- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Shopping for furniture isn't just about spending money; it has become an experience. Enticing buyers especially for big-ticket items is equivalent to waging a battle campaign directed mainly at women, who make at least 80 percent of furniture-buying decisions.
The job of turning store browsers into buyers for big-ticket items is one of retailers' big challenges these days, with home renovations up but home furnishing sales generally down.
To capture shoppers' attention inside the store, retailers rely on the sophisticated use of visual elements that can work on a visceral as well as practical level. Enticing buyers of goods especially of home furnishings made to last a reasonable amount of time entails strategies not unlike those employed by theater directors as well as military commanders.
The key words in the psychology of store design are "trust" and "comfort," say consultants and in-house "visual merchandisers" whose goal is to make a harried consumer feel at ease and enjoy the outing. If consumers feel good, the theory goes, they won't feel bad about spending money.
"If you find yourself in a big fluorescent-lit store with an ocean of sofas around, how can you feel good about your life?" asks Seattle-based J'Amy Owens, co-founder of the Retail Group. She advises retail stores of every stripe by homing in on big and small features to create a "personality" attractive to shoppers.
"There is a whole bunch of great psychological reasons why shopping hurts," she says. "Many people in the furniture industry ask ridiculous questions like, 'Why don't [customers] buy this stuff?' while customers are thinking, 'I'm supposed to make a decision on something I'll have for a long time or forever and that is supposed to be easy. And I'll spend a whole lot of money.'"
Consultants in retail store design such as Ms. Owens and Connie Post, chief executive of Connie Post Cos. in Barboursville, W.Va., say there are surefire formulas that, when applied correctly, have results.
"Even though people are uncomfortable about a big purchase, the most sustained, largest growth in 2001 was decorative accessories," Ms. Post says. The latter are primary features that help bring to life what she calls "lifestyle environments" or "vignettes" an attractive grouping of furniture and related accessories to resemble people's lifestyle choices.
"I know what feels good when I walk into a comfort zone that feels like me or my family and where I want to be," she says. "When you walk into a furniture store, it is more of a fantasy. I believe, in my soul, a beautiful room will change your life."
Methods can be as subtle as the repetition of color patterns that draw attention to areas of interest and as obvious as varying the width of store aisles to control traffic flow.
Consumers may sometimes regard shopping as a chore, but consultants regard it as a science. Editors of a handsomely illustrated new tome, the "Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping" (from Taschen America, a graphic book publisher in New York) refer to an "architecture of consumption." They say much of the success in retailing is based on the notion of "the next big thing."
Stores arrange interiors so products look appealing enough to entice customers to buy successively newer styles, say the editors, who are architects and graphic artists by training. At 800 pages, their book is a comprehensive and encyclopedic view of the subject using clever design elements to illustrate the history of the retail shopping field.
"Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," (Simon & Schuster), a 1999 book by retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, explores the shopping culture in detail from both the consumer and the marketing end. He is particularly good at outlining retail strategies directed at consumers' comfort and enjoyment.
One example he gives is Ikea's "kiddie pen," a supervised playroom where parents can leave children in safe hands while shopping in the store.
Ikea wins praise in many quarters for its carefully thought out, family-friendly environments. Store layouts mirror most homes, with living room furniture positioned first, followed by dining room items, then areas devoted to kitchens, home offices, bathrooms, bedrooms and, last, children's rooms.
Aisles are standardized at a minimum 8 feet for strollers and carts. Having an in-house cafeteria selling such items as Swedish meatballs feeds the soul as well as the stomach hunger being the enemy of a positive shopping experience. It also makes customers feel cared for and gives them a place to talk over purchases. Its placement at roughly a halfway point is no accident, says Leana Simonsson-Berge, Ikea's North American marketing manager.
The visual elements in a so-called high-end store will be different from those in what Ms. Post refers to as "a promotional store," even though they all may be dealing with basically the same items: sofas, chairs, beds, desks, etc.
Promotional stores don't preselect items for a customer the way a specialty store does, Ms. Post suggests. The latter, she says, may focus on details of the home to the point where the furniture can almost look like an accent. A promotional store may try to entertain a customer, but it won't prejudge a customer's taste, she notes.
Specialty stores, by contrast, whether independently owned or part of a chain, work harder at emotionally engaging clients, most of whom appreciate and feel comforted by a store that does the selecting for them.
One example of a difference in emphasis, Ms. Post says, is reflected in the psychology behind stacking 24 glasses in one place, a deliberate design she says a customer might find in a Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel or Colony House: "If there is one [glass], it is not dynamic enough. Showing more of them makes the item appear more important to the customer," she says.
A spokesman for Williams-Sonoma Inc., which owns Pottery Barn, declined an interview for this article, saying such information was "privileged."
Storehouse, which recently absorbed Home Elements, does 80 percent of its business in custom-upholstered furniture, says Courtney Rondon, visual merchandizing director for the Atlanta-based chain.
"Everything starts with upholstery," he says. "To help us sell upholstery to the masses, we have to have other items people are attracted to, so we also include dining and wall units, for instance. Instead of showing a sea of upholstery, we re-create a living collection."
Their stores have what he calls two basic categories of furniture one is "retreat" and the other, "metropolis." The first is a more classic, traditional look, the second more contemporary, in his definition. Chenille fabric can be found on both, but the former will be a "soft, soothing" floral pattern and the latter will have a "solid, heavier" feel.
The overall design is based on creating focus areas to capture a customer's eye, and everything on view is signed and for sale including accent pieces and decorative artificial floral plants except the large jar of candy and small plastic bottles of water set out for the nourishment of browsers.
Basic neutral shades are the most popular year-round, Mr. Rondon says, but in addition, he chooses color schemes twice a year. The fall emphasis is on the plum family, which veers into red shades and combines well with soft golds and greens. Music and lighting are other important elements, carefully chosen to go with each market.
Aisles and pathways are just as carefully thought out, as well, with at least 8 feet of open space inside the front door because "the last thing you want is to confront [customers] before they are assimilated into the store. I'm talking five seconds." Most people turn right as they enter, he says, "and they will go in the direction of the greatest ease."
To stimulate interest, the "most exciting and newest product" is displayed in the front of the store, says Scott Cooper, Crate & Barrel's East Coast regional designer, who describes the fall color palette as a mix of brown, orange, mustard, taupe and many shades of red. The focus is on the customer's being at home entertaining, he says. The store's overall philosophy is based on "a free-floating marketplace grouping furniture the way you would envision them in the home, from rugs to accessories to prints on the wall. We want [customers] to buy it all, and often they do.
"If a customer will reach out and touch a product, I've done my job," he adds.
Like Crate & Barrel, the much smaller Washington company called French Country Living makes sure what a customer sees in the store located on Colvin Run Road in Great Falls is coordinated with what is in the company catalog. The store does all the preselection based on the notion that patrons are persuaded before they enter by the rustic, elegant look of provincial France or they wouldn't be there in the first place.
Co-founder Bringier McConnell says they create "functional vignettes" displaying handsomely patterned sheets and linens inside antique reproduction cabinets, for instance that "give a sense of the origins of pieces and why the pieces were so compelling in places where we found them. In effect, we tell them what we like and keep it fresh by changing the arrangements every few weeks and do a complete change every six months."

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