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SO Showcase

28 October 2014

I have been in the glass cabinet business for 30 years. My parents were antique dealers and needed good glass cabinets for obvious reasons. This is why my father started building showcases in the early seventies for other antique dealers, galleries and museums. Since then, the business has shifted to incorporate a retail focus, giving me deep roots in both the museum and retail industries.

One thing that really struck me is that there are designers who focus on retail and designers who focus on museums, but rarely do you find those who focus on both. While both worlds have many similarities, there are interesting and subtle differences which lead to cool learning opportunities for everybody. So I asked myself this question; “What can retail learn from museums?”

This is the first installment in a collection of blogs titled “The Art of Display: Adapting Museum Techniques for the Retail Environment”


Use warm or cool lighting to create the mood for your merchandise.

Question: What is the difference between Display and Visual Merchandising?  The Answer is in your Black Box.

“When I can no longer create anything, I’ll be done for.” – Coco Chanel

We all know someone that we refer to as “one of those creative types.” Artsy and ethereal, they float through the world plucking ideas out of nowhere that we mere mortals can’t access – seemingly drawing inspiration out of thin air. While some of these ideas blossom, others wither on the vine, and still others fail to even take root or grow at all.

For retailers, the merchandise is your medium and your retail space becomes the canvas for the story you create for your clientele. If your process isn’t solid, it’s your bottom line that suffers. So from a business perspective, how can you build a solid process that takes you from idea to revenue?

Museums haven’t flourished for over 3,000 years due to serendipity. As they have evolved, they have mastered a process for creating exhibits that capture the imagination of visitors. Adapting these processes and systems for the retail industry can take your display from concept to functioning exhibit.

A critical first step in the process is to determine the “black box” – a term used in the museum world that refers to a space and a concept for an exhibit. While the seasonality of retail means that the items that are on display are changed more frequently, few businesses are equipped to redesign their entire store on the same timeline. This makes the first step even more important for retailers, as your display needs to have that “timeless” quality – this is a crucial step in determining how your showcases, a concrete element of your brand – will play into your story.

The museum counterpart of a visual merchandiser, an interpretive planner, is involved in the next step to tease out the key areas of focus within the storyline, determine how the story will be told within the space, as well as any graphic design or interactive elements. Their role is two-fold, as they work in tandem with the architects to develop the space, and with the exhibit makers to develop the storyline.

The science of putting together a space is highly disciplined and refined in the museum industry, where it can take between 5 – 10 years to build an exhibit, so stringent are the processes for budget allocation, fabrication, review and approval, design and development. No retailer could work on that long a planning cycle, but in most cases the black box design concepts can be worked through over a few months. The overall lesson here is not to confuse the aspects of visual merchandising – your subject matter specialty, with the store concept and design (the black box). The mistake we often see in retail is that owners and merchandisers do not see the distinction.

At SO, we have been working with retailers for three decades with this model. We understand display and design and can build your black box so that the frequent changes in season or products do not require wholesale display changes.

SO, What’s your Black Box?

Ready to create your retail masterpiece? Let SO Showcase bring your ideas to life. Call us at 905-895-3232 to help you design display cases that inspire your customers to buy, and to return again and again.