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Secrets of a Retail Designer

This is a copy of a talk I did at Pod in No.42 in Bishop Auckland...

My name is Catherine Muir, I’m an interior designer and I run Catherine A Muir Interior Design based in Durham. I sell interior design services, including Retail Design, to home and business owners across the North East because I believe that our surroundings should positively affect us both in the way it looks but also in the way it works.

I started my career working in Ikea Gateshead as an interior designer, designing not only the room-sets but also the lay-out of the store. No, I wasn’t responsible for the never-ending pathway – or the ‘Long Natural Way’ to give it its proper Ikea term, that was Ingvar Kamprads idea, the founder of Ikea, who sadly passed away earlier this year. He wanted his stores to feel like an exhibition with all the product displayed for the customer to see.

He had many amazing innovative ideas about how a shop should be laid out and his ideas are the basis for every Ikea store in the world, and many other shops now follow many of them. I would like to share some of the knowledge that I learnt whilst working there which I hope will help you when you are selling your products whether that’s in a shop, online or in person.

I am going to cover 4 points; knowing your customer, knowing how your customer shops, knowing what sells and finally how to communicate to your customer. Many of these ideas will be very practical but some more data driven.

Know Your Customer

This one is fairly self-explanatory, who is your customer? What are their demographics? What are they interested in? Where do they go? What do they read? Do they use social media? How much money do they have to spend?

For example - If your customers are older, pregnant or less able then they’re unlikely to want to look on a low shelf at your product.

If your customers are busy parents with children distracting them then they won’t be able to approach a shop or stall with delicate looking glassware or hot lighting.

If your customer likes to peruse quietly and focus, then they’ll find it hard if you’re positioned next to something bustling and noisy.

By considering who your customer is and how they physically and emotionally chose your product and then making any appropriate adjustments will make the experience as easy and pleasant as possible for them.

How Does Your Customer Buy Your Products

Take time to watch your customers, you should be regularly tracking your customers, make a note of who they are and the demographics that you can guess and with a plan view of your shop or market stall track the route that they take around – what do they touch? What questions do they ask? What do they not see? What do they not touch? Why might that be?

You will find it helpful to try shopping there yourself. See what issues or problems you encounter.

After a while you will begin to build up a picture of the hot areas and cold areas - that is hot for areas that are used a lot and cold for areas that don’t get used. What can you do to change that or make the most of that?

Also, when thinking about the way customers shop think about what they are looking for first – for example are they looking to see what things cost first or the colour first or the function first? For example – for earrings would you group them in price – lowest price at the front and highest at the back? Or do customer look at drop length first so do you group them in size order? Or is it colour?

It will depend on what you are selling of course!

So what are you selling?

Know what Sells

You need to know your selling data!

What is your bread and butter? First which item do you sell the most of? This is your bread. Second is the item that you make the most money on in total, this becomes your butter. Sometimes they the same but not always.

Next your strawberries and cream…Strawberry – your lowest price item. Do you have something small that will tempt your customers to purchase? If you can make that first sale they are far more likely to buy more from you.

And the cream is a new item that you want to tell everyone about, to attract existing customers and excite new ones. You don’t yet know how it will sell but it’s a great piece of marketing.

Those 4 items should be treated to the best spots – or hots spots – could be given special communication.


You are not Ikea and many of your customers will be very happy about that!! But what makes you special? What is the journey that you and your product have been on? How can you communicate that to someone who meets your product for the first time and doesn’t know anything? We want to know why you’ve chosen it or created it and why we should choose that item over all the other options out there. The world is over run with people selling things but there is only 1 you and that is what we want to buy into! So shout about it, tell the items story, tell your story, its interesting!

Think of the communication at McDonalds. The first thing you see is simply a big yellow M, nothing else is required for them but the image is big, simple, no squinting required! The next level of their communication is inside on the menu boards, again big and simple with a clear title and price.

Try to copy this approach in your communication, something from afar that will attract, and then something closer that will tell the customer what they need to know to purchase it – this will include product and lifestyle images and text, telling them about you and the product and what you are selling to them, but keeping it simple and bold.

The final level in McDonalds is when they have that customer settled down and eating and that is where you really learn more about what you have bought in those tray sheets. Perhaps you will be shocked by the calories, but you knew that anyway, but soothed by the green grass images and cows! Isn’t it surprising though that they save their most detailed information until after the sale has gone through?!

This is your reward to the customer and what will make them feel special and appreciated. So when you’re packaging something up slip in a newsletter or flyer, when they open their package they can settle down with a cuppa to enjoy reading more about you that they couldn’t pick up in the busyness of a fayre. This is what will bring those customers back to you.


So first of all get to know your customer and their needs, make the shopping experience the best that you can for them personally. Secondly think about how they buy by tracking your customers and asking them questions about what they are looking for. Thirdly, know what sells and work out your bread and butter and strawberries and cream! Finally communicate to your customer about you and your product and tell them its story in a way that is appropriate for the setting.

If you’d like to learn more about this and how it can affect your business I’d love to talk to you, so why not get in touch here, or there is a book I can recommend called ‘Why We Buy, the Science of Shopping’ by Paco Underhill.

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