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Category: Merchandising

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.

Now is Not the Time to Panic

Long before there was ever Cyber Monday, there was Letdown Monday. You worked incredibly hard gearing up for Black Friday (and now Small Business Saturday). You planned events, did marketing, trained the staff, decorated the store, and had a nice busy weekend. Then Monday hits and you wonder where all the customers went.

You feel a little letdown. You feel a little worried that you didn’t get enough momentum to carry you through the season. You worry that Cyber Monday is stealing your dollars while you sit there feeling helpless. You start to wonder why you didn’t put more energy into building your own website, or why you didn’t plan a lot of deals for Cyber Monday to keep the customers in your store, or that you have too much inventory, or that you don’t have enough inventory.

In the immortal words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Don’t Panic!

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxyI know the feelings of this week. I lived it for twenty three years, and lived with it for another twenty seven. The slowdown from the busy weekend gives you too much time to think about what you might have done differently, what you haven’t done, and what you’re afraid might happen.

That’s a natural reaction, but not all that productive. I’m here to put it all into perspective.

First, let’s talk about the slowdown. It is a natural ebb of the season. Happens Every. Single. Year. The busiest days of the year are typically:

  • Saturday before Christmas
  • December 23rd
  • Second Saturday before Christmas
  • Black Friday/Small Business Saturday
  • First Saturday in December

This year the 23rd of December happens to be on a Saturday making it extra special. Also you get a bonus of having four Saturdays in December prior to Christmas. Still plenty of big days to get the sales you need. You just won’t get many this week because there are too many days before customers truly get into that Christmas mood. This year, with Thanksgiving extra early, you have a long season. Expect a little customer (and staff) burnout.

The slowest week of your season is this week.

This is not the week to panic. This is the week to prepare. 

In a marathon race everyone sprints off the line. That’s Black Friday. Then they settle into their strategy. That’s this week and next. Finally, they go into their kick down the homestretch. That is your last two weeks. Now is strategy time. Now is preparation time.

  • Put a little extra time into training your staff. Work on role play, on greeting customers, on working with multiple customers at the same time.
  • Put a little extra time into decorating. Sure, you got it done for last weekend, but now is a good time to tweak it, upgrade it, spruce it up. Make it extra special because for the next few weeks customers will actually have the time to appreciate it more than they did in the frenzy of last weekend.
  • Put a little extra time into merchandising. Highlight the high-profit stuff you really want to move. Put the stuff they come in asking for by name at the back of the store so that your customers travel past everything else to get there.
  • Put a little extra time into Social Media. Start polls. Compare two items side by side. Share heartwarming stories. Tell the backgrounds of you, your store, your staff, your vendors, etc. Don’t make it about discounts or drawing traffic. Make it human and interesting,
  • Put a little extra time into you. Do something nice for yourself this week. Your staff can handle it. Take some time to go shopping (if you haven’t already). Take some time to catch a movie or go to a show or go outdoors. Those little things will keep you refreshed for those last two weeks that will be busy enough.

If you are worried about your inventory, keep this in mind. The last week before Christmas will be approximately ten percent of your entire yearly sales. If you don’t have enough inventory for that, then do some buying this week. Other than restocking a few hot items that will sell well after Christmas, too, trust your inventory levels and go have some fun.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS It is too easy to second-guess everything based on last weekend. Unfortunately, that’s the worst barometer you have. The only time to properly analyze the season is after it is over. Right now your only job is to prepare this week to make those last two weeks the best ever.

Three Pictures, Three Smiles

It is soooo easy to bash stores and their poor customer service. I am almost afraid to go out any more because every encounter ends up becoming a post about what not to do.

For instance, I could tell you about tonight’s dinner when the waitress brought the check and then disappeared for ten minutes before returning to take my money.

Or I could talk about the manager who totally dressed down a cashier in front of me for doing something that the cashier never did.

Fortunately there have been positive stories like the clerk at Walmart who helped a new mom who had brought her toddler in to get his meds, only to have the little boy vomit all over himself, his mom, and everywhere. This clerk not only helped clean him up, she helped get mom and the boy into the restroom so that mom could clean up, and even went and picked out a new sleeper for the poor little kid so that he could have fresh clothes to go home in.

It not only reminded me that good people will rise above their surroundings*, it also reminded me that you can’t train “caring”, but you darn well better hire for it.

For today’s post I leave you with three pictures that made me smile.

Creative Display or Prank Customer?

Towel Display I found while shopping

It is highly likely that a customer having a little fun probably did this. But it stopped me dead in my tracks and made me actually laugh out loud. What would have been better is if they had Scrabbled the letters so that they spelled words both across and down. Here is the thing … You can do this yourself. You may or may not have the guts to spell out Bad Ass, but if you’re clever enough, you will surprise and delight at least a few observant folk.

When you do little things like this purposefully, these little attentions to detail remind customers that you pay attention to everything.

That builds trust. Trust creates loyalty.

Signs Sell!

Game Department Signage at Hall of Toys

It might be too small to read here, but this sign I found in the game department of Hall of Toys in Battle Creek, Michigan was quite clever. The sign reads …

Empire Building
Build, protect, and rule over a civilization,
agricultural empire, or business venture to
crush the competition and win.

This kind of signage not only makes the department seem more fun, it gives you a better idea of the types of games you’ll find. The more creative you are with your signage, the more likely customers will stop, browse, and buy. Signs are one area where creativity wins. Be useful first, but mix in some clever and creative to surprise and delight your fans.

Displays That Draw Attention

Animal Display at CR Toys

This came from another toy store. It falls into the category of Go Big or Go Home. Connie found a fun way to highlight the variety of animal-themed toys she sells in her Kearney, Nebraska store.

What I like about this display is the height. There is something fun at every level, something surprisingly delightful everywhere you turn. If part of your customer base is children, do what Walt Disney famously did the day before Disney Land opened. Get on your knees and look at it from their perspective. You see the world at different angles. Make sure you have something interesting in your displays from all angles

That’s your feel-good for today. Keep sending me the good, the bad, and the ugly.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS *I know it was a clerk rising above her surroundings, because while she was bending over backwards to help this poor mom, I watched several other clerks simply stand by and do nothing at all. Some even left the area so they wouldn’t get tasked with having to help clean up the mess. No, she wasn’t the manager, either. I could write a whole other post on what the manager was doing while all this was going on. I’ll save that cautionary tale for later.

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.