I Coulda Been a Contender

Lessons learned from my first experience as a participant in the Iron Merchant Challenge at IRDC
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Posted November 1, 2018

As I write this, another International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) is officially in the books. This year marked a number of firsts, not the least of which was the first time (disclaimer: in the memories of those present) that the VMSD editorial team lent a hand during our interactive team challenge, The Iron Merchant.

Thanks to some not-so-subtle prompting on the part of Yellow Team leader, closing keynote speaker and photographer Adrian Wilson, Managing Editor Carly Hagedon and I jumped head first into the madness that is Iron Merchant. Truth is, I didn’t need much convincing.

Each year, I’ve smiled and cheered for the teams scurrying around the displays, creating magic out of an empty window, mannequin, some scraps of fabric and rolls of tape. Held annually at IRDC with the help of ZenGenius Inc. (Columbus, Ohio), the challenge allows six teams of 10 attendees an hour to create a display using various materials, as well as a secret ingredient – similar to the “Iron Chef” TV show, from which it draws inspiration for its name.

In the past, the temptation to jump in and help has been great, but as a layperson, the thought of being the roadblock that stands between a team and the coveted Iron Merchant sash seemed unwise. Or so I thought – until I heard my name and instructions to immediately report to the Yellow Team display, already in progress, over the speakers.

With the concept set and team members already hard at work, my goal was to stay out of the way and help out where I could. But soon I found myself scouring the ballroom for pieces of plastic to represent the masses of trash in the ocean (per the design brief) and dodging elbows and scissors as we hurriedly improvised.

The experience gave me the opportunity to walk a mile in your shoes, and it was invaluable. As a magazine editor, I’m no stranger to deadlines or demands for creativity under pressure. But rarely do I get a glimpse at what goes on behind-the-scenes as teams of designers and visual merchandisers ready a new store for opening. The incredible amount of creativity, hard work and passion that goes into creating these environments is remarkable, and to experience a small taste of it, inspiring.

I learned a few lessons from my time as an “auxiliary” member of the Yellow Team. For one, I gained a better understanding what it’s like to actually do what I normally only write about others doing, that is the job of store designer or visual merchandiser. Perhaps more important, however, is what I took from Adrian’s parting words to the audience at the end of his keynote the following day. When in doubt, jump in. You never know, you just might change the world:

“When an idea is in your head it’s useless, it’s just a thought. So don’t be scared, even if something exists for a minute, that it’s wrong or whatever. Always try and transfer your ideas into reality because you never know where that ridiculous idea, like a useless store, ends up.”