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Merchandising 101: Retail Lessons from the Sock Pros

Merchandising 101: Retail Lessons from the Sock Pros

Ellen Gil and her husband Eric are the proud owners of Socksmith, a sock design company that lives by the mantra of #NoBoringSocks.

But their real journey began in 1988. The two founded the Sockshop & Shoe Company—a small, humble boutique in downtown Santa Cruz, California. Nineteen years later, they turned their passion for socks into Socksmith, their most successful venture yet. 

Ellen and Eric have a lot to teach prospective merchandisers about creating the right team, using visual merchandising strategies to showcase products in the best light, and establishing customer relationships.

Sockshop & Shoe Co. 1988
March 1988, Prepping for ​​Opening Day at the Sockshop & Shoe Co.

What is Retail Merchandising?

It's a collection of strategies designed to get sock lovers (and others) interested in and about your store's products. Merchandising includes how products are aesthetically displayed in stores, marketed and promoted, and the signage used.

You'll see that although Socksmith offers hundreds of fun and unique styles, they are merchandised to highlight each style and make it easy for buyers to choose the pair which resonates with them best. Whether it's our best-selling Significant Otter style, or our basic (not boring) bamboo design, who are we to judge? Most importantly, the array of design options helps to illustrate our brand's slogan: "No Boring Socks."

No Boring Socks
Sockshop at the​​ Santa Cruz Wharf

"Don't rack your brain; let the creativity flow and land before you second guess an idea."

What Does a Merchandiser Do?

The primary function of merchandising is to ensure optimal product presentation, both online and in-store. The merchandiser must be able to identify what products customers want, know where to place them to attract customers, design their in-store and window display, and maintain a clean space (that means no oat milk latte cups lying around).

If your store is just getting started (woo!), the owner or store manager might be responsible for merchandising (among many, many, many other things). Since they have more branches to manage, more prominent brands usually hire a dedicated retail merchandiser to oversee merchandising teams.

For the past 14 years, Santa Cruz's downtown Sockshop & Shoe Co. has had the pleasure of employing Audrey Thomas' creative design and display artist talents. Creative thinking is a must for merchandising. Some words of wisdom are straight from the horse's mouth: "Don't rack your brain; let the creativity flow and land before you second guess an idea."

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Successful Merchandiser?

The role of a merchandiser calls for someone who is both creative and analytical. Merchandising involves a lot of data (and you thought it was just moving around pretty stuff). They need to be skilled at data analysis because they have to deal with sales, inventory reports, margins, and product sell-throughs.

Additionally, merchandisers should have sales forecasting expertise to anticipate peak sales periods and adjust store stock levels. Similarly, if a merchandiser is adept at trend-spotting, they can stock and display products at the right time.

To develop a profitable strategy, merchandising involves a firm grasp of basic financial metrics.

Recruiting the right people is essential if you aren't handling the merchandising yourself. When starting their retail business, Ellen shared that one of the best lessons she ever learned was to recruit nice people. "We provide them extensive training in the culture we want for the store before eventually letting them operate it themselves.”

What's the Difference Between Merchandising and Visual Merchandising?

We thought you'd never ask! Visual merchandising and merchandising are two different jobs, although, in smaller companies, they are often done by the same person.

Merchandising ensures that the right products are ordered and delivered to the store in the correct quantity.

On the other hand, visual merchandising is concerned with displaying products to increase sales (oh now we're speaking your language, huh?). It involves being aware of the best ways to arrange products, the shelves and fixtures that will best display them, and the lighting and signage that will draw in the most traffic.

Merchandising is a team effort, so the two roles must work collaboratively. They both need to be clever in business and creative enough to get people to buy what they came in for and things they didn't know they wanted or needed.

Socksmith Tabletop Display
Socksmith Tabletop Display Rack​​
Socksmith Cardboard Tabletop spinner
Socksmith Tabletop ​​Cardboard Spinner

What Should an In-Store Merchandising Plan Have?

Creating a retail merchandising plan is the next step after recruiting a capable merchandiser. The ultimate objective is to direct customers to the products you want to sell.

Items to Promote

These are usually your best-selling, newest, and in-season products. Naturally, you'll want to be merchandising in a way that draws attention to products having a larger profit margin. Depending on what you want customers to notice and what they are looking for, pick certain products from these categories and put them in the spotlight every month or week.

Store Layout

You must only have a few products on display at a time to keep the store an untidy appearance and make it easier for customers to find what they're looking for.

Stores with disorganized shelves end up looking like discount stores. In contrast, if your shop is neat and tidy, customers can see what you have and are more likely to purchase products at the total price.

Patagonia is one of the more prominent brands that we admire. Looking at their stores, you’ll notice that clothing is organized by color, print, and type. It's aesthetically beautiful, which is always a plus, making shopping more pleasant for the customer.


The cost of setting up an in-store display varies greatly depending on the type of display you want, the size of your space, and what your products are. It can be easy to go overboard, but if you’re working on a tight budget, it’s best to keep it to a minimal design that achieves maximum impact.

