Seeing Red

There are many explanations, religious, historic and cultural, on why the colour red is used (along with green, gold, silver and white) as one of the key colours for Christmas. Certainly, red was the most widely used colour for Christmas 2012 in almost every window and instore display in New York this year.

From the use of single colour monotone schemes, to those with a bold tone-on-tone execution with traditional scarlet, ruby and berry shades, to vibrant vermillion and crimson, retailers in every product category had picked up on the trend.

As a colour, it has more associations and connotations than any other shade, with numerous studies suggesting that humans react more powerfully when they see red. Its values are universal and understood by people of all ages, cultures and nationalities. It evokes impulsive behaviours where confidence, daring, passion and risk are commonly observed. Cars are perceived to go faster, food to be more appetising, and things generally younger, happier and more alive.

Over the years, much has been written about the colour red. Some gory, much romantic, others scientific and lots anecdotal and personal. Poems, songs, letters and prose have all recorded our affection for red. It is the colour that endures and, just like the weather, it seems everyone has something to say about this most seasonal of colours. Quite simply, red is a ‘one size fits all’ shade. It works when and where others don’t.

For these, and a multitude of other reasons, it’s not surprising that red is the colour of choice instore for Christmas. Every retailer wants to make the highest sales and most profitable results from the huge surge in numbers and the opportunities that the season brings. Why risk a quirky or unconventional Christmas shade when red is a universal and popular favourite? Therefore, it’s only sensible that brands would want to place their most certain bet, and to de-risk to reap their rewards at this crucial time.

Retailers refer to Christmas and its ever earlier run up as the ‘golden quarter’, but this year even more than ever, I think it is all about red. Red in the creative promotional activities before, and red in the discounting activities afterwards, where left over goodies and seasonal clearance events will start in earnest depending on how things perform in the vital hours before the big day itself.

Without doubt, Christmas is synonymous with red. Birth, joy and love are embedded into its DNA – all part of the very essence of the festive period. What would choosing to celebrate the season with any other colour be like? Not Christmas.

Visit our Facebook page to see a selection of images featuring red displays in New York this year.

Karl’s Visual Review of 2012

January – Hard Rock Cafe, Prague
An unusual choice, perhaps, but one of the most successful examples of a retail operation being run alongside food.

Read more…

February – Patchi, Dubai
Patchi is a feast for the eyes, with indulgent, abundant and stylish displays. The stores are like little temples of luxury!
Read more…

March – Joe Fresh, New York
A clean and sharp value fashion brand, which drew hoards of shoppers to the opening of its store on 5th Avenue in NYC.
Read more…

April – C&A, Köln
C&A’s updated VM and instore design may be a move in the right direction, but it’s not the revolution that the business needed. For me, it points to significant changes in the value fashion sector.
Read more…

May – M&S, Shanghai
M&S’s impressive Shanghai showed how this historic British brand is taking over the world.
Read more…

June – Happy Pills, Barcelona
One of the most innovative and complete retail experiences I have ever seen. Happy Pills is a ‘pick and mix’ sweet shop with all the best retail practices of a pharmacy.
Read more… 

July – MINI, London
July 2012 was all about the London Olympics. Amongst the many notable stores that were improved, upgraded or simply ‘dressed for the occasion’, the MINI store in particular stood out.
Read more…

August – Reserved, Gdansk
In 2012, I have found myself working in central-eastern Europe quite often, and Reserved was one of Visual Thinking’s key projects in this emerging market.
Read more…  

September – Tokyo’s Tokyo, Japan
A sort of cross between Paperchase, Muji and the now-defunct National Geographic store. It reminded me of a ‘museum store’ but in a mall – executed with thought, care and expertise.
Read more…

October – Hermès, Osaka
This was Hermès’ unique new take on marketing – a mini art exhibition in Osaka’s Hilton hotel, entitled ‘8 Cravates’.
Read more… 

November – Zara Home, Munich
I have been a fan of Zara Home stores since the first opening in 2003. Building on the already successful store design and retail formula, this new outlet is an update of the original concept.
Read more… 

December – The Land of Nod Toy Shop, New York
Simply one of the most effective examples of a pop-up shop I have come across. Proof that a huge company can still ‘think small’.
Read more… 

Click here to see all of the images for my visual review of 2012 on the Visual Thinking Facebook page. 

December – The Land of Nod Toy Shop, New York

One of my final trips of the year is always to visit New York. It’s always great to return and especially at one of the busiest times, when stores are full of people and decked out in their finest.

