Before a few weeks ago, I gave merchandizing about as much thought as bird watching (zero). Then I learned that merchandising is the art of staging a store to attract customers to specific products. And in grocery stores, where thousands and thousands of foodstuffs compete for attention, merchandizing is a big deal.
There are basic tricks of the trade all grocery stores use to grab your attention. Goods at eye level get the most attention and love. Placing popular products there make customers feel like their favorites are easy to find. Displays—mountains of cheese wheels, or nuts being ground into nut butters—are like flashing lights: look at me!
Usually cereals live with cereals and chicken breasts near the chicken thighs. But grocery stores might group things that "go together" in life, with hopes that if you're taking home shrimp, you might pick up a jar of cocktail sauce to go along. Sort of like an Ikea room all set up for you, so you can envision that nifty lamp next to your new table. Or those fancy crackers and fig jam with your cheese.
A bigwig in my company says it best. "I had a great merchandizing idea. We should assemble a prunes and toilet paper display." Perfect.
Once you have the goods where you want 'em, it's time to get signs going. No sign, no sale, they say. It's true. So easy for something mind-blowing to recede into the hordes of stuff and become invisible. It's also easy to get overwhelmed in a long, wide aisle of jars and bottles of this, that, and the other. So overwhelmed that you forget browsing for that special somethin' somethin' and leave empty-handed.
Even just directing customers to "jams," "chutneys," and "hot sauces," can help them find what they're looking for. A good story about a product worth telling a story about can make a sale. If you care about your anchovies, how could pass up these stunningly packaged anchovies from the South of France, wildly flavorful and some of the world's finest?
Sometimes, I write signs. It's pretty much entire fun. My employers like quirky, but they also like smart. Here's the tale of our Alaskan King Crab legs, the rundown on our spicy lamb sausage, the 411 on Honeycrisp apples, or the biography of our maple syrup guy. It's free advertising. You'll see how special our products are.
But it's not that simple. We used to be a mom and pop shop, where a few dedicated, talented, smart guys (they were pretty much all guys) could run everything with their own hands and focused brains. back in the day, our head cheesemonger was famous for his handmade signs, his distinctive writing on posterboard, with markers. When he got something incredible, he did not pas go, he created a sign.
Now we have enough stores that the guys in charge can't be there every day, or even every week. We have to build systems and structures to make sure the merchandizing is beautiful and the signs are on mark and proudly hanging. We even created a font to match our cheese guy's sort of famous handwriting.
Sounds easy, or it sounded easy to me. But it's not. Now when most of the information lives in the recesses of someone's mind. Where's that sign for the lambrusco vinegar? Beats me. Nobody knows. It's a gorgeous sign, with poignant and funny copy. But it doesn't do us much good if nobody can find it.
Building a Method
The problem doesn't stop there. What happens when we redesign the spice aisle, and lose the signs we take down? The pink peppercorns! The saffron! The Tahitian vanilla beans! Who knows what to replace them with? Nobody. And who's responsibility is it? Nobody's. Well now, it's mine.
In the new year, I've got a lot on my plate. My goal is to wade through years and years of never organized signage and create an archive, a system, and a master plan for how to ensure this great stuff lives where it belongs—on our shelves, talking up our extraordinary foods.
We're planning more stores, more growth.