Example of DIOR visual merchandising in the form of a shop window display

Let’s talk about online visual merchandising.

Ever wondered why some physical stores feel so much more inviting than others? Or why customers spend a ton of money at specific shops and leave others empty-handed, even though, all things considered, they appear to stock similar products? 

The secret to success for many of the world’s most popular brands is visual merchandising. 

The first step to understanding the importance of visual merchandising is knowing that when customers go shopping, they don’t just want to purchase the things they need or want. They’re also out to buy the experience of shopping itself. Whether this experience is good or bad has a lot to do with a store’s visual merchandising — essentially just a fancy word for describing how the store is arranged, from window displays to the store layout to in-store signage. 

While visual merchandising is not as mystifying as it sounds, it is still an extremely potent tool for retailers. By designing their store in a specific manner, proactive brands can influence shopper behaviour dramatically. Research on this topic suggests that a shop’s environment is such a crucial factor in retailing that a well-planned retail hotspot (an area within a store with the most traffic) can increase sales by more than 200%. 

However, the impact of visual merchandising isn’t just limited to physical shops. With more and more retailers moving online, visual merchandising concepts are increasingly being applied to e-commerce. For online retailers, understanding online visual merchandising will soon be vital for ensuring sustained profitability. 

What Is Online Visual Merchandising? 

Woman on her phone in front of her laptop

Just like in-store visual merchandising, online visual merchandising means using visual elements to enhance the overall shopping experience for customers. This technique can include things like the layout of your homepage, item imagery, and product recommendations on the cart page. 

However, what makes online visual merchandising incredibly powerful is that, whereas in-store merchandising is optimised for the “average shopper,” online visual merchandising can be personalised. You can tailor the visual identity of your store to every single person that interacts with your brand. 

Why Is Online Visual Merchandising Important?

Woman in front of her laptop holding a credit card

Online visual merchandising is crucial for many different reasons. Here are just some of them: 

  • By featuring the most relevant products and offers at every touchpoint, brands can more easily capture user attention, increasing their engagement and time on site.
  • By showing the right products to the right people at the right time, e-commerce brands can improve conversion rates and average order value
  • By using visuals in a specific and recognisable way, retailers can exhibit their brand’s personality, thus creating a strong and coherent brand identity

Best practices for online visual merchandising 

For any e-commerce retailer, online visual merchandising is worth implementing. And it’s not as difficult as it may seem at first glance. Here are six critical strategies for making online visual merchandising a success: 

1. Treat your website homepage as you would a window display

In retail, first impressions are everything. Consequently, for physical storefronts, visual merchandising usually starts with the window display. 

A window display at a physical store gives passers-by a visual snapshot of what the shop is like. Just by looking in the window of a shop, customers can get an idea of the products sold there as well as the general atmosphere. 

Online retailers may not have a window display, but they do have a website homepage. To grab visitors’ attention, brands can:

  • Use dynamic banners
  • Feature beautiful imagery
  • Highlight new, popular, or discounted products. 

Through their homepage, brands should focus on making it clear who they are, what kind of products they sell, and the value they offer from the get-go. 

For example, looking at Urban Outfitters’ homepage, it is immediately obvious that the brand caters to young adults and has a warm aesthetic:

Screenshot of Urban Outfitters' homepage to illustrate online visual merchandising

Although online retailers only have about 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression, they’re still at an advantage over physical stores. The reason why is that online, you can use personalisation to tailor what a user sees, especially if they’re a returning visitor.

Brands can use behavioural data to customise their homepage to different users, for example, by displaying relevant products (i.e., products they’ve already seen but haven’t bought or similar items) or offers. Here’s how Yoox does it:

Screenshot of "Recently Viewed" items, an online visual merchandising technique, on Yoox, an online fashion retailer,

2. Work on your website layout 

Entering a poorly planned physical store, a customer will quickly decide that they are unlikely to find whatever it is they’re looking for. Soon after, they will more than likely walk out.