I’m choosing a pop up shop as the final store in my visual review of 2012. In recent years, pop ups have become a new addition to the ever changing mix of stores on our streets, so it seems only fitting to showcase one of the nicest, seasonally relevant examples.

The Land of Nod, children’s furnishing and toy store, is an offshoot of the massive Crate & Barrel Home chain. It opened this innovative pop up store at 136 Prince Street in the popular SoHo area of New York at the end of October, for only a couple of months, and is set to close at the end of December.

Stocking its own brand ranges of colourful handmade toys, books and learning, creative play and kids’ Christmas decor products, this is a special ‘one off’ Land of Nod Toy Shop – perfect for the festive season.

It was set up in the former Victorinox (Swiss Army knives) store, which recently moved to 114 Wooster Street. Like many pop ups, the retail environment is quirky and low cost and a make-do-and-mend execution.

All former fittings (except lighting) have been stripped out. Fresh paint, decoration and VM treatment has been imaginatively used to create an engaging store interior. Simply using voile, timber, twigs and felt, the shop has been transformed into a enchanting magical garden, complete with the sky, moon and stars. The look has something of an Anthropologie clothing store, where show-stopping creative displays are used to great effect. I’m told the transformation cost little more than $2,000 to implement – low cost indeed!

What I love about this store is how a mega brand like Crate & Barrel has been so imaginative and shrewd with this venture. Be in no doubt, this is a test marketing exercise and one that has MADE money for the company too. For a brand this big, to be thinking and acting ‘so small’ it suggests something very positive about the business culture and practices that are alive in the company overall.

When used effectively, pop up shops can be used to deliver so much more than just the latest product launch. As seen here, they can be deployed to collect important information about the future prospects of a retail concept, local demographics, sales and other vital marketing data.

By opening now, they have given New Yorkers and many international visitors a taste of the brand and its product range. At the same time, they will have learnt important lessons about the potential and future viability for a full line, permanent store in the area. I understand that this may now happen within the next two years.

In my opinion, Crate & Barrel has skilfully ticked all the boxes with this charming and authentic outlet. Innovation is the driver of success for businesses big and small. Here, the company shows that with imagination, a little money and bucket loads of business savvy, it’s possible to be successful in both the short and long term.

Catch it if you can – closes December 27th.

November – Zara Home, Munich

I saw this latest Zara Home store whilst on a marketing trip to Munich, Germany, in October.

I have been a fan of Zara Home stores since the first opening in 2003. Building on the already successful store design and retail formula, this new outlet is an update of the original concept.

Zara have replaced some original features, such as the lilac coloured walls and dark ceilings with a lighter colour palette and more sophisticated finishes to refresh the look instore.

What impresses me about this concept is how as a ‘fashion chain’, Inditex, Zara’s parent company, has been able to rapidly develop and expand this concept outside of its traditional clothing offer. Essentially, it’s because they have a firm grip on their retail processes and delivery mechanisms, allowing them to move efficiently into new categories and markets.

In this, Zara succeeds where countless other retailers have failed over the years. It’s not because their ideas are necessarily any better than other companies’, but because of their recognition and attention to detail in perfecting its slick and successful operational model.

As such, new concepts can be neatly and quickly packaged up, replicated and exported. In business, it is not simply always the level of excellence within a brand concept or innovation – but the speed at which it is rolled out to market. Any kinks in the model can always be ironed out over time.

In Zara’s case, the sometimes disparagingly used phrase of ‘cookie cutter’ retail concepts is perfectly apt and exactly what it does best!

In this new version, Zara has updated the look and feel of the retail environment – making it reflect a more contemporary, ‘grown up’ and versatile look to widen brand appeal, achieving all this without having to change anything about its effective formula and brand delivery methods. It’s recognisable, but new at the same time.

It’s the type of project brief many of our own clients request help with, and an area that’s right up our street! Consistency is one of Visual Thinking’s middle names – along with innovation, development and capability… there’s an acronym in there somewhere, I’m sure.

October – Hermès, Osaka

Having a brand that appears to be overshadowed by a showier and more headline-grabbing rival can provide the inspiration to do something a bit different, if you want to get noticed.

And as global brands go, they don’t get any more attention seeking than ‘King of Handbags’, Louis Vuitton. For years, the brand has been synonymous with innovative VM and sensational window displays, whilst competitors have appeared rather staid by comparison.

