Gothic Churches and Retail Displays

The art of the merchandising display is the focus this week at the Global Shop conference in Las Vegas. There are giant bottles of Knob Creek, Zombie Baby Dolls, hair care products, lottery ticket dispensers and an unimaginable host of other products. Some of it is terrific, some of it is terrible and most of it mundane. What strikes me is that while all of it is eye catching, it isn’t always the kind of thing to engage the shopper.  Product features are clear and brand identification is almost always an easy task, but there is little that tugs at the heart strings, little that tells a story. And it is the lack of underlying meaning that has me thinking about history and what we can learn, and apply, from its study. Retail displays specifically have me thinking about the Gothic churches of Europe.

The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, 
walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger 
openings in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside. Abbot 
Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is one of the 
first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the 
glass and kept a journal of what was done. He truly believed that the 
presence of beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God.

The works served several purposes aside from the architectural. First, for a population that was almost wholly illiterate, the depictions of 
bible stories would serve as illustrations and lessons for the priests and 
bishops to point to during mass. Second, they created a holy ambience that would focus the congregation. The 
stained glass would change the color and quality of the light in the knave, 
giving what to the peasant would seem an ethereal glow. This created an 
atmosphere “primed” for worship, convenient since most of those present 
wouldn’t understand the Latin lessons anyway. Third, symbolically they represented a membrane between the sacred and the 
profane. Through the window was the real world. Sin, hate, pain, suffering. 
The stained glass was a shield from that into the sanctuary of the church 
and instead made the window a symbolic looking glass into the Heavens. Quite a lot of structural and functional utility in such a simple concept.

And so I return to retail and the displays we find in them. What works well lifts the spirit. It does more than catch they eye, it transforms the experience. The pieces that don’t work are simply loud. They impart feature information, but tell no story. They are indeed noticeable at fifty feet, but they don’t invite you to come in.

As with the retail space in its entirety, its elements should, ideally, come together to tell a story that is symbolically charged, drawing the consumer and/or shopper into the story, captivating them and providing information about the human condition, not just the product. For example, the Makita display here at the conference encourages the viewer to physically engage with the tools, but it does far more. It is made of steel, rivets and brushed, beaten metal on proud display. It reflects in every element of its design the idealized imagery of labor, adding a sense of value to the professional construction worker and a sense of mythic masculinity to the novice. The display tells a story about the person viewing it, not just the product, creating a partnership between the customer and the brand.

Just like the experience that the stained glass and sweeping arches of the Gothic cathedral was designed to convey, so to should retail. And this holds true whether you are Frito Lay, Miller Lite, or Sony. That means understanding that shoppers and consumers do more than seek out information and features. They may not be able to articulate those needs in a survey or traditional interview, but they are there. It’s just a matter of uncovering them and turning them into something more than a sign.

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