Through the Looking Glass

Fantastical show windows offer a modern view into retail’s wonderland
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Posted November 27, 2017

The hallmark of the retail industry is its constant state of evolution. The continuing development of technology is fueling unimaginable advances not only in the industry, but in society at large. In fashion (and in life), it’s often said that what goes around comes around. Now, as we approach a new year, what’s coming around once again is the importance of the show window.

Even in the face of remarkable innovation, windows continue their role as an integral part of the retail cycle. And they’re not merely pretty, street-side pictures or merchandising highlights anymore, they’re strategic. In this era of transparency and authenticity, they’re a portal into a company’s heart and soul, an embodiment of a brand’s DNA.

While e-commerce offers new channels of shopper engagement, retailers must discover new approaches to attract customers into stores. “Windows are sometimes the first touchpoint a potential customer has with our brand. The windows are the face of the building,” says Leigh Ann Tischler, director, window design, Bloomingdale’s (New York). “They might be more vital in the current retail climate because competition is fierce, and we want to entice people to come inside the building rather than shop elsewhere.”

It’s important that windows stop customers in their tracks, whether it’s using an eye-catching display or a social media moment. “Today, we’re thinking more about driving customer traffic into the store with our windows — making [displays] more attention-grabbing and ‘sale-able,’ versus [customers] walking by and seeing a nice window,” says Harry Cunningham, vp, creative services, Vera Bradley (Fort Wayne, Ind.).

The burden of fulfillment has also fallen on retailers’ shoulders. Consumers know what they want and where and when they want it.  And because they’re continually bombarded with visual cues and information, windows must cut through the noise and start a conversation with the customer on a personal level. Following that need, windows are becoming more interactive, especially as the phenomenon of social media influencers grows, to create a dialogue with passersby.

 “Everything today needs to be an ‘Instagrammable’ moment,” says Cunningham, explaining how his brand endeavored to make its windows interactive using social media, and how hashtags are a big part of that visual story. “Hashtags aren’t just speaking to the person posting them, but also to their entire group of followers, which could bring yet another consumer to your store.”

The concept of point-of-sale (p-o-s) has always been critical to retail success. Now that term is evolving into “point-of-experience” (p-o-e) to truly reflect how the path to purchase now encompasses several points of entry. Window designers aren’t simply designing windows, they’re designing experiences, and those experiences create desire by providing an emotional connection.

From the early days of the department store, windows have been the theater of retail. Today, as we marvel at the growing wonders of technology, it’s somewhat ironic that Apple (Cupertino, Calif.) helped to foster a major trend in window design. Tom Beebe, accomplished window designer and stylist, credits Apple’s “glass cube” (its all-transparent Fifth Avenue, New York, flagship) with inspiring other retailers to provide complete views into the store interior.

“Today, the theater is inside the store,” Beebe says, remarking on the trend of open-view façades. Retailers from Macy’s to Bergdorf Goodman have opened their show windows to provide a look into the interior “selling stage.” For the past several holiday seasons, Godiva has championed this trend with open windows revealing a chocolatier dipping strawberries into its famously decadent confection.

With experiential shopping becoming the new normal, window designers are working closely with interior visual teams to drive window experiences into the store, creating a cohesive brand message from outside in, according to Tischler.

 “We will endeavor to keep coming up with fresh ideas and seek out new technologies for lighting and video. We will always need windows to promote our fashion and have fun on the street,” Tischler explains. “We still get calls in June and July from as far away as Europe asking when our holiday windows will unveil so they can plan their flights.”

Looking ahead, retailers might generate that same buzz about their windows to millions of consumers on social media, ushering their own campaign success.