Buying Know How 4 A Retail Store

Profitable sales are the objective of every retailer, to achieve this they need:                                      View This Post as a PDF
  1. their current customers to buy more in one transaction
  2. customers to shop in their store more often
  3. customers to stay in their store longer
  4. new customers
Kolo Photoalbums on display

Kolo Albums & Storage Boxes, attractively merchandised on hutches

Any good buyer knows profitable sales are not just as a result of what they buy but how much they buy, the assortment they buy and how it is displayed and sold in-store.  They also know that the reason consumers buy is not random but as a result of neurological processes that happen in their brain.  Knowing the science & knowing how to buy will result in increased sales and better profit.

I am intrigued by the reasons and processes that go on in the purchase decision.  I am also frustrated by the lack of buying skill of many retailers in Australia.  I offer this information so that retailers look at buying as a more analytical, considered process.

Basically, the consumer has multiple reactions in their brain, triggered by all 5 senses, that lead to a final decision to purchase.  The challenge for retailers is to create this favourable response. A customer behaviour study found that the heart rate increased in 70% of women shown a Tiffany Blue box, they didn’t even see inside!  This is a powerful reaction and connection to the brand, how can you do this in your business?

Consumers crave connection, reassurance, familiarity & trust when making the purchase decision, so that they avoid buyers remorse after the purchase.  Your job is to create a store and purchase experience that appeals to these needs.  If you meet this need once, you will be creating a connection with your satisfied customer and they will regularly need their ‘fix’ which is you!  They will also be more likely to stay longer and spend more, which is normally hard to achieve.

The last 2 years have been very tough for retailers: this is compounded by a ‘new consumer’ who operates in a ‘new world’.  Retailers need to re-invent and re-invigorate in order to navigate the ‘new world’.  Retailers who are currently doing well, know their customer, know how to buy and how to reinvigorate their business.

You must be confident in your buying, otherwise you will not be able to merchandise or sell the products you buy.  I have often encountered retailers who tell me that something absolutely did not sell despite it selling well for seasoned retailers.  It is because they didn’t buy correctly or understand how to display or sell it, not because of the product.

Retailers, stay up-to-date with colours and trends in the market.  This will ensure the selection of product is inline with what customers are seeing in the media and elsewhere.

Show your expertise and flair in your market segment.  Don’t copy other stores. Do investigate what is missing in the marketplace and how you can stand out.  Remember, today’s customer has done their homework, they know what is out there and how to get it.

Whilst I realise that this may be a massive change in how retailers currently behave and their perception of what their business is, the changes in the marketplace and consumer behaviour leave them no choice but to analyse their business and make the changes accordingly.

Consider the following checklist when buying for your store in the gift and homewares industry:

  • Know today’s Consumer, your Customer
  • Assortment, Ranging & Visual Impact
  • Atmosphere & Ambiance
  • Online Integration
  • Select your suppliers wisely


Below, we investigate these points in detail:

outside your comfort zone

Think outside the square you buy in.        Consumer behaviour has dramatically changed over the past 5 years.  Consumers are far more aware, more demanding and more informed (over 60% do their research online) than ever before.  So you have to be on the ball and up to date!           Think about your customer as a whole person, not just a person who buys what you sell, ie: baby store customer, fashion customer or a furniture customer.  What else do they shop for in your category? How can you extend your offering – or sales pitch – to sell more to the same customer, encourage customers to visit more often and stay longer in your store?

The emergence, and success, of the lifestyle store talks to this point.  They are the right combination of fashion, homewares and gift.  Consumers want to shop in stores which satisfy them as a whole buyer, they don’t always want to be segmented.

Don’t discount the importance of making customers smile and feel good about themselves, your store, the day they are having or their purchase.  Getting them laughing is even better.  If appropriate to your store, select products that will make people laugh and smile.  This is the most powerful of ‘chemical reactions’ , besides it is simply nice to turn someone’s day around!!

Start by listening to your customers, what products are they asking for that you don’t stock.  Ask the question of the people who come into your store.  This will ensure you have a customer ready to buy as soon as you add the products.

Consider the need that your customer has to be seen as modern, contemporary and up to date with trends; the “Keeping Up With The Jones” syndrome.  Celebrities, high profile people, new-release movies, popular TV shows, cultural events all create a desire in consumers. Select, merchandise and promote products that will appeal to this behaviour in your store.

I advise clients to look at the magazines their customers are reading, in their category, as a reference.  This shows a whole customer, not just a cushion buyer and can give you an idea of where to start.