If you're working with a limited budget, Audrey advises keeping your visual merchandising display simple. “You can make your display pop just by choosing a group of products that complement one another.”

Stores can start with well-placed lights, mannequins, attractive signage, and well-organized shelving. Socksmith's shelves are simple: Designs arranged by category, neutral shelving, one giant neon sign, and figure feet to display how the socks look on. Having noisy shelves and placards would be too distracting from the large variety of designs.

Seasons, Holidays, and Special Occasions

No one would expect to see Valentine's Day socks on sale in October. Products out of season should not be displayed, even if you are trying to clear out old stock.

When laying out your merchandising plan, it's crucial to account for the season. Since many people are looking to buy during the holidays, this is an excellent time to get customers interested and boost sales.

Planning ahead will also ensure you’re prepared for seasonal sales and maximize special occasions to highlight special offers or promote new items.


It's essential to consider how long it will take to deliver merchandise and furnish the shop. These factors depend on many other things, such as: how many SKUs you carry, how far your warehouse is, and whether your displays have additional requirements.

In general, your merchandising strategy will help you organize your inventory, reduce the need to markdown items or run into out-of-stock issues, and enhance the shopping experience for your customers.

No Boring Socks
Sockshop & Shoe Co. Downtown Santa Cruz​​

Tips on Using Retail Merchandising to Increase Sales

How you set up your store and plan traffic can influence a customer's decision to buy. People want to see how products work and are highly affected by what they see. At least 40% of your customers can be swayed by some kind of visual or informational cue, like the way your product is packaged, where it is placed, or how your salespeople talk to them.

Consider these successful retail merchandising tactics to help boost sales:

Make it a Pleasant Shopping Experience

Customer satisfaction is the key to repeat business, whether customers shop in person or online. Staff members should be ready to greet and assist consumers as soon as they enter the store. Customers should be able to quickly find both the products they need and additional exciting choices.

Keep Branding Consistent

A strong brand image can do wonders for a business. It's the secret to setting your products apart from the competition. It also involves storytelling, which can make your brand more memorable by appealing to your audience's emotions.

Group Products That Sell Well Together

You can group products by: 
- Theme
- Price (under or over a certain amount)
- Purpose (formal, casual, party)
- Target customer 
- Color

Grouping products that sell well together can help customers see how one product works with another. This can help drive sales by giving customers an idea of what else they could buy simultaneously.

Use Symmetry

Symmetry is great for drawing attention to products, creating height variations, and adding interest to displays. It helps break up the merchandise and keeps things interesting for the customer’s eye. 

Highlight High-margin and Popular Products

You want customers to buy the products with the highest profit margin so make it easy for them to find these. Place them in prominent areas of your shop or on display pieces like mannequins. You could devote custom shelving to call attention to your bestsellers or new items.

Change Displays Regularly

Displays should be changed out regularly to keep things fresh. Customers will be eager to check out the latest offerings. To remember what displays to put out, schedule them in advance using a calendar.

If you need ideas for arranging your displays, keep Audrey's five essential visual merchandising tips in mind:

1. Displays should always reflect your store's brand identity and aesthetic.
2. Don't stress over coming up with an idea; instead, just let creativity come to you naturally, and don’t second guess it.
3. Keep your display well-balanced and make use of negative space.
4. Showcase products that consumers don't usually look for.
5. Always have a concept or theme in mind to keep your display cohesive.

Provide Outstanding Customer Service

The entire buying process should be smooth and pleasurable for the customer. However, only some consumers are the same, so tailoring your sales approach to each individual can boost revenue and encourage repeat purchases.

Some consumers prefer a quick in-and-out experience; some people prefer to be left alone until they are prepared to pay or ask a question, while others will want to engage in conversation. Keep an eye out for how customers act when they enter the store, and try to model your greeting after it.

Top 3 Dont's in Visual Merchandising

When it comes to visual merchandising, there are some basics that can’t go wrong. But what about what not to do when setting up your store?

Here are three definite “dont’s” in visual merchandising. 

Don’t Make it too Busy

When the display becomes too busy, it can be distracting and confusing for customers. A cluttered display sends the message that your store has too much inventory or that you don’t know how to organize your products effectively. It also creates a lot of competition among products for attention.

Your goal should be to create an organized, clean, and simple display.

You don’t have to have every item in your display match perfectly, but there should be some sort of consistency and leave room for the eyes to rest.

Don’t Include Tags or Hangers in Your Display

These items will only clutter up your display and distract from what you want people to see — the product! Instead, use signage or other props as part of the overall theme of your display. Make sure that all signage matches the products under or around it.

Don’t Be Intimidated by Cross Merchandising Products

Don’t be scared of experimenting with your display. Cross-merchandising is a great way to bring more attention to specific items that may not be selling as well as others. If you have a clearance rack full of items that aren’t selling very well, try pairing them with other products that are.

A well-defined merchandising strategy can work as a sensory experience for your shoppers, which brings them back again and again. Investing time and effort in merchandising will always pay back in spades! 

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