Hermès obviously noticed this too because, in October, I experienced the company’s latest marketing initiative to raise the profile and awareness of its brand – at the Hilton hotel in Osaka, Japan. Entitled ‘8 Cravates’, it was more of a micro art installation and prominently located outside Hermes’ flagship boutique.

The art installation took the form of a series of bright orange interlocking cubes that visitors would walk through. Inside, was a series of imaginative displays featuring the brand’s signature range of men’s ties. These were arranged into various forms, including one as an enormous tie shape, turning a simple clothing accessory into a significant sculptural piece. Inside, patterns featuring the design themes of the ties themselves were transformed into an immersive, hypnotic graphic sound and light experience – the effect was truly mesmerising!

This showed Hermès pitching itself as a modern and ‘intelligent’ brand, with the sharp lines and techno treatment of the installation slightly at odds with what one might expect from this normally classically restrained French fashion house.

And yet, other brands could learn from this. Even the most innovative window displays are, after all, only effective for a few fleeting minutes. Hermès’ approach left a longer term imprint on the mind. It spoke to visitors at a different level, allowing time for pause, thought and reflection, letting people ‘connect’ with the brand and stop to consider what, if any, meaning it had for much longer. In creating an exhibition of sorts, it had more scope to communicate at a level of ‘feelings and perceptions’ about the brand and how it could touch consumers in other more interesting, and potentially deeper, ways.

I think it will be interesting to see whether Hermès’ new approach paid off in terms of the sale of the featured, and, if so, where the company might take this imaginative new approach next.

September – Tokyo’s Tokyo, Japan



Tokyo’s superb retail offer is renowned. From the spectacular flagship brand concept stores and the impressive national department stores to the mind-boggling number of convenience outlets, the Japanese have many places to shop!

I visited the new Tokyo Plaza (opened in April 2012) during one of two visits to Japan this year. The Tokyo Plaza Mall is located in one of the country’s leading tourist spots – the Tokyo Waterfront Center. The Mall has 154 distinctive stores, comprising of a quirky mix of independent and local fashion boutiques, infused with the unique flavour of the Shibuya, Ginza, and Akihabara retail areas. Although many global brands are represented, including H&M, American Eagle and the first Old Navy to open outside the USA, it has a decidedly non-corporate atmosphere. This comes as an antidote to the highly controlled world of corporate mega-brands that exist outside. Just across the street is a new Topshop / Topman store, recently opened as part of Sir Philip Green’s international expansion plans.

I’ve selected this image from Tokyo’s Tokyo, as it was both an interesting and well-designed store. The basic concept is books, stationery, novelties and lifestyle goods – a cross between Paperchase (without the greetings cards), Muji and the now-defunct National Geographic store. It reminded me of a ‘museum store’ but in a mall – executed with thought, care and expertise.

Store fixtures have been designed as a series of overscaled open books, with gently curved fixture fronts resembling the pages – a novel idea (no pun intended). Inside, pigeon holes, shelves and rails are used to present the various stock items. Highlights within the pages were done using line burst focal points, like visible exclamation marks saying ‘WOW!’ It’s a busy and fun store and somewhere that’s also a little bit different. It’s certainly a place you can find something quirky, unusual and that’s sure to raise a smile.

July – MINI, London

July 2012 was all about the London Olympics. Amongst the many notable stores that were improved, upgraded or simply ‘dressed for the occasion’, one in particular stood out. The MINI concept store set within the Westfield Stratford Mall in the Olympic Park was simply exceptional.

Opened specifically for the Olympic Games (and on a short two-year lease) this ‘store’ fulfills a part retail outlet and part brand communication role.  As a retail concept, it is outstanding in many ways and the methods used to deliver the customer experience demonstrate awareness and practice in VM that has been rarely seen in the motor industry, putting this store on a platform that’s well ahead of its peers.

From the outside the store commanded attention, but it was instore where the experience really motored. On entry, shoppers could detect a subtle fragrance in the air. This smell was in fact the aroma of MINI ONE, a fragrance specifically created for the store to remind shoppers at a subliminal level of what they experience in a new car. Sensory marketing used to great effect!

Only two cars were on display, with the rest of the store used for parts and an extensive general merchandise offer. The retail environment design echoed the MINI showroom look but on a much bigger and better scale. Interior displays had great impact, VM was imaginative and, as you would expect, had a quirky edge to reflect the brand style. There were many innovations in service delivery including digital fitting rooms, click and collect, test drive booking features and personalisation for all kinds of MINI products. Several of these features and ideas may not be revolutionary, however, their use within an automotive showroom certainly was.

