A Window into the Consumer Mind

As the nation’s biggest retailers get into the beauty game, you need to step up your own by learning how your clients shop. Some of the industry’s top experts in consumer behavior teach you how to design retail environments that encourage the purchase.

You’re not Sephora, and you don’t want to look as if you are. But you have to admit: Mass retailers know a little something about selling product. Perhaps you could strike a palatable balance if you could retain your emphasis on service while still taking a few cues from the people whose very displays seem able to reach out and flip open consumers’ wallets.


“Your clients are the same people who walk into Crate and Barrel,” says Eurisko President Leon Alexander, who also holds a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology. “Your environment should be designed around the consumer’s needs and maximizing the dopamine in the brain to get that consumer into buying mode.”


Observations like those have grown a new interdisciplinary field, environmental psychology, which studies the ways that our surroundings influence us. Data gathered by environmental psychologists give retailers the insight to think like a customer.


John Moroney came into the beauty industry when professional product lines were just beginning to consider how to help salons showcase products to their best advantage. “Merchandising was a fledgling science,” recalls Moroney, now vice-president of salon business development for P&G Salon Professional. “Should you put products at eye level? How should you arrange them? Since that time, we’ve learned that it’s less important to arrange the products a certain way than it is to understand who the shopper is and what she’s looking for. Retailing is not about products; it’s about shoppers.”


Indeed, while stylists may refer to their guests and management may attempt to anticipate the behavior of consumers, Moroney says the big retailers delineate further to prepare their space for shoppers. “As a consumer, a woman might be open to a product she reads about it in a magazine,” he explains. “If that product is hard to acquire, the same woman as a shopper will probably not be as open to it. If you want your client to think like a shopper, make sure your retail space is set up to enable that.”


Typically, salons with high product sales train and even script their stylists to become partners in retailing. But there is a silent partner working for you as well, and that’s the visual display. It’s not a bad fallback position to have retail sell itself, notes Jonathan Loew, co-owner of Design Display Group in Carstadt, New Jersey. “Salons should think about how to tell the product’s story without necessarily relying on the professional recommendation,” he advises.


Owners talk a lot about providing an experience for clients, and today’s progressive approach to retailing dovetails with that goal. “Pioneers in merchandising are not designing the space around service,” Alexander says. “They’re designing it around an experience. Allied to great service, this experience inspires consumers to buy happily, return to the salon frequently and recommend their stylist to friends.”


Panoramic View

Freestanding units create a slalom effect by giving the consumer an indirect journey to the desk. The height vision should allow the consumer to see above the freestanding merchandise to wall-merchandised units. An accent color at the back of the retail will contribute in driving people to the back of the retail store. (Christie & Co. Salon Spa in New York City)

If you have an open floor plan, you’re already ahead in the visual merchandising race, even if your square footage is limited. “You should expose the consumer to the greatest amount of merchandising for the longest period of time,” says Alexander. When the consumer walks in, she should be able to view multiple displays at staggered heights. For example, in the forefront she might catch a “try-me” counter, she can see beyond that to a freestanding gondola, behind that she spies a back wall unit and, above it, a graphic sign that identifies the products.


The ultimate goal of this panoramic view is to lure the shopper to the back of the store and ensure that she passes purchasing opportunities along her path. That’s why grocery stores stock milk and bread in the back, continues Alexander, who urges owners to likewise save the back of the salon for your most essential, or perhaps most popular, retail items.


Color psychology becomes important, Alexander adds, with the spectrum of red through purple/lavender stimulating the brain to want to spend and buy. He recommends choosing a tone within that palette as an accent color to pop at the back of the salon while keeping your walls neutral and avoiding large areas of bright whites or grays, which can cause fatigue or anxiety. Lighting, too, plays a role. An illuminated wall unit will capture the consumer’s eye and focus her on the product.


Environmental psychology further has uncovered cultural differences in the way people move through a store. For example, a simple habit like driving on the left or right side of the road will determine which way you tend to turn when you enter a shopping milieu. While Americans look along their right side, that’s not true everywhere. According to Eurisko research (euriskodesign.com), this fact alone has led U.S. airport space designers to locate food outlets on the left and gift shops on the right, predicting that people will cross the aisle to eat but may not go as far out of their way to purchase a gift item. Color, too, is subject to cultural influences. While U.S. brides wear white to symbolize purity, in China and other Asian countries it’s the funerals that are dressed in white, the color of mourning.


As shoppers scan your retail selection, you’ll probably want to draw their attention to a certain product you’re featuring in order to, as John Moroney phrases it, “create a need in the mind of your target client.” You can use shelf-talkers, large “check me out” posters, visuals that repeat familiar national advertising, spot lighting or even just surrounding negative space. The idea, says Moroney, is to make it disruptive so that it calls attention to itself.


