Can outlet and visual merchandising coexist?

Our curiosity is always stimulated by the search of new boundaries of the retail sector and the search of the most important topics about visual merchandising.

The retail centres, which stand out thanks to their well-finished turrets and red ceilings, seem to not have been touched by the economic crisis: the last year was extremely positive for the outlets with an increasing number of clients.

Franciacorta Outlet Village

Just think of the Serravalle outlet where thirty languages are spoken (the Russian and Chinese tourists are growing**). As we are aware of the potential of these retail centres, we acted as professional retail spies and authorized personnel and we wondered how a successful visual merchandising can affect the sales activity within a shop (starting from April, XT will organize visual merchandising courses and staff training in the outlet villages of Franciacorta and Val di Chiana).

Spying surveys were fundamental to put ourselves in the shoes of the target clientele and understand the consumer logic. We chose villages of excellence like Franciacorta Outlet and Castel Guelfo The Style Outlets, another important retail centre near to the headquarter of XT, as the places to be analysed. As we were good spies, we blended in the crowd catching every detail which attracted our attention: we looked at both the shop windows and the interior of the stores observing some particular situations which approved and other which didn’t like so much. We verified that some brands meet the customer requirements regarding the evolution of the outlet perception, on the other hand other brands continue to display old PoP material and to overlook the client feedback.

It was very interesting to turn from authorized staff into clients and consider that the visual merchandising together with a skilful organisation of the store are the key elements to carry out a successful or unsuccessful sale. After a (only apparently) relaxed walk in the stores trying to go into the client’s mind, we decided to examine in depth the question considering different points of view and to interview the “giant” of this sector about the importance of the coordination of all the necessary activities in order to maintain the brand identity and, at the same time, to transmit it according to the winning rules of visual, providing a harmonious and coherent image within the outlet centres. Nowadays, the outlet concept is always more focused on the store: this means that the needs and the details deserve dedicated visual interventions and a suitable preparation, also in the retail channel where prices are undoubtedly a strong point. The “people interviewed” revealed us their secrets and projects.

Massimo Testa_Retail Director at AVM (Added Value Management), company specialised in the marketing and management of outlet villages and shopping centres.
Massimo looks at the global area of the village and considers it as a single sales point: the advertising is thought like a showcase, a preview of the customer experience during the visit of the store. The key words are coherence, because it is important to satisfy the expectations of the clients and planning, in particular regarding shop windows, interior design, communication and promotions.

– What are the fundamental visual aspects of the outlet concept?
“Every outlet village is placed at a specific location according to the brands it offers and, consequently, to the type of clientele it attracts. The

Massimo Testa

aim of the retail strategy is therefore focused on the improvement of the quality of the customer experience. The outlet villages are born as simple, low-cost retail centres, but now the clientele has evolved and it considers them an unconventional distribution channel which is not less important than that of “full price”. When clients walk through the streets of the village, they must perceive the harmony between the architectural elements, the signs, the shop windows and the communication tools: this symphony is aimed at increasing the value of the brands and their uniqueness, not at standardising the product offer. The Retail Manager is a very important figure in the world of the outlet villages, as he has to constantly monitor the employees, supporting and stimulating them when necessary, and to keep in mind the peculiarity of every type of product.”

– What are the most difficult concepts to be assimilated by the partners?
“Surely, the topic of schedules has to be discussed because they represent a difficult concept in the outlet context. The contrast between a multitude of different situations – heterogeneous commodities sectors – is not always synonym with productivity and efficacy at the offer level. For example, many companies have a summer product range which does not correspond to the client needs (sometimes it can be used too early or too late). So well-studied transition phases and a right product mix are absolutely necessary. Another theme which is difficult to be assimilated by some brands is the product display according to the total look and the colour: the static nature of product presentation, which is functional in the sale period, does not enhance the new collections during the changes of season.”

– Have you noticed particular visual merchandising techniques that significantly improve your KPI parameters?
“The available tools are first of all the definition of clear guidelines that regulate the communication in the shop windows (price lists, promotions, campaigns, store cards) and the  seasonal setting-up. From this year, we have developed a “tailor made” training project which combines a theoretical phase on window dressing and visual merchandising with practical exercises on the mannequins, display walls and 3D models. The visual merchandising contests will be very interesting and they will award the most deserving people with a free training course, which is offered to all the team by the sales point and is developed according to the display criteria of the winning brand. Another important aspect is the support of the Retail Managers to the staff of the stores to help them to solve the daily problems linked to the product display.”