This said, make sure that you always consider the WHOLE picture and ensure there is always synergy and cohesion between products, store and customer.  It must make sense to the customer in order for them to be comfortable and be ‘ready to buy’.


Width and depth

Too many retailers ‘cherry pick’ a range without understanding HOW customers are, 1. attracted to a product and 2. choose which product to buy.

Within a range, you must have enough stock and a large enough story to create visual impact and give the customer enough choice but not too much that they are overwhelmed.  As a rule, no less than 3 items on a shelf of the same products is  ideal.  Consumer behaviour tells us that any less than that , is perceived by the customer to be the end of a line or not very popular (if you have a few 1 offs left group them together to create a ‘story’, don’t leave them on the shelf).

Width of range and depth of range are very important to buying correctly.  Don’t stock a few pieces of a lot of products.  It is much better to stock a wider assortment in a fewer products.

To explain, let’s use pillar candles as an example.  They are available in a wide range of colours and sizes.  Again use 3 as the minimum: 3 sizes (width) and 3 colours (depth) to create impact and ‘shelf appeal’.  Think about the customer; if they like the colour they will buy all 3 sizes, if they like the size they will be open to buying a collection to create a ‘story’.

AS A RULE: never buy just one of something (unless it is a $3 000.00 table which will be a signature piece!!) as you cannot merchandise one item and if a customer wants more than one you will disappoint them.


Create ‘Stories’ or Departments within your store

Customers like to group things together in ‘stories’.  Without this assortment available, the customer will feel like they don’t have enough options and will seek alternatives elsewhere.

I have, very successfully, sold large assortment of product: 3m paper walls, 2m photo album installations and a multiple meter File & Storage collection despite retailers telling me if will never work.  Look at the towel walls in department stores, where every square meter must return dividends, they would not allocate this much space if it was not profitable.  Large successful stores are always a great reference as to how to create a display with interest.

Repetition of pattern is another successful device to consider when buying.  The same pattern in multiple products appeals to the ‘matching’ that customers like and the cross-selling that you like.  Either the pattern or the item will appeal to your customer, so give them an assortment to choose from; if they don’t like the cushion, they may take the throw.

A great example of this is the Penguin Books Classics relaunch with striking covers, instantly recognisable and appeal to the nostalgic past when life was simpler!  The success of this release was extended to mugs and other products; bags, pencils, deck chairs etc.  This is easy to sell and has proven to be successful.

By creating departments within your store, you can group products together by design, colour, theme, style, customer etc. This is going further than creating a display in your store that incorporates many products.  Your customer does not have to go through the whole store to find items of interest and will be encouraged to spend more.  You can also merchandise the products by type elsewhere in the store if you have room.
eg: Create :

  • a file & storage department (ideal for urban living) within in your store
  • group all the bohemian product together to create a ‘fashion’ department
  • cater to the pet-lovers in your area – pet-owners spend like new parents!
  • Travel goods are hard to find, customers will be more inclined to buy more than one item.


One product, many customer segments

Don’t pick a narrow niche, like handmade hand bags.  Sustaining uber niche retail is hard work, you will have to constantly find new customers as opposed to selling more to your current customers.  That said, you can create a great niche ‘department’ within your store.

When choosing products, think about what other customer segment / market you can appeal to within your core customer base.  One product, multiple target customers is a great way to ensure you appeal to a wide range of customers whilst maintaining a narrow range of products.

Price Range

Think about making purchase decisions easier for customers.  Low price point items encourage impulsive spending and don’t require a large thought process or consideration.  They also encourage more regular visits by customers without the pressure to spend big. Again, ensure they are inline with your profile & the rest of the products in store, like gorgeous greeting cards in a homeware store.

Fashion Mix

The mix of core range and new fashion/trend range is very important and different for each business.  The new fashion/trend product is what makes customers come in the store to a point.  A good core range of ‘staples’ in your store builds confidence in your customer and makes you the go-to store for regular purchases.  The fashion/trend products are overlayed on this range and compliment it, encouraging increased sales and regular visits for the core and fashion product.  For example; everyone needs black skirts and pants (core), a new top or jacket (fashion) will make this outfit look up to date; or solid colour tablecloths with fashion print napkins.

Appealing Visual Displays

Once the range is selected, think about how it will look in-store.  Create an attractive display simply by using the product itself.  Use colour to instantly create impact, whether because it is a fashion colour or simply bright!  This will drag the customer to the product.  We all know that neutrals, whites and ivories sell the most but colour is needed for ‘shelf appeal’ and to attract the customer (the peacock tail if you like).  Look at how your supplier displays the product, they are the experts!

