We’ve all seen the articles; a new store concept is hailed as “creating a journey” or defining a “brand-space” maybe even in a “curated environment”. This is often accompanied by eulogies on materials, finishes and storytelling.

All this stuff is important of course and we shouldn’t downplay the sophistication of retail design, but it seems there’s always an unsung hero that gets left out of the limelight: product display and merchandising.

Store design often starts with a big brand picture and its customers and that’s probably right. But fairly early on you need to be thinking about what you’re selling and your customers’ perception of that. Skip this and you’ll still end up with a lovely interior design, just not an effective retail design.

Some retailers instantly seem to understand this. Think about John Lewis selling a huge variety of products and services often in huge spaces. In their newer stores they pull off that neat trick of getting across an expansive range without clutter and presenting it in such a way that the customer “gets” it straight away and can easily find their way round. Some of this is down to layout and signage but merchandising and display have a huge role in making sense of a range and helping the customer not just find what they’re after but discover things they didn’t realise were there. It’s about inspiration too – there’s something so touchable, inviting and engaging about the way they showcase products over such a large area.

Mass presentation can often be intimidating and visually tiring for shoppers, but clever tiering and layering give JL’s stores a gentle rhythm that’s gentler on the eye and encourages exploration. Contrast their clothing department against Marks & Spencer’s and you can see just one of the reasons the latter is struggling in this area.

Effective product display and merchandising can range from the prosaic to the sublime. About 15 years ago supermarkets realised they could sell more pizzas simply by presenting above eye-level packs edge-on so the front imagery was more visible to customers (one of those things that seems obvious now). At the other end of the scale you’ve got the gallery-like Dyson store on Oxford Street, elevating the products with precision and subtle repetition.

And there’s more to it than making products jump into shopping baskets there and then, there’s a longer term benefit too. Nike Town famously doesn’t cover its costs from flagship store sales but it focusses on building brand equity and loyalty. Importantly it’s not just the moodily lit spaces and finishes that do this. Nike understands that its products have to be presented in a certain way to define their offer and that goes a long way towards driving perceptions of what a product is, what it can do and showing why this a brand you want to be associated with.

I once co-judged a store design award alongside the director of a well-known retail design agency who admitted he couldn’t be doing with all that “product stuff” complaining that it got in the way of a good visual. On a more enlightened note, I’ve always remembered a merchandiser I worked with early in my career whose sound advice was to “Always put the product in danger of being sold”.

Tim Bevin-Nicholls