If You Buy It, Will It Circ? In Defense of Visual Merchandising and Why Public Libraries Should Do More of It
Straight out of college, where she majored in art, one of my best friend’s first job was as a merchandiser at Arhaus. She spent her days setting up displays, designing the flow of traffic through the store, and helping the store to sell merchandise. Her job was to set up the store in appealing and artistic ways that would get customers to buy the merchandise and they knew what they were doing when they trained her. Around that same time The Mr., also an art major, started going through management training at Kroger. Part of this training was in the fine art of merchandising. Although customers don’t think a lot about it when they walk through the store, stores are spending a lot of time, money and attention to detail to help make sure that we, the customer, spend as much money as possible before we walk out their doors. There is a science to why milk is placed where it’s placed and public libraries could learn a lot from the retail world.
Have you bought or sold a house lately? I was stunned when a friend was selling her house to learn that she had to put half of her life into boxes in storage. Her real estate agent then schooled her in the fine art of staging. This is when realtors set up houses to make them inviting and help them sell. Good real estate agents are also very much in the business and science of set up, display and design. We could learn a lot from them as well.
The thing is, there is a lot of information out there about how to get customers buying merchandise, so why aren’t libraries using it? It’s true, we are a nonprofit community service based entity and we don’t talk about selling our merchandise, but we do want to be in the business of moving merchandise. In fact, it’s one of the most important things we do and one of the primary ways we measure our success: getting patrons to check out our materials. In fact, we spend so much time measuring and wringing our hands over circulation statistics, an issue I discuss here, and yet we spend so little time discussing better ways to help make that happen. Buying the right materials is only the most basic building blocks, it’s what we do with it next that helps get those materials circulating.
If you buy the right materials, we argue, our circulation statistics will be good. But just having an item on a shelf isn’t enough. And have you looked at our shelves lately (and yes, I know, not all shelves)? They are often too full, too overwhelming, and they don’t promote effective browsing. Sometimes, putting an item in our collection is the surest way to make sure that it gets lost.
Have you ever worked retail? One of our daily tasks when I was a teenager working retail was to walk through my department hourly to fluff shelves, fill display holes, and face out merchandise. This was non-negotiable and clearly understood to be an important part of my job. And I was trained how to do it and given clear expectations. Retail stores do not come to play when it comes to merchandising, and libraries shouldn’t either.
All of this falls under the heading of merchandising. Many people use the terms marketing and merchandising in tandem, and in ways they are two parts of the same whole. They both share the same goals: to get people using or buying your produce or services. In the world of librarianship, merchandising is our attempt to get people checking out our items. Merchandising is whatever you do to help move merchandise inside your store, or in this case, inside the library. Putting up displays is merchandising. Facing out book titles is merchandising. The colors you choose, the locations you choose, and the products you put on display are all merchandising. You can find a very basic discussion of merchandising at Shopify.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way here: I am no merchandising expert. I am a librarian. And if I have learned one thing about librarianship, it is that it often requires me to become a quasi expert at a wide range of things. And in the course of my career, one of those things has been both marketing and merchandising. In my training and study of merchandising, it has been mind blowing to learn how much research is done and how much the retail world knows about merchandising, down to things like color science and traffic patterns and location, location, location. The science is out there, already done for us, so let’s use our research skills to find and implement them in our libraries.
I’ve been thinking about merchandising a lot. I even tweeted last week that I thought one of the things that public libraries should do is to invite merchandising experts from local businesses to come in and do staff training. I think all staff should be trained in the fine art of merchandising; I think all staff should be given directives that involve staff training; and I think that all staff should be held accountable for merchandising. We should train our staff and make sure that they walk through the library several times a day to straighten the books on shelves, to fill display holes, and to make sure we have titles facing out. It’s what they do in retail business for a reason: it works.
Just a few of the tips that I would suggest include:
1. Just Right Shelf Sizes and Face Out Titles
Weed, weed, weed so that your shelves are no more than half to two-thirds full. At the end of each shelf that is at eye level, pull a book from that shelf and put it on face out display. Publishers put a lot of research into book covers, so let’s use what they know and do and use those book coves to get books circulating.
2. Contrasting Colors
When doing a display, unless you are doing a color specific display, put books with contrasting colors next to each other. For example, put a book with an orange cover on display next to a book with a blue cover. The contrast helps patrons visually distinguish between the books. This is harder said then done because a large number of books have black or blue covers. Visual artists know how to use color and contrast to draw the eye in and make it focus on what they want the eye to focus on; people who do graphic design do this as well. Let’s learn what we can from graphic designers, visual artists and visual merchandisers to create face out displays that will get books into the hands of our patrons.
3. The Book’s the Thing
Put the emphasis on the books as opposed to the display embellishments. You want to make it easy for the patrons to take a book off of a shelf or display and not feel like they are messing up someone’s time and efforts. In fact, if you can, include verbiage on your signage that lets patrons know that yes, these books are available to check out!
Rotate displays and face out titles every 2 to 4 weeks. With displays and face out titles, we’re encouraging our patrons to check out materials via browsing, so it’s important that they always have something new to see. If you put a title on display and it doesn’t move, re-shelve it and give another title a chance.
Make it a part of your daily practice to walk the library, or whatever your designated part of the library is, and keep things neat and straight. We’re all supposed to take 10,000 steps a day for health, so we might as well straighten while we’re doing it, right? Make it a part of every single person’s daily practice to merchandise the library and straighten the shelves.
There are so many other tips that are floating into my head now as I type this. We want to have balance, which is hard to achieve. A too full display and a too empty display both discourage browsing. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you want your display or shelves to be JUST RIGHT, but knowing what that looks like and how to achieve it is tricky business. And in all honesty, even with all the science and research, not everyone agrees, there are some best practices.
Here is some interesting research to help get us all started thinking about merchandising:
I know that not every library out there is struggling with the concept of merchandising, so share your tips and tricks with us below in the comments. But if you are one of the many libraries that are, maybe contact some local businesses and ask them to do some training and help your staff establish some best practices.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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