29 May 2024, 13:46
By Furniture News Apr 14, 2016

Andrew Durham on the role of visual merchandising

The economy may be back in the black, but competition for consumer spend has never been fiercer. Visual merchandising (VM) consultant Andrew Durham has created displays, layouts and product selections for some of the UK’s most progressive retailers, helping them stand out and prosper. But how much of an impact can VM make? Is it science, or an art? And why, despite the standards set by the sector’s leaders, do so many still refuse to change? Paul Farley puts these questions to the expert …

“People are more visually aware than they’ve ever been, so retail has to stay fresh. The ones that don’t innovate are in the most danger. When the economy turned, many of those that had coasted were forced to call it a day – but the strong retailers pushed on.”

Andrew Durham admits there’s plenty of businesses that get by without putting much thought into their store layout, product displays, backdrops or lighting – but these businesses will come under increasing pressure as the sector becomes even more competitive, and there’s always room for improvement.

Early days

The VM specialist considers himself lucky to have worked with some of the best in the business. Straight out of art college, he went to work at his local department store, before relocating from Bolton to London, where he landed a job at Harrods.

“Most of my contemporaries back in the day just drifted towards fashion,” he says. “At 24, I didn’t know there was such as sophisticated furniture world, but, after interviewing for Harrods, that’s where I ended up.”

“I automatically see how I want to change something and make it better”

Despite some initial misgivings, Andrew grew to love the role. “These days, Harrods is a slick operation, full of designer brands, catering for a completely different customer,” he says, “but back in 1990, it offered a fairly traditional – if quirky – high-end furniture offer. Within the store, the furniture department was another world – almost an outpost. But it gave me a good grounding in the business, working alongside people who loved the job, and I soaked it all in.”

It’s only recently that mainstream furniture stores have started taking VM seriously, says Andrew. “I’ve never had any formal training – I’m not sure whether you can do courses in it these days?

“Back then, World of Interiors [magazine] was the bible. Then came Elle Decor and LivingEtc, mobile phone cameras, Pinterest … most importantly, the interior design programmes started to dominate – first on TV then on the internet – and the sector was well and truly on the path to embracing sophisticated trends.”

Heal's beckons

After four years, prompted by the natural curiosity of a creative mind, Andrew took a job at Heal’s. “It had a different vibe,” he says, “very pure, very design oriented. Heal’s had – and still have – a real aesthetic. I ended up creating simple, unfussy floor displays, to exactingly high standards.”

Developing window displays at Harrods had given Andrew a taste of presenting accessories alongside furniture, but it wasn’t until he joined Heal’s that he came to appreciate the merchandising potential that existed between the two.

“At Heal’s, the accessories have always done a huge amount of business,” he says. “Good retailers sell looks, rather than commodities, and good displays require good accessories. Although the margins are great, the accessories themselves don’t tend to create huge figures – but they play a major role in enhancing the furniture. It’s my job to highlight those impact big-ticket pieces.

“Good retailers sell looks, rather than commodities, and good displays require good accessories”

“If an accessory sells, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, as long as it’s doing its job. Of course, the ultimate goal of a lifestyle story is to make the customer buy into the whole look.”

In 1994, Andrew moved on to manage displays at the General Trading Co, a quirky store full of “gifts and unusual furniture” on Chelsea’s Sloane Street. “I had complete creative free rein there,” he says, “but I realised that planning and pacing my work was important. Projects executed ad hoc tend to get out of control!

“Certain businesses have an engaging personality, and the General Trading Co was one of them. It was like many independent furniture stores – run by a strong character, whose influence spreads throughout the business.

“I’m very proud of the work I did there. Even before you walked in, you felt connected to the store’s personality – that’s a special thing to achieve.”

Andrew’s interiors career took a turn five years later when he was offered a job at Ralph Lauren. Few brands catered for both the mass market and the high-end worlds of fashion as successfully as that label, and for Andrew the opportunity was too interesting to ignore – but the technologically-advanced, corporate nature of the retailer soon took its toll.

“I discovered that fashion wasn’t really me,” says Andrew. “It definitely didn’t help my confidence. When you’re creative, you’ve got to have a certain amount of faith in your ability to transform things. At Ralph Lauren, everything was targeted, rated and monitored, and I started questioning myself.”

Despite this discomfort, Andrew’s decision to engage with the fashion world – plus the freelance work he carried out on the side – put him in good stead for his next role, which would set him on the path of independent furniture retail.

