The Complete Guide to Visual Merchandising for eCommerce: What It Means and How to Get It Right

Visual merchandising is a combination of both intuition and science. Learn how to create the right mix to optimize your eCommerce website in this guide. 

Mannequins in a store window review the visual merchandising strategy on a home decor eCommerce site

Have you ever had that feeling of walking into a quaint boutique and taking in each item and display with wonder? The clothes are neatly folded and carefully curated. The design of the shelving and colors all around bring about a sense of calm and relaxation. There’s a faint yet comforting smell of lavender and sandalwood, and the music makes you want to hum along. The shop assistant is smiling and inviting, and everyone there seems approachable. All of these factors combined make you want to stay a while, browse, and then take something home. This is the lure of visual merchandising, an age-old strategy that retailers use to delight and entice their customers.

Nothing is arbitrary—everything is part of a plan, from your initial moment of discovering an item to the last product you add to your basket before checking out. While traditionally used in brick-and-mortar stores, visual merchandising strategies are now also being adapted for eCommerce. Smart online visual merchandising promotes product discovery and increases both conversion and average order value.

What Does Visual Merchandising Mean?

The definition of visual merchandising is simple: a strategy that uses visual engagement to encourage shoppers to browse, explore, and buy your products.

It means planning and designing an immersive shopping experience for customers by determining both the overarching and finer visual details. Online, this includes everything from the product collections and layout on your homepage to the last-minute recommendations on your cart page. Visual merchandising can also refer to your general use of space and color schemes on-site.

Visual merchandising is a combination of both intuition and science—with brands and retailers often favoring aesthetic choices backed by psychology. It’s also highly crucial in helping consumers form a positive first impression, which takes just seven seconds for in-person businesses and 50 milliseconds for a website.

The time it takes for consumers to form an impression of your brand

Particularly for the latter, effective visual merchandising displays the most relevant products at every touchpoint and establishes trust through high-quality photos and user-generated content. Later in this guide, we’ll dive into the most important online visual merchandising tips for brands and retailers.

Why is Visual Merchandising Important?

Visual merchandising is integral to both the in-store and online experience because it influences the end-to-end customer journey. Shoppers are highly visual creatures, with 65% retaining most of the information they are presented with when it’s in a visual format.

A strong visual merchandising strategy enables you to deliver coherent and engaging shopping experiences that align with how shoppers naturally consume and act on information.

  • Visual merchandising entices shoppers to explore and buy from your site

Visual merchandising touches every part of your site. It ensures that the right products are promoted at the right time, which is key for brands with thousands of items in stock. Once customers take the first step either through the homepage, search, or menu, you instantly design a visual journey that leads them to their ideal products.

  • Visual merchandising strengthens brand awareness and fosters loyalty

Shoppers identify the way you present your merchandise, and they associate it with your brand. For example, if you always provide “you may also like” suggestions when they add an item to cart, they’ll learn to count on you for understanding their taste. If you regularly update on-site inspiration galleries with UGC from social media, they identify your brand with “real-life” images and inspiring social proof. Your visual merchandising strategy is not just an immediate conversion booster — it’s also an effective tool for long-term brand-building.

  • Effective visual merchandising makes your brand accessible to new audiences

Visual merchandising is designed to appeal to shopper intuition. For first-time buyers on your site the images, galleries, carousels, videos, and the general feel of a well-executed visual merchandising strategy can and should be the difference between them finding their way to items they’ll fall in love with versus bouncing off your site to a tried and trusted competitor.

The Evolution of Visual Merchandising

Along with the continuous transformation of retail, visual merchandising ideas and tactics have also evolved.

Visual merchandising in retail stores began decades ago with elaborate window displays. It then expanded to include store layout, with behavioral science dictating the best spots for specific product displays and types of items.

Online visual merchandising, on the other hand, is a recent development. It has taken center stage as brands try to develop blended experiences that make in-store and online shopping feel connected.

Window displays now translate to the highlighted items on your homepage and category pages. The bins of items by the checkout line are replicated online with cart page carousels. Your store layout is reflected in the order according to which products are displayed on your website and in the organization of your menu. Styled mannequins are now “complete the look” carousels. The list goes on, but virtually every element of the in-store visual merchandising experience can now be re-created online.

