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How to Build a Grocery Display – Merchandising that Sells!

They might seem simple enough, but great displays can make or break a grocery store. So learning how to build a grocery display is one of the first things successful grocery store managers need to learn.

A great grocery display has 2-3 products that are likely to be purchased together. It needs to look abundant, with contrasting colors and textures between the items. It also needs to have some depth and height to it, but not contain so much product as to tie up too much money or take months to sell through everything.

But there’s a lot more to know about grocery merchandising and displays. So here, we’re getting into the how and why of grocery store merchandising and displays. We’ll talk about how a display needs to look in order to sell product and the psychology behind it you need to be aware of.

Specifically, though, we’re walking through exactly how to build a grocery display.

Let’s get going!

What is a merchandise display?

A merchandise display is any type of display in a retail store in addition to the regular aisles and shelves. That could be any an endcap display, a free-standing display in the middle of the store, displays outside the store near the entrances, or smaller displays near the check stands.

Unlike the regular aisles in your store, these displays are designed to draw special attention.

In many cases, they are temporary displays that change out every few weeks, or perhaps seasonally. So they aren’t intended as year-round displays.

In that sense, this works great for products you buy on a discount.

That way you can build a big display and pass some (or all) of that discount on to the customers in the hopes of doubling or tripling the sales of that product(s) over what you might sell normally.

Do I need a lot of product to build a grocery display?

In some cases, yes. There are ways around having a ton of product and we’ll get more into that below. But displays work best when they at least look abundant.

Think about it this way.

When you go to a store to buy a product, normally the shelf would be full of that product. But sometimes we get there and there’s just 1 left. Often, from a psychological standpoint, we feel unsure about buying it when there’s just one left.

There’s just something inherently wired into our brains to not want to buy something that’s not abundant in quantity. It’s not logical, it’s intuitive. We might feel like it’s old, or it’s the one that no one else wanted.

Displays need to be the same way; it needs to look full of product. Abundant, fresh, and colorful. That also means it will need to be maintained throughout the day and during the entire promotion; it’s not set it and forget it.

How much product do you need to build a display?

Of course, that varies a lot depending on if you are building your display on a fixture, or just stacking cases on the floor. Generally speaking, these days, most smart retailers use fixtures or shelving to build displays.

That way it’s much easier to make a display look abundant without investing a ton of money into product that (in some cases) might take weeks or months to sell. It also makes it much easier to keep the display looking good throughout the promotion.

Here’s a good example of how NOT to build a display.

I took this picture in a Whole Foods store some years back.

There is a theme here (low-carb), but there are soy tortilla chips, 3 different kinds of bread, breakfast cereal, and some sort of (presumably low-carb) cookbook.

It’s a jumbled mess.

Yes, whoever built it probably thought people on a low-carb diet (Atkins was the flavor of the day back then) might want all those items.

But it isn’t cohesive. None of those things really go together and low-carb is the only common denominator.

A more focused approach would have been to have the chips with jars of salsa and maybe fresh avocados from produce. Or have the cereal along with aseptic containers of unsweetened almond milk.

In short, have fewer products that people will naturally want to buy together. Even on a low-carb diet, I may not be looking for 2 different kinds of bread, soy chips, and breakfast cereal.

How many different items should go on 1 display?

A display needs about 2-3 different products in total.  It’s OK to have different flavors of the same item but don’t have more than 3 completely different products on 1 display. 

So why 2-3?

If you only have 1 product, then you are forced to buy a LOT of that product from your distributor. If you misjudged the demand for that 1 product then it can take you a LONG time to sell through it.

Then you find yourself moving the display to different parts of the store so it looks fresh, but every time you touch a product, you lose money.

Let me repeat that; every time you touch a product, you lose money. Ideally, you want to build it, sell it, and then order something new when it’s gone.

But too many products and the display lose focuses and gets junky.

The related part is hugely important too.

