What is online visual merchandising?

Eye-catching mannequins. Bright, colorful signage. Soothing interior design. Exquisite product displays. In short, amazing store merchandising.

For shoppers in retail stores, these are key elements that make a memorable first impression. And there’s a good reason they draw attention: we’re a species that loves to drink in things with our eyes.

Retailers know visuals are key, even in grocery stores. So do online shoppers: 82% of them feel more confident about a purchase if the website they’re visiting features compelling visuals.

Spectacular stores

As a result, visual merchandising — the practice of using high-quality visual elements to increase sales — has always been a competitive affair. In cosmopolitan retail spaces from Seattle to New York, legendary brick-and-mortar retail stores like Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Macy’s compete to pull potential customers through their storefront doors with enticing eye-level window arrays and creative in-store displays. 

You’d think physical stores with their foot traffic would be the end of that craziness, but with stand-out retail marketing strategy also applying to ecommerce websites, effective merchandising in Cyberspace is conceivably an even more competitive arena. After all, who doesn’t want a website homepage — and every lower-level one and landing page — that gets and keeps customer attention and leads to higher conversion rates?

Crazy competition

This game of one-upmanship and excess is a highly scientific exercise in behavior optimization. Online retailers duke it out for new customers who are used to attractive visuals and user-friendly store design. The modern business funnel has its focal point around a seamless journey with easy touchpoints from first sign of interest in new products to completed purchase and on to joining loyalty programs, relying on human-centric design and easy-to-use interfaces.

However, visual efforts aren’t foolproof, and they can unravel if a retailer’s visual merchandising and overall customer experience are lacking. The bar is high today; it takes more than pop-up promotions for the right products to win target customers with retail merchandising. People can compare your prices with competitors’ at the flick of a thumb, get derailed by a small glitch in the buyer journey and head back to whatever they were doing on their favorite social media site. Because shopper expectations are so high, online visual merchandising and the extended customer experience are critical pieces of the retail marketing picture.  

Elements of visual merchandising  

In the physical-store world, visual merchandising constitutes well-thought-out product placement, extravagant store displays and clever store layout. With ecommerce brands, it’s all about product visuals, website aesthetics, positive customer reviews, and an overall satisfactory user experience (UX). Ensuring that type of experience can entail basic design, utilizing professional and creative product photography, offering augmented reality (AR) features, and placing buttons where they seem most natural.

 Inconsistent visual elements appear unprofessional, which can easily turn shoppers off. A bad look can make them wonder what else is lackluster. That means maintaining absolute visual consistency everywhere in your online store — for example, in Buy Now and Add to Cart button appearance and functionality, and on both category and product pages — builds customer trust. For retail businesses embracing an omnichannel strategy, consistent online visual merchandising is doubly important. The in-store experience and ecommerce experience must complement one another to a tee.

7 visual merchandising techniques 

How do you create powerful visuals that make your customer demographic go Oooh! That make people feel compelled to spend quality time mesmerized by what they see on your site and plunk down good money for your products?

Here are some online merchandising techniques you can start applying in an effort to boost sales:

Make over your product pages 

Designing good-looking product-detail pages is a great place to start. To compete against the best retailers in today’s visual marketplace, you need stunning product shots, stylish page design, and a modern, seamless user experience. Covering the basics could include:

  • Using a professional photographer for product photos. This could pay off big time, as 75% of online shoppers rely on product photos when making a purchasing decision.
  • Optimizing product images without disrupting your page-load speed
  • Testing different layouts and experimenting with templates to see what shoppers prefer
  • Creating how-to videos to help people get a better feel for products
  • Using AR as an interactive feature so customers can visualize (for example, how furniture will fit in their homes)
  • Strengthening visuals to compensate for ho-hum product descriptions

Make eye-opening suggestions 

Based on past purchases, related products, and items that similar types of customers have liked, you can personalize your online product recommendations to tap individual customers’ shopping desires. The right AI-based suggestion can speak eloquently to the shopper’s journey and lead to upsells and higher average order values, both while the person is just browsing and just before checkout.

The visuals associated with these suggestions are important, as are their placement on the site. The human brain takes just 3 seconds to decide whether something is attractive, so a well-placed, eye-catching suggestion could make the difference between a missed opportunity and a sale.

Create beautiful bundles  

You probably know about the beauty of bundling products that are often bought together (typically at a reduced combo price, such as 10 or 20% off) to encourage upsells. As with smart suggestions, consulting data and offering relevant bundles can personalize the shopping experience and highlight the most relevant products as a way to jump-start your retail sales. For example, an online cycling store might create a “beginner’s bundle” or bags and panniers as a “cycle-touring bundle”.

Use customer-centric design  

If you want more buyers, the bottom line is providing a frictionless customer experience that doesn’t lead to abandoned carts and missed opportunities. Visual merchandising engages users by making products look more appealing. IKEA’s in-store visual merchandising is a good example, creating a simple direction to follow through products that could naturally end up with a purchase.

A series of visual merchandising elements done well can have an outsized impact with shoppers. The design of the visual elements users interact with — buttons in menus and at checkout, size or variation selectors, drop-down menus — can collectively impact the person’s mood, how they respond and what they choose to do. Testing design options for buttons, menus, and search bars could pay off in the creation of an effortless overall user experience that delights people and makes them not only eager to press Buy, but genuinely excited about returning to your site on a regular basis.

Freshen your content 

Regularly refreshing your online visual merchandising helps keep shoppers interested and lets you align with trends in web design and consumer behavior. But while it may be tempting to update by throwing everything out the display window and starting over, that’s a little overboard.

Here are website-updating design tips to keep in mind:

  • Maintain a consistent design in terms of fonts, brand identity, color schemes 
  • Regularly assess and A/B test your site layout and design (for instance, with different colors) to ensure that it’s looking its best
  • If your sales cycle is seasons based, change the online “decor” aligned with your brand image by introducing seasonal displays that highlight related specific products
  • Tailor visuals for different countries to sync with their holidays and create the right experience for different target markets

Provide visual cues

If you sell products that are often more known by their look as opposed to their name, online visual cues can be just the ticket. In the same way that brick-and-mortar stores use aisle design to attract customers, you can use category design to make it easier for customers to find what they need, even if they don’t know the name.

For example, let’s say a marketing team wants to take product photos for a set of visual displays. They bought a camera, but the lights in their studio are too bright. They need one of those things…what is it called again? When they scroll through an online photography store that provides images of the items in each category, the team spots what they’re looking for: “Aha! It’s a softbox.”

Make searching easy on the eyes 

When shoppers arrive on a website, a majority — 69% — don’t waste time; they head straight for the search bar to get started. That makes your online shopping search bar a visual-merchandising design priority. And the way your website search engine displays search results should also be top-notch in terms of graphic design. Searching should be intuitive and easy, helping users quickly find what they want, whether that’s an obscure item or best sellers.

Get the right online visual merchandising strategy  

Ready to use visual merchandising to punch up your online retail business? You can simplify the process and get on the road to higher profitability fast with the right tools.

 At Algolia, we can help you build your digital equivalent of the Bloomingdale’s window display. Check out how our Visual Editor powers online visual merchandising with a low/no code interface. Then, get started using our leading Search and Discovery solution to drive sales higher for your ecommerce store. Get in touch today; we can’t wait to show you how.

About the authorCatherine Dee

Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer

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