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The Art of Better Merchandising

The Art of Better Merchandising

A well-merchandised counter greets customers as they enter the Seasonings café at Emory University Medical Center’s Midtown facility.

Misuse of counter top, display case and fixture space can be as detrimental to your success as poor buying, careless hiring or bad food. On the other hand, better use of space—especially with well thought out merchandising strategies—can help you turn style into profit and passive lookers into active buyers.

This article reviews merchandising basics to help you and your staff execute better countertop landscaping, improve visual communication and achieve more effective food presentations with better use of fixtures, décor, lighting, color and texture...

“Although visual merchandising has long been an important part of retailing (clothing, house-wares, etc.) it traditionally did not receive as much attention in the foodservice industry,” says Nancy Lane, education account development manager for Hubert Company, one of the leading suppliers of merchandising equipment to the foodservice industry.

By and large, that was true until the mid- 1990s. That’s when improved executions of retail style foodservice by innovative providers raised the bar for customer and client expectations and led to a revolution in the way onsite operators now look to make merchandising a key part of their serving and marketing practices.

“Good merchandising yields repeat customers and increased sales,” says Kathy Diamond, principal of Kathy Diamond Design Associates. “How you present your operation is a very strategic part of your business. You need to challenge the position of every product in your facility.”

That means examining floor patterns, the location of merchandise and appropriate use of displays to generate higher sales. It also means using colors that complement your offerings and decor, maintaining consistency of your café’s design elements and employing creativity in food presentation, menu promotions and displays.

“Before your customers walk in the door—before they even think about satisfying their grumbling stomach—you should be preparing for their arrival,” says Ron Bennet, director of merchandising for Aramark. “Think about merchandising from the customers’ perspective—by putting yourself in their shoes. What would you want and expect your dining experience to be like?”

Making $$$ by Making Sense

You can have the most unique and creative facility on the planet, but if it doesn’t match your customers’ expectations it’s useless. Retail has always been—and will always be—about the customer.

“Merchandising is more than a communication tool,” says Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates. “It has to say something about who you are and what your brand is about. It needs to sell something. And it needs to be updated frequently.”

According to Spiegel, the first concern of any merchandising strategy is first establish some guiding principles for your operation. What does your operation stand for? How does this reflect your customer base? Once you’ve established those basic principles, the merchandising needs to match.

Consider Hearst Corporation’s Café 57 in New York City, one of Spiegel’s recent clients [It also won one of FM’s Best Concept Awards this year—Ed.].

The new Hearst Tower enables the company to bring together 2,000 New York-based employees into one of the most architecturally advanced and environmentally-friendly buildings ever constructed in New York City. The café inside emphasizes seasonal, organic choices and sustainability. Onsite service is on china while takeout containers are made of biodegradable polymers. A farmer’s market takes place onsite once a week during the summer.

“Hearst developed its guiding principles long before they met with our team,” says Spiegel “The foodservice had to fit the philosophy of the company. It had to make sense within the guidelines. Everything we did and do has to be environmentally sound, from the chef coats to the counter tops to the food and even the lighting.”

The eco-minded Café 57 exhibits a sense of space with a white-marble-floored atrium that is flooded with natural light from high glass windows and a glass ceiling. “With all that light, it feels like you are dining outside. It’s truly a beautiful space that boasts a sense of style, class and harmony with the earth,” adds Spiegel. “It’s very ‘Hearst.’”

Cross-selling displays are used throughout the servery as an effective merchandising technique that generates impulse sales. This also provides customers with a broad impression of the variety of items available and subtly tempts them to cross over from one product to another.

“Think about each station as a self sustaining mini-restaurant,” says Spiegel. “Effective retailing involves giving customers a choice at each point of purchase. One of the best ways to do that is to utilize cross merchandising displays.”

For instance, at Café 57’s hearth-baked pizza station there are fresh, pre-packaged salads and home-baked rolls positioned in what Spiegel calls the ‘prime rent district.’ Placing these impulse items in the customer’s direct line of vision helps Café 57 to capture add-on sales it might otherwise miss.

Document Your Merchandising Standards for Staff

Dirty uniforms. Empty boxes. Dented equipment. Cranky front-line employees. These are fast ways to lose an appetite, or worse, a customer. To help its associates avoid such pitfalls and build retail business, national contract provider Aramark created a “Classroom in a Box” tutorial to provide instructional guidance and models that associates can employ to improve the merchandised presence of virtually any foodservice station.

Called Merchology: The Art & Science of Food Presentation, [another FM Best Concept award winner—Ed.] the Aramark guidebook package includes everything from photographic examples and planograms to merchandising execution standards for client facilities. Among the basic points it makes in introductory discussions:

Spic & Span. A lack of cleanliness is the single greatest reason customers won’t return must be impeccable. A dirty location says you don’t care, that you’ve lost interest and that you probably don’t treat the food with much respect, either. “All other merchandising efforts will go unnoticed if cleanliness isn’t a priority,” says Bennet.

Clear the Way. An organized and uncluttered environment leaves the food in the spotlight. If something doesn’t enhance the customer experience, it shouldn’t be visible.

“I’ve seen dishtowels, gloves, plastic wrap, even pocket books happily sitting in the prime rent district,” says Spiegel. “What do those items have to do with the merchandising of food?” Nothing. Make sure staff is trained to put them away.

Service with a Smile. Your front line workers are your best merchandisers—second only to the food itself. The service a customer receives impacts their overall experience. Teach front line employees how to develop a connection with the customer by smiling, making suggestions or sharing added knowledge about the featured special. These tactics make them an expert in the customer’s eyes.