“You can enter any room, and if the lighting is low, the music soft and the walls neutral you’ll begin de-stressing without anybody touching you,” says Alexander. “That’s the power of environmental psychology. In retailing, environmental psychology works if the furniture is spaced out correctly, lighting is focused on the product, graphic signs are highlighting the merchandise, an accent color is place properly and the smell in the air is congruent with the product. That combination creates a buying environment.”


Extend Their Stay

Tasteful, festive holiday bags make simple decorations that have the added impact of reminding clients the salon is the perfect place for last-minute shopping.

The longer you can hold the shopper’s interest at the product shelves, the higher the retail ticket is likely to be, agree the experts. “People today are time-poor, not cash-poor,” says Alexander. If you can captivate them for a block of time, they’re likely to spend.


P&G makes it policy to measure this dynamic. “Through cool technology and using people from our focus groups, we are able to track where their eyes go and where they linger on every display and ad we create,” says Moroney. “If their eyes don’t rest where we intend on the graphic, we redevelop it.”


One way salons have been successful in holding clients’ attention is by providing a sensory experience. Kiosks with “try-me” samples involve all the senses in the purchase decision as clients see, feel, smell, touch and, in some cases, apply the product. This can develop a powerful connection between shopper and product.


Don’t Even Go There 
Sometimes following your gut instinct leads you off path, caution the experts. They list some frequent missteps:  
1. Product displays are placed too close to the entrance. “It’s not until the customer is about six feet into the store that she’s adjusted to the differences between the outside and inside,” says Leon Alexander. “Her nerve endings are picking up all the stimuli—a new temperature, different lighting.” Give her that six-foot space to adapt and transition before you hit her with your Promotion of the Month.  
2. Too much product is at the styling station. “We’re moving away from having a ton of product at the styling station,” notes John Moroney. “The client should be looking at only those products that fulfi ll her needs and do not compete with each other.”  
3. Seating is placed by the window. “Owners pay thousands of dollars for a billboard to advertise their brand, when you already have one—your window,” says Alexander. “When passersby see only the backs of your clients’ heads as they sit on comfy couches, you’re losing an opportunity. Besides, you don’t really want people sitting down; you want them shopping.”  
4. Retail is grouped by category rather than by product line. Should you line up all of your mousses together? “Sephora tried merchandising by category, and it didn’t work,” says Moroney. “Aim to have a brand portfolio that offers a unique benefi t with products that do not cannibalize each other. Then all of your brands have a chance to win.”  
5. Income is lost by neglecting the impulse buyer. “I defy anyone to exit Walmart with only the intended products,” says Alexander. “Yet no one’s advising you at Walmart; you’re serving yourself.” To address the impulse buyer, Moroney recommends keeping your point-of-purchase displays supersimple. “If your client is overwhelmed,” he warns, “she’ll just walk out empty-handed.”  
6. A campaign is not thought through completely. “Let’s say you’re designing a Nioxin display,” says Moroney. “Don’t put up a sign on your shelf that shouts, ‘Thinning Hair!’ Who wants to be seen walking up to that product?” A more sensitive—and effective—message could be an instruction to “Ask your stylist about Nioxin’s solutions to thinning hair.”


Today, this interactive approach is going high-tech. Loew suggests that salons might set up a touch screen asking the client to input a series of responses about her hair type, and then the screen will recommend products for at-home maintenance. A lower-tech but still interactive panel could have knobs to dial up or down within scaled categories like oiliness/dryness, fine/thick, virgin/color-treated and amount of daily time spent on grooming.


Even simple electronic signage will keep shoppers’ attention an extra few seconds, Loew adds. “Battery-operated, low-voltage, four-inch by seven-inch LED screens can effectively tell a product’s story and keep the consumer longer than a glamour shot will,” he says.


Bullseye: Your Shopper


You know your clientele better than anyone. Or do you? The information that emerges from focus groups or from analyzing your base of frequent, high-ticket clients may surprise you. Moroney says you cannot successfully retain people until you fully understand who they are and what triggers their buying habits.


“Let’s say you have a keep-it-simple kind of client,” Moroney says. “This is not a trend-motivated, experimental client who wants to get involved with a variety of styling options. For this client, make sure her needs are met for a shampoo, conditioner and maybe the one styling product she likes.”


A line like Sebastian goes for the opposite consumer, Moroney continues. “When we relaunched the brand nearly three years ago,” he says, “we very clearly targeted one specific shopper: the beauty junkie. She’s not a value shopper, but someone who wants to be on the leading edge of trend. We’ve learned that this person is attracted by the packaging but hooked by the performance, and the beauty junkie always wants to talk about styling products.”


