At ‘Merchandising Theatre,’ customers applaud with purchases

by Stephen J. Alexander
Special to Aftermarket Business
Steven J. Alexander We all like to get praise for our efforts. Positive consumer reaction is the best praise of all for automotive parts, accessories and service retailers.
As Dan Wilson, then-executive vice president of retailing for Western Auto, wrote an in-store merchandising project a while ago:
". . . the major challenges in the project were: 1) improve consumer in-store communications; 2) organize merchandise categories; 3) create additional merchandise space; 4) make a strong 'power aisle' statement; and 5) further reinforce Western Auto as the preferred place to shop for automotive products. . . . Consumer response to the entire store has been very favorable, and the store is experiencing very good first year sales."
If your store is well merchandised, your pleased customers will buy more merchandise from you than they did before, and they will return to your store frequently. You'll hook your audience. You'll be SRO (standing room only) in your store/theatre.
How do you get a successful performance of your merchandising play?

  • You plan first.
  • You set goals and objectives for your store.
  • You plot how to show your store's "eyes" - those elements which give your store a unique personality and differentiate it from the other stores in town - to your consumer customers.
    Those store eyes, as I call them, will make all the difference in your store's performance. Uniqueness gets attention: copycatting confuses.
    How do you remerchandise your store?
    First, organize the products into logical groups of merchandise - categories, as the biggest; then departments, sections, and lastly the smallest of the traditional merchandise divisions, items.
    Then, plan the store layout. Your store and its shelf space is like an apartment complex with units to be rented to vendors at the highest possible yield. Some locations are more desirable than others. They have the most attractive view and/or the most convenient location.
    The store layout process should not be a casual undertaking. Spend time and money on it. Use a computer or basic graph paper to map out every foot of your store to scale. Place your merchandise areas on that map, plan-o-gram by plan-o-gram.
    Once you've decided where your departments are to be placed, turn to the merchandise assortment for each department. There are several electronic plan-o-gramming software programs available at an extremely attractive price. Invest in one of these, and then spend the time to plan each shelf, each SKU.
    An alternative to purchasing software is to seek a company that provides plan-o-gramming services. A word of caution here. It is imperative that such companies have in place a thorough understanding of automotive aftermarket products and consumers, and they have a broad-based strategic competency.
    Or - talk with your vendors. Tell them "I can give you x-amount of space in my store. Give me a picture of which of your SKUs should be in there and where to place them." All plan-o-grams must be accompanied with projectable financial results. Otherwise, they are basically useless.
    Suppliers invest a lot of effort in plan-o-grams. Most include analyses on return of the merchandise. With information about your neighborhood and your target customer base, these plan-o-grams can be fine-tuned so that the merchandise mix will fit your exact needs.
    There's another source of good help for your merchandising planning, too - mail order catalogs. You can source the merchandising components and aids you need for success from a broad selection of suppliers that sell through catalogs. You can select store fixtures, counter top displays, shelf-edge items, clip strips and literature racks.
    When picking your assortment of hardware, don't forget the availability of POP and merchandisers from your vendors. When used properly, these work well.
    But be careful not to turn that in-aisle merchandiser success story into a version of an obstacle course. Avoid creating obstacles that hinder easy traffic-flow within your store, and make absolutely sure that you don't block visibility. For if it can't be seen, the merchandise can't be bought.
    It's also important to be cognizant of the height of an average male or female customer. A simple strategy to begin with is to place the high volume, high profit merchandise at eye level - approximately 64 inches from the floor.
    So far, we've talked about three of Mr. Wilson's objectives. By putting eyes to the store through graphics, signage and points of information, we have a way to improve consumer in-store communications.
    By mapping the store and working thoroughly on merchandise placements through careful planograms and possibly vendor merchandisers, we've created additional merchandise space.
    What about his "strong 'power aisle' statement" objective?
    If the eyes of the store - the personality of the store which talks to customers - are its graphics, its signage, its information, the heart of the store is its power base. It could be the Parts Center™, an Automotive Repair Learning/Teaching Center™, a Truck Accessories Center™ or your own signature power base - that part of your merchandising plan which makes you totally different from the guys down the street.
    The power aisle is a natural pathway that takes your customers from your front door to that unique heart of your business. You may use Glow Power™, a dramatic use of color and lighting to lead customers to certain featured items, to lead the way to the power aisle.
    The power aisle pulls consumers through the store to where your greatest strengths are.
    All of this merchandising planning and execution combines to reach Mr. Wilson's final objective, that of reinforcing his (your) store as the preferred place to shop for automotive products.
    It's all like theatre, from the store's location in the automotive parts theatre district to the choice of play (product and/or service assortment) to the crew (the suppliers and you) to the stage (store layout) to the cast (the products) and rehearsals (implementation of the merchandising plan and training, but we'll talk about that last item next month) to the performance (when the store's eyes and its heart deliver sales). And finally, the applause - the pleasant sounds of transactions.
    Enjoy the show!

    Steven J. Alexander

    Stephen J. Alexander, president of Automotive In-Store Marketing, is a member of Aftermarket Business' Retail Advisory Board. He can be reached at his Sanibel Island, Fla. headquarters, phone (941) 395-9203, or e-mail

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