Is Instagram retail’s new best friend?

As the heart and soul of retailing further evolves, stores and the essence of shopping will continue to morph in unimaginable ways. However, amidst the storm of change, there is one aspect of shopping that remains pure, constant and motivational―the aspirational moment.

For some, an aspirational moment is walking through the ABC Carpet Emporium in New York City, where the floor plan wends like an enchanting street of quaint shops with exotic finds; even the scent is reminiscent of faraway bazaar. Here, the shopper is entwined in a web of curated inspiration, resembling something of a retail treasure hunt, enticed by the romantic notion to leave with a souvenir.

For other shoppers, the classic grandeur of Harrods can cause the heart to miss a beat. The luxurious store interior, varying from vaulted gold ceilings to intricate dark wood moulding and polished marble, transports the shopper to a new destination on every floor. The experience catapults one back in time, to the feeling of a luxury cruise ship on a faraway voyage.

Whether it’s a bustling market in San Miguel Mexico or a tiny family-owned shop off the beaten path, these shopping experiences have one thing in common: they thrust our emotions into overdrive. Shoppers in this day and age wanderlust for some form of tangible satisfaction they don’t get from shopping online. They are yearning for more than the banal chore of just ‘shopping’―they are looking to be transported and to experience the feelings of discovery. Consumers crave distinctive products that can’t be found everywhere; they value the story behind the brand and merchandise. They look for Instagram-worthy displays or a retail store that is not just a place to purchase goods, but a playground, rich with technology. In short, they are searching for an aspirational moment.  

The popularity of sharing these aspirational moments with hundreds of followers via Instagram has spawned another popular marketplace. The creative imagery of people living adventurous lives on Instagram can taunt our aspirational senses, as we find ourselves in the never-ending search of that perfect moment to share. Much like the editorial pages of a magazine, Instagram provides viewers with a steady stream of curated images where grammers can share their travels, food, projects, shopping finds or latest experience. Incredibly, this social media platform has now become host to one of the most successful shopping networks showcasing millions of products, window displays, and merchandising stories. With the help of filters, geotags, hashtags and shopping tags, Instagram makes capturing a moment not only enchanting but searchable for shoppers. It has become the new form of ‘display’ for retail stores, with a single post racking upwards of 68K likes and hundreds of comments. 

The good news for retailers is that Instagram provides more mileage for existing store displays, opening a new chapter for retailers to convey stories about their products in a bespoke and memorable style. Windows and store displays are not just for the person walking down the street; visual merchandising has embraced the social media’s format to be grammable.

Grammable visual merchandising can mean either creating specialty displays for the sole purpose of consumer Instagramming, or retail displays designed specifically for the brand’s Instagram feed. Today, designing displays for Instagram incorporate a strong degree of storytelling and theatrics; posts must be visually stimulating through the use of composition and colour, and translate well for the scale of a smartphone. Here, traditional display skills resound. It goes beyond designing a beautiful still-life―the product presentation must perform like work of art or moment in time. Using advanced display techniques that incorporate colour, symmetry, visual contrast, repetition, humour, nostalgia or shock value can prove extremely effective. Great displays must tantalise the senses, even from the lit screen of a small smart phone.

Inside a brick and mortar store, Instagram opportunities can engage and entertain consumers using a number of methods. Perhaps it is a photo-op that allows friends to hop into a scene and become a part of the store’s Instagram feed―be it a graphic or illustration. Posing with a life-size celebrity or standing near a motivational ‘quote of the day’ on the wall is more than a mere snapshot. Seasonal displays can create opportunities for shoppers to play and experiment. For example, retail store Story created a Halloween skull made from Converse sneakers that materialised from the camera’s view.

Brands can stream live stories to give consumers insight into a product or promotion, to share events, or spread excitement about a product launch or demonstration. The beauty is, all of these tactics can be searchable by a simple hashtag, enabling the post to gain even more traction.

According to Instagram’s data, 60 per cent of IG users discover products through the platform and 50 percent of users follow at least one business account. Instagram’s ability to reach millions of shoppers in minutes makes it a powerful tool―one that retailers must use actively in order to successfully connect their brands and products with consumers. The ability to create and share aspirational moments, within a branded context, has caused a seismic shift in shopping culture and outreach.

Instagram also provides endless amounts of inspiration and market intel to retailers and visual merchandisers themselves. No longer is it necessary to trek from store to store to comp shop in order to understand our competitors and the current trends―all of this information is now available through the eyes of friends, influencers, brands and celebrities. Additionally, users can sort and save a library of posts for inspiration under Instagram’s collections feature in the user profile. Saving posts to collections by name is a useful tool for future reference and backtracking. By tapping the bookmark icon underneath a post you can direct it to one of your saved collections, eliminating the need to screenshot it.

In short, Instagram has changed the landscape of many industries, and visual merchandising and display is not exempt. It’s up to retailers and visual merchandisers to continue finding ways to integrate the Instagram experience into their brick and mortar stores and maximize its potential. Don’t underestimate the connection between Instagram and shopping at a brick and mortar store, both immerse the consumer into a flurry of aspiration. Happy gramming!

Anne Kong is an educator and designer specialising in visual merchandising, exhibition design and special events. She is an associate professor and program coordinator for the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design Program at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

innovation, design, trends + inspiration from the International Housewares Association (IHA) and the International Home + Housewares Show