McArthurGlen Group, Noventa di Piave Designer Outlet.

Enrico Biancato_Centre Manager at McArthurGlen Group, Noventa of Piave Designer Outlet.

– What are the fundamental visual aspects of the outlet concept?
The outlet of Noventa, like other McArthur outlets in Italy, has begun to consider visual as an organic concept, an action that changes through the layout and other details, and to strengthen the DNA of this retail centres providing an overall, consolidated vision since 3 years. The figure of the Retail Manager is therefore very important, but it is not an easy role to play. Since he does not manage personally the promotions and the stock of the stores, first of all he has to obtain the confidence of the partners: his aim is focused on the comprehension, the analysis and the approach of every single case in a different way (product areas, targets, totally heterogeneous languages), keeping the coherence and the structure image. The secret of success is a support action which does not play favorites and does not make any distinction between brands. Consequently, a very interesting service, made available by McArthurGlen Designer Outlet to its partners, is the RETAIL ACADEMY which is totally free for the brands of the outlet stores. The partners can therefore take advantage of a training about the assisted sales and its basic rules, English courses but also courses more focused on the clientele of this type of outlets (for example Russian and Chinese courses), and indications on how to deal with customers taking into consideration the different cultures. A type of training based on products: within the outlet there are more structured brands and other which are less structured, it is important to improve the overall shopping experience of clients to provide all the brands with a high level of competence and product know-how. A visual training: from the guidelines of the outlet to the training in the field (window dressing), just to the monitoring of the shop window in the following week. A homogeneous training is a successful move that now involves the 80% of brands in Noventa (this percentage excludes only those brands which have a strong visual structure).”

Enrico Biancato

_ What are the most difficult concepts to be assimilated by the partners?
“There are not difficult concepts to be assimilated, but a careful monitoring is essential to keep a high level of excellence: trained staff in contact with clients, green and clean areas and a high architectural level. Every time we deal with a new partner who has no experience in the outlet distribution channel, we observe an opposition response (for example if they are already structured and need no help) or we find brands asking for help and advice: so it begins a gradual action aimed at the conquer of the customer loyalty. It all depends on our approach, before that of the partners; also important brands like Boglioli, Bally and Dsquared2 (the latter opened its first outlet just in Noventa) often rely on the shopping expertise of these outlets. A support action is carried out before the opening of the store, so the new partner is informed about the flow of customers which is expected according to days and time slots, the languages that the staff must speak, the sizes to be stocked and much more.”

Regarding the “inconvenient rules”, Biancato mentions the following: the shop windows have not been prepared during the opening hours of the outlet; on the occasion of the events which are organised within the outlet, the shop windows must be set up according to the mood of the event. Hence, it is inevitable to wonder how it is possible to coordinate a such heterogeneous and multifaceted overview: during these events the best shop window is chosen so, thanks to the competition, the creativity is stimulated at the highest levels.

_Have you noticed particular Visual Merchandising techniques which significantly improve/affect your KPI parameters?
Enrico Brancato answers to this question with a very remarkable statement: “I always say to my employees that our work is beautiful, so I banned the word “problem”. When the client comes and finds a pasta dish and a good coffee, green and clean areas and a quality good stock, it is similar to perfectly make a puzzle which confirms that our work was successful and the level of the shopping experience was high.” Three or four mystery shopping are carried out to keep monitored the single cases, through which we try to verify if the additional sales is suggested and if there is the ability to turn the visitor into client. If this conversion does not occur, we analyse the situation searching for a solution with the partner; as Brancato rightly highlights, this type of analysis is implemented also with partners that have no problems.

Serravalle McArthurGlen Designer Outlet

Daniela Bricola_ Centre Manager at McArthurGlen Group, Serravalle Designer Outlet.
“I think that it isn’t exact to make a distinction when we talk about outlet: its perception has evolved over the years, but it delayed to be understood in this context. Clarity, communication, simplicity and essentiality are crucial factors to satisfy our priority, that is the enhancement of the product. We aim at the concept of homogeneity, which is conceived as an added value. Homogeneity like brand awareness, not like standardisation: this helps the client to be at ease and to enter a comfort zone where the loyal customer (but also a new customer) gets to know it quickly and where the product comes always first. Why homogeneity? Because it is necessary to simplify all the aspects considering the high heterogeneity of customers and the wide product range.”

