.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I will give them props on the centerpiece display. The giant lollipop tree pictured here was worthy of the stop and a good example of Over-the-Top-Design. They also had several choose-your-own-flavor stands for things like Jelly Bellies, M&Ms, and other candies. But then again, the last feeling of the experience is the lasting feeling of the experience. Don’t let your customers walk out unhappy, confused, frustrated, or befuddled.