Turning point

In 2000, Andrew moved to Newcastle, to take charge of the display team at Barker & Stonehouse – a retailer which proved to be one of the UK’s most forward-thinking businesses, and continues to surprise and enthuse him.

“Although the margins are great, the accessories themselves don’t tend to create huge figures – but they play a major role in enhancing the furniture”

“Barker & Stonehouse are streets ahead,” he says. “they’re leaders in pretty much everything – stores, product, photography … people look up to them. When I first went to work for them, they had lots of great ideas – but there was no real indication they would become what they are today.”

Early on, Andrew was tasked with designing the retailer’s new Leeds store. “In the VM world, furniture retailers are always a little behind,” he confesses. “I’m lucky to have worked with the ones that want to be a bit different, that are happy to make changes. For me, there’s nothing worse than coming across a retailer that doesn’t want to make changes to their showroom – especially when they’re paying me for my opinion!

“Barker & Stonehouse were very open to ideas. With a background in marketing and advertising, [director] James Barker wanted to do it properly, make it more sophisticated and dynamic, invest in the stores. He wanted to set the benchmark.

“James realised that as a retailer you couldn’t restrict your trade to existing customers alone– you’ve got to be looking for a new audience all the time. He’s nurtured that growing audience for a number of years now. To be honest, it’s become such a success that I wouldn’t surprise me if it became a multiple at some point.”

This period, which saw Andrew manage multiple store developments and refurbishments, as well as taking charge of accessories buying, culminated in him developing a specific VM niche in the independent furniture industry, working with the likes of Caseys, Fishpools and Arighi Bianchi to create inspirational selling spaces and, in turn, maximise revenues.

In the latter in particular, Andrew has been instrumental in advancing the setting for the retailer’s high-end product, at the same time as sourcing its accessories alongside director and furniture buyer Robert Bianchi. 

Sourcing today

“I travel a lot for Arighi Bianchi, to shows such as Maison&Objet and High Point, plus the big UK events,” says Andrew. “I’m part of the range selection process with Robert – we work together with a common aim. Again, it’s about choosing which accessories best complement the furniture.”

The redevelopment of Arighi Bianchi’s Macclesfield store remains one of Andrew’s proudest achievements. He explains: “I used to pass it all the time on the train, and I thought it was the most beautiful store I’d ever seen. But when I walked in, it all felt back to front – the space just wasn’t being taken advantage of.”

Andrew explains that the store was “a difficult retail space, full of quirky areas” – and overcoming resistance to change, if understandable in the case of family-run businesses, required an incredibly well thought-out approach.

A walkthrough video on Arighi Bianchi’s website illustrates the impressive end result of the overhaul – but the project serves as a reminder that VM work never takes place within a vacuum, whatever the designer’s skills and experience. There are always spatial and psychological constraints that require a fairly unique approach to overcome or incorporate.

“All the elements have to work together,” says Andrew. “When I first entered that store in Macclesfield, I couldn’t see any flow, everything seemed to be in the wrong place. As my work progressed, I was able to create an environment which customers can immediately connect with.

“It’s difficult to explain where my approach comes from – my creativity is just a part of me. I automatically see how I want to change something and make it better. I’ll look at a group of furniture and think what I can do to change it What is its potential, and why doesn’t it look right? How can I alter the position, layout, colours or lighting to make it work better? I guess my career has been all about training my eyes – it just comes naturally nowadays.”

Presentation matters

Perhaps the biggest barrier for retailers is the commercial demands of such a project. Andrew admits that the Arighi Bianchi makeover was one of the most expensive he’s overseen, but argues that basic, essential changes to in-store furniture displays can be made on a budget.

“Just be creative,” he says. “Upcycling, recycling and the craft trend are huge at the moment, and you can go a long way just using old pallets to create amazing displays.

“Money does need to be spent – but I don’t believe that moving displays around, painting walls and changing textures here and there is going to break the bank.

“It’s more about being open-minded and happy to change things. Retailers need to accept that keeping things fresh is essential to making a business work today. They cannot let long periods go by without making at least some alterations. Big stores introduce overhauls between each major sale – they tend to be seasonal – and their audience expects it.

“Retailers need to accept that keeping things fresh is essential to making a business work today”

“Customers don’t want to walk into a museum. They want to connect, see interesting displays and exciting products, and – ultimately – be enticed to spend their money.”

Andrew works through his own company, ALD Design & Display. He was one of the judges of this year's edition of The Furniture Awards.

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