Merchandising & software: My journey through a parallel universe

Like most bright eyed and bushy tailed university graduates, I was anxious to start my life as a big kid. I had a rich background in fashion merchandising and expected to stay on that path. It was safe. It was familiar. It was my calling. That is, until it wasn’t.

At a broad level, merchandising is simply the placement of goods within a retail setting. Digging a bit deeper, it’s about using subtle cues to architect the perfect in-store experience. And for me, it was downright fascinating. There are three main pieces that work together to create successful merchandising.

Analyzing sales

The core of this exercise is using numbers to tell a story. In my role as a merchandiser, I once noticed that five of the top selling styles within my company were performing poorly at our location. Upon further investigation, I noticed that these items were squished together on an extremely long rack. I decided to split the long rack into two smaller racks and create an outward facing section in the middle. The following week, sales for these styles skyrocketed.

Analyzing traffic patterns

An important element of merchandising is making sure all areas of the store get evenly distributed foot traffic. Imagine it’s winter and everyone who enters the store has on dirty boots. At the end of the day, you ideally want the floor to be equally dirty in all sections. If one section is squeaky clean, you’d know this area is underperforming. Whoever mops at night has access to some pretty valuable information.

Creating an unforgettable experience

The first two points deal with internal tactics to improve merchandising efforts. The final, and arguably most important part of merchandising, is creating an experience that the customer will remember long after they leave your store. For example, a seasonal theme where I worked was centered around a mysterious forest. I spent weeks carefully assembling mushrooms out of cardboard and fabric. Did these mushrooms directly translate to sales? No. Did they leave customers with a sense of awe that encouraged return visits? Absolutely.

The parallels between merchandising and software design

Despite my experience in fashion, I applied for a job at a software developer on a whim. I was technologically inept but had a strangely positive feeling that couldn’t be ignored. The transition from merchandising to software wasn’t easy. But I was surprised to discover that I could use my experience in retail merchandising to understand software design better. I did it by making links between the two. Here are some examples:

The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone describes the moment when a customer first enters a store. People need to adjust to the new setting before they can focus on shopping. Armed with this knowledge, merchandisers avoid putting product too close to the front door, lest they be overlooked. Placing mannequins near the entryway or using a table to house minimal product are ways to address the issue. This also means sales people shouldn’t ask customers if they need help as soon as they walk in the door. The answer will invariably be: “no.”

How does this translate to software? Just like people need time to adjust in a retail setting, they also need time to adjust when they first enter a software environment. So, it would be more useful to have a dashboard on the home page as opposed to a highly detailed report. Cluttered landing pages on websites aren’t appealing either. And, don’t get me started on prompts to sign up for a newsletter as soon as the homepage loads.

Color stories

Clothing is generally organized in color stories. This means choosing a few colors that mix & match nicely and placing them together. It accomplishes a few things. First, it encourages the sale of outfits instead of single pieces. Second, it makes it easier to find items within a store. Finally, it can help tell the story of a theme in a given zone. If one area is going for a flashy ‘80’s feel, you likely won’t find many somber colors in that section.

Drawing a parallel to software, color can be an important tool by acting as a silent cue. To exit a page, buttons are generally red. Color can also be used to help users get their bearings. If there are multiple modules, using one predominant color for screens within a module is helpful. Finally, color can tell a story in software. The story in this case relates to branding.

Natural movements

If part of merchandising is guiding a customer through the store, taking into account the way they move is important. In North America, people have a natural tendency to veer to the right when they enter a store. This influences what should be placed to the right of the entrance. Keeping in mind the path that people take as they shop, the speed at which they move and where their eyes fall, these elements impact merchandising decisions.

Similarly in software, designers should keep in mind the way our eyes move. We tend to look at a screen from left to right and top to bottom. This should impact where buttons and prompts are placed. When a company is Beta testing a new software, there is value in observing users navigate the system. This could bring about insights into how they use the system and where different elements should be placed within the software.

Two worlds collide

Merchandising is about guiding the customer through a store using silent cues, encouraging specific behaviors and leaving them with a positive impression of the interaction. I strongly believe the same thing can be said about software design.

My biggest take-away after successfully making the transition from merchandising to software was that often, seemingly unrelated topics can have a multitude of commonalities. There is no such thing as wasted experience. Every past experience exists to help shape our future opportunities.

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