If your best clients are constantly asking about what’s new, build your retail visuals around products that have just been added to a line. If your clients love bargains, make sure to alert them to special value opportunities. Hip clients? Choose a hip line. Luxury-leaning? Go for a classic high-end brand. If you have a young clientele, infuse your visual offering with the energy of bold colors; older people prefer more subtle palettes. “Get those colors wrong,” cautions Leon Alexander, “and your clients simply won’t relate to your brand.”


P&G research crystallizes the importance of target merchandising. “From years of testing, we know that a woman shopping a beauty aisle spends an average of three to five minutes there,” says Moroney. “But she makes her purchase decision in under 10 seconds! What is she doing for the rest of the time? She’s deselecting.” The quickest way for her to zero in on what she wants is to eliminate what she doesn’t want, he explains. If she’s looking for a color-protective conditioner for dry hair, she goes through the product racks thinking, “Nope, that’s not what I need,” to every item until she finds her desired category, and then she chooses from among the available products almost instantly.


“The lesson here is that a salon that’s trying to be all things to all people is making the client work harder at deselecting than at shopping,” says Moroney. “From Barneys to Walgreens, most successful retailers are laser-focused on who their customer is.”


When you fashion your visual cues to appeal to your key buyer, your look will attract same-minded clients as well as “wannabes” who aspire to become that client, according to Moroney. In addition, by designing your retail around your best clients, you’ll keep them invested in your salon.


Sophisticated eye-tracking technology helps manufacturers understand where to place branding for maximum impact—which encourages the consumer’s eye to linger and prompts sales. (Estoterica Salon in Forth Worth, Texas, at left.)


“The real goal is reselling,” says Alexander.


“If the majority of your business comes from a regular clientele, you’re in the business of reselling to them. They purchase a shampoo, and the next time they come in you introduce them to the larger size or an accompanying styling product. Reselling to existing clients is key to your ongoing success."


Happier Holidays


Reality check, courtesy of retail design consultant Peter Millard: “Macy’s and Neiman Marcus will do a more beautiful Christmas tree than you can ever do.” Instead of putting up extravagant Christmas decorations, which Millard labels “a huge waste of money,” he suggests fulfilling your clients’ holiday shopping needs. With that in mind, what are the best decorations? Colorful bags.


“Your clients want to see the chic holiday season,” comments Millard, who frequently consults for Redken. “Don’t be traditional. You can do ‘holiday’ with metallics, lime green and hot magenta instead of classic red and green. Salons should be decorated at each work station with beautiful gift bags stuffed with beautiful tissue. When you put that on 10 work stations, it looks like Christmastime, but it’s not just a string of lights. Display the bags in your window as well, with low-cost ornaments or unique holiday balls. Your wholesale florist has tons of decorative holiday supplies. Or set up a display with a candle as a gift-with-purchase or even a purchase-with-purchase, a concept pioneered by Estee Lauder. You can charge a small fee for the candle when purchased with a hair care product.”


Millard further prefers gift bags because they’re religiously neutral. “Decorating for Christmas is too specific,” he continues. “Also, this time of year is less about whether people celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza and more about its significance as a season of generosity and giving. Help your clients to tap into that, because the salon is the perfect place to shop for the people they put off until the last minute, as well as for major people in their lives like spouses. Because of the tight economy, people are combining generosity with practicality. Make the most of the fact that hair care products are usable and practical, not a waste of money. Put up a sign that says: ‘Let us help you with your holiday stress. We have luxurious necessities!’ Next to it, place a product bottle and maybe one nonbreakable Christmas ornament.”


Tell Your Story Visually

Serious retailing requires continuous shopping, with no breaks. All shelves should be in a line, since the eye loses focus with a break. (Christie & Co. Salon Spa in New York City)

Visuals should always tell a story, says Loew. When his firm works with MAC Cosmetics, for example, his goal is to visually feed the image that MAC already has established with its customers. “As much as you can tell in that initial visual impact is what I call ‘the story,’” Loew adds.


For a salon, the story can be distinguishing yourself from other salons or separating your professional products from drugstore and department store hair care. Peter Millard encourages owners to use signage to very directly make those points. He advises, “Have a sign that says, ‘Our products heal your hair, and they aren’t expired. We are about beauty, not just about profits.’ You need to spell things out for people.”


People get bored easily, so visual cues should change quarterly, says Loew. “The luxury product brands change every season with new colors,” he says. “If you’re in an area with distinct seasons, you might change the products you highlight according to the humidity factor. When you switch the products, your story changes.”


A quarterly wise schedule is about right, agrees Moroney, who cautions owners not to swap out a display more often than the average client visit cycle since that’s wasted effort. Neither should you fret if your most active guests have more than one encounter with the same visual. “It takes people longer than you’d think for ideas to register in their mind,” Moroney adds. “They might need to see it twice in order to remember it.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.