Have you stopped to consider the power of visual merchandising - dressing your windows in retail?
Sure, during the holidays there are stories like this one in the Wall Street Journal on New York City's major retailers which tout all the "high tech" aspects with movement and digital effects. And good for them!
And while Wallyg has posted some great shots of New York windows on Flikr here, I want to talk to you about Staunton, Va in the Shenandoah Valley, not far from where my mom was born.
For it is there that Robbie Lawson helped Pufferbellies Toys & Books do something amazing this holiday: give back a sense of wonder and pride, as few stores can do using their incredible visual merchandising skills.
Erin Branton the co-owner tells me how it all started. "Robbie is a family friend who works with my dad at Taylor & Boody Organbuilders near Staunton.
He and his family shop at Pufferbellies often, too. I saw some photos of a model he made of a church that they were building an organ for, and asked him if he could make gingerbread houses.
He and I and my parents (my mom, Susan is my business partner, and my dad helps with everything) sat down and talked about which buildings we'd like to feature, and Robbie went and photographed all of them before starting to build his models.
One of the buildings, the Masonic, houses my brother's gelato shop (The Split Banana) and our all-time-favorite Mexican restaurant (the Baja Bean Co.) so we HAD to feature that one! The church is Trinity Episcopal, which has a ton of history. It also has real Tiffany windows, which Robbie photographed and printed on vellum (I think) to recreate the stained-glass effect.
One thing about Staunton that makes it stand out among other downtowns is that it has tons of original buildings that survived urban renewal during the last century.
There were some seriously forward-thinking people that stood up for these buildings and that helped put us ahead of the game in terms of creating a vital downtown today. So anyway, we're nuts about downtown Staunton and wanted to do something that would honor it. "
They came up with fake gingerbread houses built using foam board, hot glue, latex caulk and plastic candy to recreate six historic buildings. (You can see a set of 36 on Robbies Facebook page.) I'll bet the visual merchandisers on Madison Avenue are jealous.
While these pics are amazing...
That's not why I'm writing this.
It's because no matter how jaded you might be at cloyingly cute holiday commercials or how sick you might be of hearing White Christmas, I'll bet you were taken with these pictures.
No video. No Twitter feed. No digital effects...
Even with minimal merch from the toy store in the window, you, for those brief moments, became like Ralphy in A Christmas Story.
It works because so much of what we see across the retail landscape looks like this Walgreens. The windows have been filled with merchandising units which take up the lower ten feet.
Most retail development windows' only purpose is to allow minimal natural light into the store, while cutting off the view of the outside world.
This has rendered much of modern retail design sterile, imposing and devoid of emotion.
Why does that matter?
Because well done shop windows let us do either of two things:
See into your store's offerings to be enticed to come in and buy or
See into ourselves to discover child-like wonder.
And that is the gift Pufferbellies and Robbie Lawson gave to the nearly 24,000 people who live in Staunton this holiday season. It's also what Pufferbellies did when they restored their storefront with original street-level doors, window frames, moldings and trim.
When Main Street retailers talk about what independent stores do for a community, they often talk about how they "give back to the community" through donations to worthy causes.
But the one thing I think many miss is what they can give back with their creativity, love of their town and desire to see the faces of shoppers delighted and surprised.
In a world struggling with an onslaught of technology, these committed owners bring humanity back to its core. Their visual merchandising skills pulled off an amazing feeling in their retail customers.
That's what holiday shopping is all about folks.
Not buy one get one free. Not another "friends and family" promotion or online group buying discount.