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‘Can VM reduce customer acquisition costs?’

By N Jayalakshmi | January 16, 2023

Visual merchandising (VM) today stands at an interesting intersection, caught as it is between traditional expectations and fast changing customer/ retail dynamics. In an exclusive interaction with Retail4Growth, veteran design professional Karunesh Vir Vohra, who calls himself a Catalyst at his venture ‘Business of Design (BOD)’, shares his views on where VM stands today and talks about some of the critical aspects that can define its future.

Change is the only constant, as we all know. And constant change is something most businesses have to reckon with today. Given this, where does visual merchandising (VM) - a critical function of the retail business - stand?  Well VM, like many other aspects of the retail eco-system, is closely linked to a brand’s sales mandate. But at its best, it is also a creative expression of brand personality and current ethos.  As most industry experts agree, a successful VM is one that smoothly straddles the two and resonates across the physical and digital social space.

Karunesh Vir Vohra, Catalyst Business of Design (BOD)As Karunesh Vir Vohra, Catalyst at his venture ‘Business of Design (BOD)’, says in a free wheeling conversation on the evolving role of VM, “The basics of consumer needs and behaviour have not changed. But the communication modes have changed. A VM professional today has to take this into account and possibly explore the social media aspects of visual merchandising.”

For someone focused on the business relevance of design as a whole and who is pretty vocal about the need for design to be a more strategy-based function, Karunesh would quite naturally reinforce the need for VM to evolve so it can play the role that it truly deserves to play. His words would, in fact, resonate with most visual merchandisers and other professionals closely involved with the customer-facing part of retail. Visual merchandisers are also in the unique position of not only being able to help a brand sell but also function as artists in their own right, trying to integrate the two disparate aspects of marketing and creativity.

So the question of relevance and being in sync with changing ethos, consumer tastes and the potential of technology as a business enabler becomes particularly critical for them.

Karunesh makes some more observations in this context, “Very often we see good windows coming up, but their impact ends with immediate visibility. At best, they get noticed by those in the industry circles. But today, when anything and everything from any remote corner of the world can go viral, why don’t we see more store windows making an impact in the social media space? So how do we make ‘Instagrammable’ windows?  And how do we create sensory VM online?” Pertinent questions indeed, reflect the way VM as a whole can be approached as an integral part of a brand’s business function today.

As Karunesh adds, “VM needs to become a holistic function and move beyond being just tactical and operational. Also, with technology taking over most functions, VM would need sharper and more relevant ideation for it to serve the purpose.”   

Guy checking the cloths on Mannequin

Role of organisation

So does the role of VM depend on the way a retail brand functions as an organisation and the way it approaches VM as a whole? Answers Karunesh, “Yes, organisations have to start understanding the function holistically and make it a part of the strategy, so it can create the desired impact.“

He adds, reiterating the business implications of treating VM as a core strategy function, “Whether online or offline, customer acquisition is still looked at as a cost, so VM ideation should be about how to reduce that cost and get the customer to talk about it. Terms like ‘phygital’, ‘immersive’ and ‘interactive’ are all being talked about, but the question is, how can these concepts be converted into practical reality and made part of VM?” 

He adds, “I think experienced VM professionals should focus on ideation and concept creation, and leave the implementation part to younger professionals, who can adapt it to the required interface, maybe using technology, if necessary. But unfortunately, as things stand today, many experienced professionals have not gone into the mode of strategy,  possibly because of the organisational structure. So they reach a point of stagnation. 

The onus on the individual

So what’s the way ahead? Does the onus lie on the VM professionals themselves to adapt and upgrade their relevance? Karunesh certainly thinks so. “An organisation will plug in people wherever required based on its growth plans and profits. It is for the professionals themselves to show that they can do more. This means they have to step out of their comfort zone, disrupt, take some chances and first show their internal customers that there is a possibility beyond what was previously thought of. The fact is that even for organisations to change, someone has to first show the way and it is up to the professionals to do that.” Well, that certainly sounds like a clarion call!

Where does VM education stand?

For any field or function to evolve and grow, it would also need a shift at the fundamental stage - the point where professionals are nurtured and groomed. For VM to get the place it deserves, VM training and education itself will possibly need to evolve and keep pace with the changing times and customer preferences. As Karunesh says, “A holistic approach is missing in VM education too. Essentially, the whole approach has to be like that of nurturing an artist - you first impart skill training and then develop the imagination. You see that happening in the West, where visual merchandisers are considered on par with the best artists in the world, but that is still not the case here in India.”

So finally, is there any advice for an aspiring VM professional? Karunesh quickly replies, “Focus on strategy, on a deep understanding of consumer reality, your brand and the overall ethos. This means a lot of observing, a lot of reading, a lot of movie watching and a lot of being alive. Essentially, move your skill sets towards becoming an idea person based on commercial creativity.” Well, is anyone listening?

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