Not only that but online retailers can use a mix of traditional visual merchandising elements and innovative digital solutions to level up the customer experience. For example, by combining data from your product feed with consumer browsing behavior on your site, you can configure visual merchandising ranking strategies to surface the most relevant products on every page. 

Online visual merchandising can be even more powerful than in-store because of this wealth of data on products and shopping behavior. The most impactful visual merchandising strategies today incorporate personalization to make customers feel seen and understood throughout their visual shopping journey.

What Are the Key Elements of Visual Merchandising for eCommerce?

For online visual merchandising to be effective, certain core elements must work together to create a noteworthy shopping experience.

  • Product images

When it comes to visual merchandising, images are the most important factor. They allow customers to scrutinize product details, increasing confidence in your merchandise. In fact, 67% of consumers say that the quality of an image is very important when it comes to selection and purchase. Be sure to upload high-quality photos that show products in full detail and from various angles.

  • Content from satisfied customers

Today’s social-savvy shoppers want more than just professional images. They will also look for content from previous shoppers as a guarantee that what they are eyeing is worth the purchase. User-generated content can be customer photos, videos, and reviews, all of which add a layer of authenticity to the product and your visual merchandising strategy. According to Adweek, 93% of customers think user-generated content is helpful when they want to buy something. 

  • Color and overall aesthetics

The colors and overall layout on your site are not just a reflection of your brand. They are a tool for instilling emotions in your customers, from calm and confidence to happiness and excitement. When deciding which hues and shades to use, consider the feelings you want to spark, the market you are targeting, and the industry colors commonly used by your competitors.

  • Mobile layout

In 2021, more than 85% of eCommerce sessions in the fashion vertical are taking place on mobile. Most brands and retailers have mobile responsive sites, but mobile visual merchandising goes beyond screen size. You need to carefully consider how much space you give to product images, UGC, navigation, and product collections, as well as where on the screen you place them.

  • Ranking Strategies

Behind every successful visual merchandising strategy lies the goal of customizing the shopping experience for your audience. Online, this means leveraging smart merchandising rules and ranking strategies to dynamically promote items. With these tools, you can prioritize the display of products based on availability, discounts, sales performance, ratings, seasonality, and more.

How ranking strategies impact visual merchandising in search results
  • Personalization

New technologies now allow brands and retailers to personalize their visual merchandising strategy per shopper. This means promoting the items, UGC, layout changes, and more that are most likely to appeal to each individual customer. The future of impactful visual merchandising will rely on being able to understand and accommodate everyone on your site.

12 Online Visual Merchandising Techniques and Best Practices

Want to ace visual commerce throughout the customer journey? Here are 12 visual merchandising tips you can incorporate into your site’s homepage, search and navigation functionality, category and product pages, and checkout experience.

Set the right tone on your homepage

Your homepage is often the first page that shoppers see. It’s the virtual equivalent of a window display, where shoppers get a comprehensive preview of your brand and catalogue. Because it’s responsible for creating the first impression, customers should find it intriguing. You can optimize your brand homepage by:

  1. Highlighting product and persona-based collections: Quickly grab the attention of shoppers with product collections that dynamically update based on the parameters that you set. You can feature your latest release, best sellers, seasonal items, and trendy pieces that customers can recognize and relate to. PrettyLittleThing has unique categories depending on a customers’ persona and mood.
PrettyLittleThing's homepage with product categories displayed.
  1. Using relatable images: You can help shoppers picture themselves with your items by using clean images that include models. Baycrew’s uses simple photos that are not overly edited. Visitors to the homepage can easily imagine how an item would suit them through the pictures alone.
Baycrew's eCommerce product listing page with photos of models in clothing
  1. Showcasing user-generated content: UGC builds trust. But instead of just taking your word — or image — for it, you have satisfied customers testifying to the authenticity and quality of your product. You don’t have to hide customer reviews and photos on product detail pages. Incorporate them into your homepage in a gallery or carousel.
  1. Personalizing the homepage based on a shopper’s interests: You can add a recommendation carousel with a customized set of suggestions based on shoppers’ current intent, aesthetic preferences, or previous purchases. Eighty percent of consumers want personalization from brands, and they’re more likely to engage when they feel seen and understood.