With our own work within the automotive sector, we felt confident to hold this MINI store up as a example of retail best practice and integrated customer service delivery.  More importantly, we have been pleased to share this with other people from around the UK. To this effect, we have held VM training workshops within the Westfield Stratford Mall over the summer and have used the store as part of this work. We are grateful and appreciative for the MINI store staff’s enthusiastic participation – thank you!

The image I have chosen is a particular favourite and shows a British Union Jack flag made from a selection of MINI parts and general merchandise items. This oversized and iconic image is on brand, highly impactful and a great conversation starter with show stopping visual impact. Everything great VM should be!

Overall, this MINI store showed how great VM can be used as a complementary vehicle to other brand communication and delivery tools, including the more expensive and ephemeral advertising and PR tools. For me, it was a living example to some of the ‘dinosaur voices’ in the motor industry that believe the methods which are adopted by successful ‘high street’ retailers cannot be used in their own showrooms. They simply can, and work very well indeed.

June – Happy Pills, Barcelona

I was lucky enough to visit Barcelona for a weekend break in June. Whilst there, I discovered my smallest new store concept of the year with a great retail design – Happy Pills.

Happy Pills is a ‘pick and mix’ sweet shop with a difference, and is nothing like I’ve seen before.

The design concept has been based on recreating an authentic pharmacy look. Shop fittings resemble the same fixtures you would expect to see in any high-street pharmacy. Even the service area has a pharmacy look with drawers, filled with packets and bottles, as you would expect to find in a dispensary.

The appearance of the staff completes the look with assistants decked out in white tunics, wearing simple name badges that bear the company’s signature pink cross logo design.

The shop itself is tiny, being only wide enough to allow two people into the corridor-like layout at a time. This is an interesting technique as it limits how many people can enter the store, and similarly the potential loss of stock that can come from such desirable products. School kids beware: the ‘only two people in the store at one time’ policy applies here – just by the limited space!

Instore it’s just like a pharmacy, with the products sold in simply designed, plain, empty bottles. Customers pick up their chosen size of bottle and fill it with a selection of items. To complete the purchase, customers attach a sticky label from one of a number of pre-printed messages, which range from ‘bad hair day’ and ‘wake up!’ to ‘feel good’ suggestions, to give the product the finished look. Finally, the filled bottles are put into a plain white bag and sealed with a sticky label with a Happy Pills logo on the outside.

What’s interesting is how all of the best practices and methods used to present a pharmacy shopping experience in have been directly applied to products in another category, i.e. confectionary.

The only negative aspect is that I am a little worried the packaging design looks so authentic that the products (sweets) could be easily mistaken as actual medicines! I would suggest a cautionary note to designers, to think carefully about the potential consequences when coming up with new concepts, and to act responsibly.

However, having said this, I was impressed with Happy Pills. It a great idea with a fantastic self-select approach, efficient till point service, and the constantly busy store (mostly women) created a real buzz about the place!

It’s surprising how, even with a very small product, you can come up with such a great concept. Imagination had gone into this design and the execution was seamless. Happy Pills is for people who are looking for a fix that is non-medical, but fruity, sugary and minty instead. They also get a great retail design experience at the same time.

May – M&S, Shanghai

I never lose my enjoyment for travelling, which is fortunate as each year I am dispatched to more interesting and further places. This year I was lucky enough to visit Shanghai on business. For anyone considering a visit this sprawling and dynamic city, I recommend you add it to your ‘must see’ list.

As a tourist you can enjoy all kinds of incredible experiences here. From the spectacular views across The Bund with its gleaming towers, to the nightly flotilla of boats that transform the area into a carnival of light. I was there, though, for its retail offer which has an enormous selection of all kinds of regional and Chinese brands, as well as increasingly familiar names from home too.

The image I have selected is from one of our clients, Marks and Spencer, still a relatively new arrival to the city. This image is from within the latest store, which opened during my visit to Huaihai Zhong Lu, a major shopping district.

In recent years M&S has opened five stores in Shanghai, and this latest one is, in my opinion, the best yet. Like other inbound UK brands such as Next, Mothercare and Fat Face who have recently set up shop here, M&S is investing heavily in succeeding in this vast consumer market. From opening its first store on the famous Nanjing Road in 2008, it has developed a strong presence of full line department stores. With each new opening, M&S recognises the need to ‘raise the bar’ and push new boundaries to deliver an exceptional shopping experience.