_What are the most difficult concepts to be assimilated by the partners?

Daniela Bricola

“Rather than difficulty, the first word that I think of is opportunity. When a brand comes into the world of outlets for the first time, it enters a completely new situation and so it needs a support to understand its organisation (for example the flow and the frequency of visitors). There are very beautiful sales points which are not suitable for the outlet world.” Daniela goes on defining the everyday life of the outlet, a community life (about 190 stores): it is essential that the community follows a schedule according to that of the fashion industry, but first of all it has to be organised within the outlet. A homogeneous and coherent set-up allows the partners to have the necessary collections to a coordinate product presentation: this is equivalent to harmoniously promote a concept to the partners, so that the outlet philosophy is assimilated, and to give importance to some details such as the necessity to show the outlet prices in combination with the retail prices (a really appreciated aspect by the final customer).

_ How do you intend to improve the Visual Merchandising concept in the global vision of the outlet?
“To be always focused on a constant improvement, it is important to keep in mind 2 fundamental principles: big brands and prices. The perception of the outlets has evolved over the years, now it is a place where people can spend a day; for this reason we have to offer an added value, an emotional significance: outlet is synonym not only with shopping, but also with entertainment. This concept leads to an analysis in terms of visual merchandising which involves not only the shop windows but the entire outlet, that is considered as a global experience.”

Castel Guelfo The Style Outlets

Luca Piccolo_ Director of Castelguelfo The Style Outlets
In regard to the visual organisation, the outlet of Castel Guelfo arranges the “opening doors” event twice a year: the Head Office sends a team of highly prepared visual merchandisers – equipped with visual books – which supports the sales points with consultancy activities and physical assistance in store (if required). So the outlet keeps its flexibility and its “open-mindedness” without significantly affecting the visual guidelines or the commercial management of the partner brand. The visual concept of the outlet stores developed in a directly proportional way to the products which are sold within them: at the beginning the outlet offered only the unsold products of the previous season, but now – since the outlet is a concept in a constantly increasing expansion – many brands devote an entire production to the outlet. More products give the possibility of a more structured visual. At the outlet of Castel Guelfo, the concept of visual has been enhanced also thanks to important brands such as Vans, Quicksilver and many others which made available their know-how. Regarding the fundamental figures of the outlet, the Retail Coordinator is not to be missed: he controls and coordinates the store activities every day. On the occasion of theme exhibitions, special events and during the changes of season, the outlet provides guidelines, timing, training and POP material. Luca makes also a consideration on a topic that we need to approach: the high staff turnover leads us to focus on customer. In this period and in this context, the customer service is very important: the customer is continuously searching for the “good deal” so it is necessary that the store has a qualified staff which is able to suggest it.

_ What are the most difficult concepts to be assimilated by the partners?
“The promotion is an essential factor and is aimed at attracting the clientele. The secret concerns the communication of the promotion in a right way. For example, we take into consideration two stores that sell the same type of products and both have well-designed shop windows: the attention of the client will be drawn by the store where the promotional sign is placed in a correct manner. The partner has to make visible the promotion. Moreover, now the client is more informed and demanding, he understands which are the old structures that have a great influence on his choices. Since the concept of outlet has evolved, the number of mannequins has increased and it has been possible to suggest a total look according to the brand products and the concept to be promoted.”

_ How do you intend to improve the Visual Merchandising concept in the global vision of the outlet?
“If we had a higher budget, the first investment would be oriented to a greater homogeneity in the outlet, more structured shop windows at commercial and qualitative levels and a greater coherence between the offer displayed in the shop windows and that displayed in the store. The promotion must be efficient and must drawn the attention of the client who can easily find the product of interest within the store thanks to a right communication channel.”

Here is the last piece of the puzzle. We had the opportunity to know their opinions: pragmatic people with their own priorities who are focused on the objectives to be achieved and the aspects of a panorama offering the most varied products. They declared that they won’t stop at the first positive results of the last few years, but they will never forget the starting point. Their desire to continuously improve leads us to the conclusion that it is impossible to not consider the visual concept, but it is fundamental to invest in this direction since its added value is of extreme importance.

by AN shopfitting magazine ©
Francesco Zabini, Paolo Zanardi and Michela Piancastelli | XT srl