A shop’s layout is, therefore, very important. Getting it right necessitates understanding which areas receive the most footfall in your store in order to make the most out of them. 

In an e-commerce store, website layout is just as critical. Ultimately, brands should strive to personalise their website layout based on who’s looking at it. An easy way to do this is by reordering product categories or content based on who is visiting the site and where they are in the buyer’s journey.

3. Make sure your website is easy to navigate

To optimise in-store layout, physical retailers use features like overhead signage and information desks. These elements of the shopping experience make it a lot easier for customers to discover products and inspire them to make a purchase.

The same effect can be achieved online by implementing prominent categories and subcategories (i.e., signage). For example, on the Zara homepage, visitors looking to buy a t-shirt can either see all available t-shirts or narrow down their choice by choosing to see only t-shirts that fall within the “basic,” “short sleeve,” “long sleeve,” or “white t-shirt collection” categories:

Screenshot of Zara's subcategories for t-shirts as an illustration of online visual merchandising.

Brands can also employ an autocomplete feature or visual search. The latter allows customers to look for a specific item by uploading an image of it and can be likened to the information desk in a physical store.

However, to really make sure that customers are able to find the products they are looking for, retailers need to use product attributes

4. Create great product pages

Although shopping online has never been more popular, about one-third of customers still prefer shopping in physical shops. Many customers like to be able to physically touch and try on products before buying them. 

This preference creates a problem for stores whose products are displayed only virtually. While e-commerce retailers are beginning to experiment with online fitting rooms, utilising strong product visuals and accurate product descriptions is a more immediate solution.

Customers see photo quality as a critical factor when deciding whether to purchase something online. Online retailers should use crisp product imagery and videos to showcase their products from all angles, making sure to zero in unique details where appropriate and include a few lifestyle shots. Photos from previous shoppers can also be helpful.

Accurate descriptions that include essential information such as sizes, colours, and other specifications should accompany all visuals.

5. “Bundle” your products 

Visual merchandising teams will often dress mannequins in complete outfits or place complementary products near one another to increase sales in-store. Known as “bundling,” this technique can go a long way in encouraging customers to buy items that they may not necessarily have thought of themselves. 

Similarly, some in-store retailers may give customers several “options” on how to style a specific piece. For example, by hanging several different white t-shirts that are similar but not exact beside a black leather skirt. 

Bundling products in an e-commerce store is just as easy. With Intelistyle, brands can show customers complete outfit recommendations for each product, inspiring customers who may be stumped as to how to wear a specific piece and, consequently, increasing basket size. 

Lane Crawford does this particularly well:

Screenshot of Lane Crawford's "How to Style It" feature for a men's cashmere wool knit cardigan, an example of online visual merchandising.

Brands can also display pieces that are visually similar to a product a customer is viewing, but that may not match their needs exactly. 

To go one step further, online retailers can integrate an AI stylist into product pages that will tell customers how a particular item will look on them based on their body shape, height, and other features. 

6. Inspire queueing customers

As many as 70% of purchases are unplanned, or an impulse buy. This fact makes the checkout queue a natural opportunity for proactive retailers.  

Physical retailers are well aware of this, but online stores are refusing to be left behind. 

Many online brands now recommend popular or complementary products when customers go to checkout. For example, when Wayfair customers go to buy shower curtains, the site shows them other low-cost items they may need:

Screenshot of Wayfair's personalised product recommendations on the checkout page, a type of online visual merchandising.

What are the chances that a customer already buying shower curtains will also decide to purchase shower curtain hooks or towels? Quite high, especially if they are on sale. 

Final Thoughts

Once upon a time, visual merchandising, a powerful tool for influencing customer behaviour, was restricted to physical stores only. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Some of the most popular and well-loved brands have been using online visual merchandising techniques for years, but you don’t have to be a big retailer to make the most out of this practice. With a partner like Intelistyle, online visual merchandising that inspires customers and increases sales is only a step away.