M&S understands it must present local consumers with the same brand hallmarks and retail standards that have made the business a success worldwide. As such, inspirational VM, easy shopping and a consistent delivery of M&S’s brand standards are an essential part of the mix. And, with a distance of 5,727 miles from the stores in Shanghai to the M&S Head Office in London, this can present many challenges for delivering the brand.

Visual Thinking has been working with the M&S International team for several years, to develop a range of bespoke VM and retail communications solutions that satisfy these important brand delivery needs. Together, we have developed effective digital media communications that help ensure effective and consistent brand delivery across international and cultural borders. These tools can be updated effortlessly from one central UK source, to provide relevant and useful VM and retail information to store teams – regardless of time zone, language or VM delivery topics.

This latest M&S store in Shanghai delivers an exceptional shopping experience. The familiar brands, such as Blue Harbour, Autograph and Per Una, have been supercharged to introduce them to new consumers in a stimulating and visually appealing way. As a result of working together, the M&S store teams are skilled and informed about how to deliver and maintain the highest VM and retail standards in M&S on an ongoing basis.

These projects present many exciting opportunities to support our retail clients and their brand delivery needs worldwide from the comfort of their ‘own home market’, reaching out to their store teams with training, information and support in relevant, useful and cost effective formats.

It’s always good to find something familiar in a strange city when you are far away from home. It’s even better when this is a store you know, a brand that you trust and shopping experience that is both reassuring and surprising. Thinking about it, I suppose this is the very essence of ‘your M&S’…

April – C&A, Köln

I’m a regular visitor to Köln, making several trips each year. During the Spring, I noticed that a familiar retail landmark, C&A in the main shopping street of Schildergasse had been given a comprehensive makeover. This in itself should be no surprise, as retailers both in the UK or Germany regularly update their look. However, C&A is not recognised for significant change, never mind a total revamp of its shopping experience.

On this, I speak with some experience. Recently, my company Visual Thinking was invited in to redevelop the VM for C&A’s denim categories. Our brief was to create a new visual identity and shopping experience for its Women’s, Men’s and Kids’ denim collections. The project itself was straightforward, as we work on similar VM briefs for other retailers each year. I’m pleased to say that, after several months of working together, our recommendations were implemented in full – something that was satisfying to see finally instore.

C&A is a huge, Dutch fashion company that to this day, is still family owned. Over the years it has its seen its fair share of highs and lows in its long and successful trading history. After many years the brand famously quit the UK in 2001, selling eleven of its stores to Primark, in what must now seem a galling event.

Unlike many of the other fashion brands which have sprung up in recent years, for me C&A still represents an essentially ‘slow fashion’ business and one that appears increasingly ‘out of step’ with competitor clothing brands which have embraced ‘fast fashion’ and innovation as part of their DNA. The value fashion sector in which C&A operates has seen massive change and growth in recent years. Unsurprisingly, this has been fuelled by the recession in many parts of Europe. No wonder that a re-energised Primark has seen its new store openings take off with great success in Spain, Portugal, Holland, Austria and now in the back yard of C&A’s operations in Germany.

I have selected this image of C&A’s new store, not because I believe it represents a ‘high water mark’ in retail design, or because it breaks new ground in VM, but because of how this update signals something fundamentally greater that is happening within the value fashion sector. And, importantly, how this has prompted C&A to re-evaluate its overall brand delivery strategy and retail proposition, by improving product quality and increasing prices.

A big part of Primark’s recent success must surely be down to its exciting retail design, impactful VM and simple but efficient customer service. Its latest Oxford Street store (opened in Autumn 2012 in a former Virgin Megastore) is, I believe, remarkably good. In comparison, the C&A redesign is a ‘cosmetic update’ of the current retail proposition, being essentially a new coat on an old donkey. Friendly and familiar, yes. Exciting and trend aware – no!

That’s not to be unfair of what has been achieved at C&A, but let’s be clear, it’s an evolution – not the revolution that in my opinion the business really needed – even though sales will no doubt have impressed enough to give the green light on further roll out.

Unlike Primark and others that have invested in new retail formats (and have been prepared to really push the boundaries and excite the customer with something genuinely new, exciting and something they can’t experience elsewhere), for me, this C&A makeover does not inspire or linger. Kidswear (image above), however, has responded well to the redesign and is has several effective elements that should see the brand compete well against the likes of H&M and other low cost rivals. However, on adults’ fashion, I’m waiting for the next revamp, which I trust will be instore sometime maybe…

C&A it for yourself at Schildergasse, 60-68, Köln, Germany.