Direct shoppers to the right products with seamless search and navigation

Customers enter your website with little assistance, unlike in physical stores. Since shoppers won’t always be able to articulate their desires, you need to make it easy for them to find their way visually. You can ensure seamless search and navigation by:

  1. Using visual drop-down suggestions. Intuitive search and navigation make it easier for shoppers to find what their way on your site. You can simplify visual product discovery by pushing relevant merchandise as shoppers put into words what they’re looking for. White Rose surfaces photos of products as users type in the search bar.
White Rose's eCommerce site search with visual suggestions
  1. Providing image-based previews: Shoppers won’t always be familiar with industry jargon. Help them navigate with easy-to-understand icons or images.  Instead of just relying on words, example images help shoppers visualize featured categories on City Furniture‘s site.
City Furniture's visual merchandising product categories
  1. Offering the option to search with a photo: Not all shoppers are familiar with the right keywords to search, and this creates friction in the customer experience.  Herbert Samuel enables searching with an image so that shoppers can discover exact or similar jewelry pieces. With visual search, you make sure that customers successfully find the products that they want even when they have a limited vocabulary.
The visual search feature on Herbert Samuel's website

Nurture buying intent on category and product pages

To funnel customers down the purchase path, it’s crucial to get the visual merchandising experience right where shoppers with high buying intent spend a lot of time: Product listing and product detail pages. You can optimize these pages by: 

  1. Incorporating thematic galleries: You can group items in thematic galleries according to occasions or styles. Putting products into context can help shoppers better imagine how they’d look in real life. Instead of scrolling through individual items with different “vibes”, Williams Sonoma gives its shoppers an organized set of recommendations based on a preferred visual aesthetic. In this case, ginger jars and vases.
A thematic product collection for ginger jars on Williams Sonoma's eCommerce site
  1. Optimizing product filters. You can improve your visual merchandising strategy by helping shoppers focus on the most relevant products. Filters that are powered by organized, updated, and accurate product tags enable users to narrow down their search when browsing thousands of SKUs. You can take this a step further by including visual references on your filtering system, just like Coleman Furniture.
Coleman Furniture's illustrated product categories
  1. Adding videos or animations. Did you know that viewers retain 95% of information through videos compared to just 10% of information through text? Videos are the perfect opportunity to create an impact anywhere on your site. Not only do videos hook customers, but they also provide a realistic perspective of your items in motion. When done right, video content can turn passing customers into sure buyers. Soko Glam‘s product pages feature the usual photos, descriptions, and product recommendations, along with video demonstrations.
A video on Soko Glam's product detail page

Close the deal with enticing cart and checkout pages

Merchandising efforts do not necessarily end at “add to cart.” In fact, this stage of the customer journey can still be a great way to upsell or cross-sell, suggesting complementary items as extra purchases. However, take care not to be too distracting, or shoppers may get overwhelmed and abandon the transaction. You can improve visual merchandising during checkout by:

  1. Surfacing highly relevant product recommendations: At this stage in the journey, every recommendation has to be spot on. The price point should not be too far off what’s already in the shopper’s cart, photos most be clear and enticing, and the items should be personalized to their tastes and needs. City Furniture has a non-intrusive pop-up in their cart window sharing “People Who Brought This Also Brought” product recommendations.
City Furniture's cart carousel
  1. Improving trust with logos of major payment merchants. While not strictly about your products, this is also a part of the visual experience. When you show popular and familiar methods of payment, visitors associate it with seamless shopping and security. It helps to further establish trust and nudges customers to make the purchase final.

Wrap-Up

Visual merchandising is no longer limited to the walls of a physical boutique. Online brands are constantly improving time-tested techniques with the help of innovative technologies that make the customer journey even more engaging and valuable. Successful online visual merchandising relies on elaborate, intentional, and strategic digital design that gives customers a shopping experience worth remembering and repeating.

Build better jewelry discovery experiences.