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How To Improve Your Merchandising Strategy

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Retail is a word you hear repeatedly in today’s foodservice world. But what exactly is ‘retail?’ By definition, the term refers to the selling of goods in small quantities to an end consumer. But in onsite, "retail” is much more than that.  

For one thing, today’s foodservice consumers look for richer experiences along with any purchase. They want to feel good about spending money in your retail space. Service is a given, but a quality experience—one that appeals to all of the senses—is also expected.

Call this the “New Retail,” and ask yourself: what have you done to satisfy these higher expectations?  

Visual Merchandising—managing what a consumer sees, how this prepares her for the experience ahead and how it defines your product—is a key strategy and the place to start.

To Merchandise, Walk the Walk

The entrance as welcome mat. Begin by considering your café entrances and any display windows that exist. These offer invitational “messages” and a glimpse into your business well ahead of any actual entrance into the café. Does the first impression say you are ready for business? Are doors open, stations attended, entrance ways clean and properly staged? No unnecessary clutter or partially stocked display areas? Can potential customers look in easily and see things that attract them?

Signs and messages. Signage in an extension of a café’s “invitation,” and should further extend  it.  Signage that communicates effectively will help build your relationship with customers.

Make sure any messaging you post looks professional; if not, it sends the unspoken message that the operation isn’t either. Does it provide information that helps consumers more effectively use your retail space? Can the customer find hours of service, daily specials, and information on upcoming events in addition to pricing? Are signs easy to read from a reasonable distance away? Are they mounted in clean display holders that give a polished look (not tacked up with adhesive tape)?
Digital signage should follow similar guidelines and should be kept clean and free of smudges; content should be properly formatted and “loop timing” set to leave key messages with passers-by.
Walk your space. Think like a customer who has a short lunch period and needs to navigate the café as quickly as possible.  Can he or she find trays and other items easily? Are station signs placed to be readily visible even to those in the back of the line? Does queuing have a natural flow, or does it interrupt other café traffic? If queues are a problem, put up stanchions or guides.  

Let food provide the color. Take a close look at the condition of smallware items: serving utensils, platters and decor items. Do they match? Are they old and tired looking? Do you need a refresh? Less is more when it comes to small wares. Think white and stainless and let food provide the color.

Analyze the station experience. The old adage that we eat with our eyes is still true and food needs to shout to the consumer. It should always face the customer, not the servers.  Stations should always be set up in the order in which consumers choose food. Entrée and sides first; snacks, beverages and impulse buys last. Make it easy for customers to select choices as they move through, without interruption, and that they don’t find themselves “going back” against the flow.

Make stations more interactive. To create better experiences, consider action stations. A hot food station can become a Mongolian barbeque. A dessert station can feature chocolate dipped cookie pops or fruits kabobs, made fresh while customers watch. Give them ingredient choices to make as they wait in line.

Stick with clean, simple lines. Not all counters need something sitting on top. Make food—instead of décor—­the center of attention. At the same time, impulse buys increase sales, so  fill in niches and empty counter spots with neat and organized product displays. Use eco-friendly vessels to contain health bars, fresh fruit, nuts or homemade cookies. Rotate impulse items so customers can always discover new “finds.”

Remember—a great retail space will give your customers some new kind of experience each and every time they enter it. Happy retailing!

Helene Virgona is a retail consultant and owner of Virgona Creative Solutions. You can contact her at [email protected].

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