When doing your buying, particularly the fashion / trend product; buy various items in a trend colour. Picture the same colour in skincare, soaps, candles, printed journal, card set, jewellery, room scents, cushions & the ribbon they are tied together with, a scarf, plates, cups & saucers, ipod cover….striking and more likely to appeal to your customer than having all of these items spread throughout the store.


Seems pretty obvious, but a common mistake is the mis-match between product and store atmosphere and ambiance.  Be realistic about your store, match the lighting, music, quality of display and product.

Customers will not shop in a store where there is a disconnect with product, service or ambience.  if you want to stock beautiful homewares and your store is run down with fluorescent lighting and old fixturing, address these issues.  If you have spot lighting and lounge music playing and sell products to the teens, this too is mis-matched.

Look for interesting props and accessories that you can use that co-ordinate with the products.  Be creative and stay away from “VM props” that everyone uses.  Match the furniture you use to the ‘look’ of the store.  Look to suppliers as they are more likely to have something that matches.


Selling your products online is a must and the co-ordination and integration, as per above, must also be true for your online store.  This is a whole article on its own but needs to be stated here!

Consumers now expect that every business has a website that they can buy from not just look at!!   Sadly, in Australia this expectation has not been met and consumers are driven to overseas websites.  This is a great opportunity for Australian retailers.

Websites must have the same ‘feel’ as the real life store, if this is not the case, customers will perceive the store as inauthentic and reject it.  Information needs to be timely and match EXACTLY what is happening online and offline at the same time.  There is nothing worse than reading about a Christmas promotion in March!!


Who you buy from is almost as important as what you buy.

Are they a supplier with good practices?? Do they promote their customers? Do they supply their customers with selling tools and resources, such as images for their website?  Do they communicate regularly with you?  Do they understand the concept of exclusivity (I mean street here not suburb or state!)?  Do they hold stock or do they have to import everything (this is especially important when you have customer orders and are working to expand your product offering while holding minimal stock).

A supplier who sells online at full retail is simply a good business person.  As long as they are promoting their products and their customers and is acting appropriately as a Brand Builder.  Too many retailers are threatened by their suppliers selling online.  They need to see it as the opportunity it is!

It is far better to have fewer suppliers and build strong business relationships with them than have many suppliers for each product group.  Search for suppliers who have a good assortment of product and who are up to date with the contemporary market you operate in.


Magnolia Solutions Shopping ListI have created a ‘Shopping List’, with some suggestions as an extension of this article, as well as a Mini Trend Report.

If you would like to receive this list, please sign up for my updates here on the right hand side  and it will be sent to you shortly afterwards.

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As The Retail ‘Miss Fix It’ and the Chief of Ideas at Magnolia Solutions, I have drawn on my own experience of over 20 years in retail and with my first business Paper Magnolia, to help clients create integrated marketing solutions online and offline that are based on sound retail practices.

In 2009, I gave myself the challenge of finding a super low cost solution to get Paper Magnolia started selling online.

At the same time, I started to use this new ‘thing’ called Social Media with great results!  In 2010 I co-founded Social Media Women and continue to support new social media users.

I hope my experience will help you start off on the right foot.

I work with retailers, manufacturers, brands and service-providers in various roles including external Marketing Manager. My focus is on Customer Service, marketing, new media, product, retail principles and retail as a craft.  I utilise online and offline tools in a wholistic approach.  I am an avid user and participator in Social Media as an extension of my marketing activity.


  1. February 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

    You make an excellent argument for creating an online retail store. Generally, online sellers feature lower prices because they don't have the overhead of renting a bad position in a mall, or shopping strip with high overheads and cost of sales staff. There's even Web sites that offer 'percent off' discounts if you enter a code after meeting a minimum purchase requirement, which could save even more money. Online retail is definitely here to stay. Cheers Catherine

  2. February 17, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Thanks Catherine, I think online works best with offiline retail, there is nothing like having a 5 sensory shopping experience and the reassurance of trying it on... Online is DEFINITELY here to stay and I hope more retailers get with the program before we loose our online customers to overseas sites!! Buying on price is not always the best idea, shoppers need to consider, delivery, secure payment, shipping time as well. Sometimes that can be more 'expensive' when products don't arrive and there is no-one to chase it up with. many thanks for your comments :-)

  3. March 4, 2011 at 7:38 am

    [...] wrote a post on “Buying Know How for a Retail Store” to help guide retailers in good buying practises. I also wrote a great little shopping list [...]

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