Every day in stores I see displays that make NO sense. I see boxes of pasta, not with jars of pasta sauce or bottles of wine or even non-refrigerated containers of parmesan cheese, but things like jarred pickles.

In short, it’s grocers putting up displays of whatever they happen to have the most of in the back room, thinking they are being smart by getting the products out on the floor, but then wondering why 2 weeks later it didn’t sell.

It makes NO sense.

You want to motivate your customers, not through words, but intuitively, to buy everything on your display. If I see a brand of pasta I like, I might buy it if it’s on sale. But I’m VERY unlikely to buy a jar of pickles next to it, no matter how deep the discount it.

I would, however, buy a jar of pasta sauce and a bottle of wine (and if those auxillary products aren’t on sale, it helps your margins!)

How to build a grocery display without a lot of product

Sometimes, either for budget reasons or just quantity on hand, we find ourselves needing to build a display without a ton of product.

So there are a few good tricks to know when you’re wanting to look abundant without actually being abundant.

Sometimes I find this easier building displays with cardboard cases of products.

The reason for that is I can take 8 (cases are often 12 of something) out of a case, leaving 4 to provide structural support. If I have 12 cases of something, doing that method, and free stacking the individual boxes, I can easily make that look like 36 cases, or something close to it.

On a wooden fixture, you could also dedicate a shelf to demo samples of the product or stacks of coupons for the product or other product information or literature your customers might be interested in.

The picture above is a Valentine’s display I took a picture of in an Atlanta Whole Foods in 2005.

It might look like a TON of product. But in actuality, those champagne cases only have 4 bottles each in them and the cases of truffles are empty and all the individual boxes are just stacked loosely on top.

It’s a giant freestanding display that is really made with a fairly small amount of product. It makes a statement without tying up a huge amount of money in inventory.

What are the 4 elements of visual merchandising?

While you will have signs up on your displays, and on some occasions have an employee sampling the products, the display itself needs to tell a story. You tell that story by combining different elements of visual marketing.

Here are the 4 elements of visual marketing:

  1. Color (you must have color breaks to make product delineations clear)
  2. Touch and feel (different packaging provides needed contrast too)
  3. How the products related to each other (they must make sense together)
  4. The size and shape of the display (it deeps depth and height)

Visual merchandising is more than just the products. You have to think not only about what products go good together, but you also have to think about how they look side by side or above or below.

Bananas and blueberries look good together because of the contrast of both color and shape. Red bags of tortilla chips wouldn’t look good with red jars of salsa because of the lack of contrast in the color.

Check out this handy infographic which goes more in-depth into these concepts.

Why do grocery stores rearrange everything?

In short, times change, trends change, products change. Grocery stores (and retailers in general) need to keep up with the times or be left behind.

In the world of non-dairy milk, for instance, in 1990, soy milk was all the rage. I’m guessing that’s now the slowest seller, way behind almond milk and coconut milk.

If stores still had huge displays of soy milk, customers would flee to their competitors.

The other big reason to do what retailers refer to as a reset is to keep things fresh, and yes; to keep customers guessing and (more importantly) walking every aisle rather than cherrypicking down a shopping list.

When customers (like me) cherry-pick specific items and don’t go up and down every aisle, they don’t often run across as many impulse purchases as they would otherwise.

Finding ways to get customers to add unintended items to their purchase builds sales and what’s called basket size (the average amount per shop customers spend).

That’s why grocery stores change stuff around in a major way a couple of times a year.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we took a look at the world of grocery store displays.

We examined why grocery stores have displays. But we also looked at what to do if you don’t have a lot of product or a small budget to order product. We also looked at the psychology behind a good display to see why some sell tons of products while others collect dust.

Ultimately, we broke down EXACTLY how to build a grocery display. That way your store can sell more, help more people, and make your business more successful.

How have you been building your displays?

All pictures taken in Whole Foods were taken by me

Jeff Campbell