Dress to Impress. Uniforms give your team a professional air. Be sure they’re clean, pressed, worn per specifications and in entirety all the way down to the minute details. “We’ve found that the more professional the uniform, the more pride employees take in their positions,” adds Bennet.

Gear Up. The vessels and vehicles you use to merchandise your food need to coordinate and be kept in good repair without cracks, chips or scratches. (See sidebar.)

Shed Some Light

It isn’t always the quality of the food that draws customers. More often than you’d guess, it’s the lighting. Lighting can be a powerful tool, used to set the mood and put the food in the spotlight—literally. “You need to know what specifically you’re going to light and how it will look under that light,” says Spiegel. “Customers eat with their eyes. Your food not only needs to taste delicious, it also needs to look delicious. A big part of that is going to be the lighting.”

Lighting can create, enhance, or destroy a visual environment. It can even determine whether a customer leaves satisfied with a meal or never wants to return. Careful lighting design is an important part of any food service business, and it pays to learn a few essentials:

Brightness. Bright light from the “cool” end of the spectrum signifies an establishment bustling with activity. Brightness and glare are used to attract customers. It’s also an effective lighting option for the mid-day rush. Bright light, similar to natural light, gets customers moving fast without making them feel rushed.

Fixtures. Decorative fixtures convey a homey, more personalized atmosphere. While some fixtures will make the overall ambient light level lower, it must still be bright enough for customers to relax without feeling rushed.

Decorative lighting can help create a mood or establish a theme. Themed operations like diners often use specialty lighting to enhance the sense of fun and excitement the theme is meant to generate.

There are countless different lighting options available, depending on your operational needs. Again, don’t overlook the basics: be sure to change burned out bulbs and make sure spot lights are aimed at food and signage, not walls or the floor. (For more lighting tips visit: FoodServiceLighting.htm)

Creativity Sells

Whatever the style of merchandising, it’s important to use a lot of creativity. Boredom, sameness and mediocrity aren’t the buzzwords you want associated with your facility.

“You must give the customer as many reasons as possible to eat in your café,” says Orlando Espinosa, principal of Orlando Espinosa & Associates. “Two of the key attractions to your facility are its layout and the overall presentation. If you look the same—or worse—than the competition, the customer is going to be less attracted to your operation.”

Creating an updated merchandising strategy doesn’t have to mean a complete facility makeover. To enhance your customers’ image of an operation, think of it the way they see it and give the customers what they want.

At Bon Appétit Management Company, David Rothwell, director of image and decor, works with each individual account to customize each one’s look and feel while implementing overall company standards. Part of that effort involves the communication of its “Circle of Responsibility” values.

“Our Circle of Responsibility program is designed to provide information about our kitchen principles and how they affect the environment, community and the customer’s well being,” says Rothwell. “While the styles of the displays and merchandising vary from location to location, one element that stays the same is the Circle of Responsibility board.”

Rothwell says this element of Bon Appetit’s approach lets customers recognize the company’s accounts. “The Circle is very recognizable part of our merchandising strategy.”

Keep the Focus on the Food

When it comes to merchandising, many believe less is more. Simple designs, uncluttered spaces and clean looks are on trend and in style.

“One of the rules we follow is to minimize the clutter,” says Allyson Murphy, senior manager of market development for Sodexho. “It’s not about the plants or the baskets or the statues. It’s about the food. So we ask ourselves, what do we position next to the food to make the food the hero?”

The answer? “The chefs in the white coats. The color of the pans. The color of the plates. All the small details that direct the customer’s focus back to the food.”

Three years ago Sodexho asked a sampling of college students what was important to them in a residential dining facility. General consensus suggested freshness. “Instead of large pans in a ‘trough’ they wanted to see individual portions plated just for them,” says Murphy. “We call it ‘mass customization of one.’”

Based on that guiding principle, Sodexho developed adjacencies with certain impulse items to complement the customer’s experience.

One example is demonstrated in the way the company merchandises bread in campus accounts. In contrast with a decade ago, whole grain and artisan breads are more popular with students than ever before, although many students are still unaware of their health benefits.

“To show students the benefits of whole grain breads, we started offering different types alongside entrées and salads,” says Dan Dunne, senior director for research and innovation for Sodexho. “With the bread, we offered students scientific information about how certain types of bread tend to boost one’s metabolism and promote peak performance. What came from that is a new program we are piloting called The Balanced Way.”

Don’t forget to budget for merchandising when developing plans for a renovation or new construction. Merchandising should have its own line item and not be “rolled in” to equipment or construction amounts. Above, Ball State University’s Jon Lewis inspects initial merchandising setups as the school prepared to open its newly renovated Woodworth Commons in August.

“What it really comes down to is knowing your customer demographics,” Murphy adds. “We want to give them the options they want where they might not think to look for them.”

Sodexho is also looking into personalized technology, such as text messages and flexible lighting options, that change depending on the daypart to further customize merchandising efforts aimed at its customers. Photomurals, multiple television sets and large video screens, as well as new, high-tech plasma screens are being used to project visual images that reflect the attitude and style of the facility as well as the food preparation and menu offerings.

Experts say that whatever tack you take, you should match your merchandising strategy to your operation’s basic design theme, whether it is organic, contemporary, country or quirky. This will convey a consistent message so the customer won’t be confused by multiple thematic messages as to what the basic operation is all about.

Another universal piece of advice: it is often the smallest details that that have the greatest impact. Pay attention to those details, ensure that they consistently support your brand, concept and guiding principles, and you will have a strong foundation upon which to execute your merchandising efforts.

Click on the topics below for specific tips on how you and your staff can improve your merchandising efforts in all of these areas...

Ups and Downs of Visual Merchandising

Images with Messages

Dishing with Style

Setting the Scene

Hues You Can Use

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