The Racetrack (part of Chapter 3)

The senior management at Kohl’s always had a vision of their future prototype store: clean, bright, and easy to shop in. It was imperative that our customers who went around our ‘racetrack’, or the somewhat circular main aisles that go around a big-box retailer like Kohl’s, had a shopping experience that was enjoyable and hassle-free.

In comparison to the often excessive attention that traditional department stores paid toward visual merchandising in the stores, with tremendous time, energy and expense spent on lavish mannequin presentations, dramatic lighting, and ever-changing shops, we took the opposite approach. At Kohl’s, we basically resisted the notion of spending valuable time and resources in creating ‘presentational theater’ in the stores to highlight the merchandise(despite my occasional Macy’s-taught inclinations to the contrary). Rather, we focused on keeping it simple, with a minimal emphasis on what is known in the business as Visual Merchandising. We tended to spend much more time on keeping the shopping experience simple, rather than trying to ‘wow’ customers into buying something by creating a great visual ‘splash’ in the front of a department.

Under the direction of Jerry Neal, who joined us from Mervyn’s, the Kohl’s visual merchandising strategy was essentially ‘less is more’: fewer mannequins, scaled back versions of Christmas ‘trim’ and other holidays, and a laser-beam focus on making the shopping experience for our customer as efficient and enjoyable as possible. For example, there was a much greater emphasis on clear and consistent signing not only in key areas in the store, but also at all the merchandise fixtures. Consistency was key.

Over time, we established a ‘cookie-cut’ approach to providing direction to the store on how the merchandise should be ideally presented. While initially there was some resistance to using the discount store word ‘plan-o-gram’, that’s what they eventually became known as. This was particularly helpful as we opened more and more stores; our storeline executives needed to be operators as opposed to merchants, to insure that all the goods got taken out of the trailers, moved quickly out to the selling floor, put on fixtures, signed and ready to be sold. If you notice the next time you visit a Kohl’s, almost all of the fixtures are on wheels, which allows the department supervisors and managers make floor moves quickly and efficiently.

There was also a major emphasis on cubic capacity and getting as much inventory out on the floor as you could, with the rationale that you can’t sell what’s in the stockroom. And that with more inventory on the floor, there was a better chance that you had the customer’s size presented, a further improvement to the shopping experience. In the mid 1990s, major initiatives were launched to increase the capacity of all fixtures with shelves, replacing three-tiered tables with five and six-tiered tables, basically doubling selling floor capacity overnight. The strategy had a major positive impact on the selling of key folded items, like tee shirts, polo shirts, henleys, turtlenecks, and the like.

Around 1999, we began experimenting with developing a more formal program of highlighting some of our best selling holiday gift items and other merchandise during key promotional events (such as Pillow Week) in the main aisles of the store. This approach, however, was not without controversy. There were those who pointed out that sales dramatically increased for items featured on the aisles. Their argument was it’s the bottom line that ultimately matters. But the dissenters didn’t see it that way. They would say, “What about the customer? We keep hearing complaints that the fixtures are too tight in the departments. They’ve literally become a stumbling block for people trying to shop.” As I recall, Larry was more often in that camp, and would roll his eyes on store visits during a major promotion when the Store Manager of one of the Milwaukee stores, for example, got very aggressive and stacked four-color boxes of small electrics in the middle of the aisle.

Rather than scrap the idea altogether, however, Larry’s initial reticence evolved into a compromise strategy that has been enormously successful: widen the aisles and formalize the program. It evolved into the Table and Tower program, which was rolled out during 1999-2000. This was not only a way to get maximum use of our floor space (by going up), but it also had the advantage of putting the merchandise right at the eye level of our average customer (a five foot five woman). Primarily set up during the Christmas holiday period, these displays featured impulse items, everything from boxed picture frames to candles to games to gift boxes of gold earrings. The visual merchandising department used the top of the towers to help “Christmasfy” the store on a limited budget. For the most part, this simply involved decorating them with cheery holiday graphics which also helps to put shoppers into a spending mood.

And playing into the whole concept of making the shopping experience fast and efficient, the merchants continue to highlight merchandise in boxes as a ‘gifts-to-go’ station. These include lots of different kinds of products – I recall at one point puzzles became a very hot item – and then there were the perennial favorites such as soap and bath sets, candle sets, perfume sets. Says Montgomery, “All you have to do is buy it, put some gift wrap on it, and you have a ready-made gift.”

Fast forward to 2007, it is remarkable to now visit Kohl’s traditional department store competitors and see how much they have changed to more closely resemble the ‘less is more’ approach to visual merchandising.