Designs & Displays: When Offbeat Is the Answer

This mannequin dressed in tulle and flowers near the pointe shoes at The Dance Bag adds an element of surprise and fun for customers shopping there.
This mannequin dressed in tulle and flowers near the pointe shoes at The Dance Bag adds an element of surprise and fun for customers shopping there.

In recent years, dancewear has become part of the fashion mainstream. So whether you are catering to the classical-ballet customer or carry apparel for many genres of movement, your visual displays will not flourish in the traditional dance-retail box. Fashion is becoming ever bolder, social media creates a constant appetite for the latest item to market and websites switch up displays daily, if not hourly. Your own merchandising efforts must keep pace.

How do you stay relevant in a dynamic retail world, attracting new business while satisfying your core customer? Follow the intel of the national retail apparel brands, and try something a little offbeat and even counterintuitive. “All retailers are competing for attention, and customers are on sensory overload,” says Judi Townsend, owner of Mannequin Madness in Oakland, CA. “You must do something different to catch the customer’s eye.” Slightly offbeat approaches will delight customers and draw them to take a closer look, come in and try on an outfit—and purchase.

Think about what you want your customer to take away from a visit to your store. “It’s all about experience now,” says Caitlin Hoffman, owner of Ballerina Boutique in Colorado Springs, CO.

Sometimes a single leotard deserves room to tell its own story. Note how the pointe shoes echo the sensuous curve of the torso in this display at On Your Toes.
Sometimes a single leotard deserves room to tell its own story. Note how the pointe shoes echo the sensuous curve of the torso in this display at On Your Toes.

“When you create miniature experiences throughout the store, people feel content, and they want to stay.” A counterintuitive or out-of-the-box approach injects greater fun and imagination into that experience, and isn’t that why your customer chooses you over the competition—for a fun and satisfying shopping experience?

Here, some seasoned retailers relate how counterintuitive has worked for them.

Embrace the Mannequin Challenge
The figures in your store tend to dominate, so this can be the place to start. Try taking just one aspect of the mannequin and switching it up. Replace the heads with paper flower bouquets, Easter egg baskets, nutcracker (or other seasonally appropriate) heads or even signage, like thought bubbles. Be as creative as possible, as long as it still relates to your brand and the season.

Try, too, new combinations of mannequins. Instead of grouping females, put a couple together, or an adult female with a child for a mom and kid message. “Put mannequins together like they might be in a relationship; this taps into [the customer’s] emotion about what is going on in real life,” says Townsend.

As for dressing the mannequin: Common wisdom dictates placing an entire outfit, complete with accessories. That’s smart merchandising. But as the great fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga used to say, “Elegance is elimination.” If you have a very special clothing introduction, particularly if it’s high-end and costs more than customers typically pay, try placing just that item on the mannequin, with few or no accessories, and clear views of the display from the immediate area. Place a spotlight if you can. The sheer counterintuitive simplicity will stop visitors in their tracks. You can still load up racks and shelves with all the sizes and colors you carry, but make a mannequin the soloist in the corps, so to speak. Open space around these figures will also get customers to slow down and stick around, as they find the floor more comfortable to navigate.

Nutcracker mice reinvented for Valentine’s Day at On Your Toes
Nutcracker mice reinvented for Valentine’s Day at On Your Toes

Substitute a figure other than a human-shaped mannequin from time to time, particularly for kids. “On Valentine’s Day, I used life-size Nutcracker mice that I had someone make for me for the previous Christmas,” says Jayne DiPierro, owner of On Your Toes in Staten Island, NY. “We dressed the girl mouse in a tutu and feathers and red pointe shoes; the male mouse wore jazz pants, a T-shirt and jazz shoes—all items that I sell in the store.”

Turn Windows into Your World
Your windows are your face to the world, and you have a lot to say, right? “Window displays are the original social media, up 24/7, telling the story of what you represent,” says Townsend. “They speak, too, when you are not there.”

Common wisdom says load window displays with the best of what you’ve got—put your best face forward. But less can often be more when you want to convey a memorable message. “The store should be a journey that starts at the window,” says Rose Balderian, founder of visual merchandising company VM Works. A window theme (blossoms or butterflies for spring, say, or bold color-blocking) should continue throughout the shop—whether in big displays or a touchpoint area—to retain the customer’s attention.

DiPierro likes to arrange her window displays without a backdrop, so that passersby can see beyond them into the store. “I want people to see what I have,” she says. When developing the displays, she and her team “pay attention to what’s on the floor behind them so nothing interferes with the statement made in window.” This works to great effect at night, too, when she lights the window displays, then keeps most of the store dark but illuminates the back room, to continue a theatrical effect. “I keep my lights on for teenage kids out and about in the evening,” she says. “The front is dark so clothes show up with a spotlight, then the light in the back draws the eye all the way through.

Color-blocking with tulle and ribbons at The Dance Bag
Color-blocking with tulle and ribbons at The Dance Bag

Necessity can become a virtue, too. Holly Bertucci, owner of The Dance Bag in Modesto, CA, needed to find an alternative to apparel in the windows at her store. “Before moving last year, we were in a very sunny spot that faded anything in the window or near it,” she says. “We consequently had a strategy never to put salable merchandise in those displays.” The solution? Mannequins with dramatic, couture-like outfits made of tulle and artificial roses, or full-length Nutcracker figures that made her store windows a signature of the city.

Play with Product
Inventive, nontraditional applications of product work a touch of wit into displays. Pointe shoes, ballet shoes and tutus lend themselves to all sorts of creative reuse, but so can packaged items, like tights, so you don’t have to sacrifice inventory to treat customers to some fun.

For spring, DiPierro created baskets filled with ballet shoes spray-painted in bright pastels to look like candy chicks and bunnies. One winter Hoffman created a tutu with pine boughs interspersed with twinkle lights. “The classic aspect [of the holiday season] remains, which is very pleasing, but the creative interpretation gets people to look at it longer,” she says. “That is why you do things that are counterintuitive.” Fond of using shoes in novel ways, Hoffman has employed them to create holiday trees and wreaths, too. “I like using product in a way that is not conventional. People are surprised, and it keeps them at the display longer.”

Keeping the back lights on at On Your Toes at night creates a theatrical effect, drawing the attention of teens out and about in the evening.
Keeping the back lights on at On Your Toes at night creates a theatrical effect, drawing the attention of teens out and about in the evening.

Alternatively, says Balderian, it’s easy to take one common household item and use multiples to make it extraordinary—and suggestive of a ballet theme. Bertucci, for instance, took dance magazines and folded them in tight creases to create a Fortuny-like bodice and tutu.

If the time required for this out-of-the-box thinking gives you pause, a little prep work will have you at the ready when inspiration strikes. Balderian suggests installing a hanging grid system on the ceiling, so that if you hang items frequently, implementation will be easy because you can use S-hooks and don’t have to keep redrilling holes.

All successful displays, says Balderian, “do something that will charm people and get them to slow down and spend time in your store.” Adds Hoffman, “There’s not much to [basic] dancewear. It’s not always decorative in and of itself, so you have to bring another element to it to make a store be more than just a store.” Offer the unexpected, and you can expect your sales to surge.

Charlotte Barnard, a regular contributor to DRN, writes on retail and design for various national publications.

Photos courtesy of The Dance Bag and On Your Toes

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