By Margaret Sullivan

This article first appeared in the December 2010 issue of Teacher Librarian

Last summer, my 8 year old nephew and I finished a day of new adventures with a trip to one of the largest Barnes and Noble stores in the country. As I watched Jack discover the store, it occurred to me how easily he maneuvered about and how quickly he found the second Harry Potter book he wanted as a souvenir of our day. Along the way Jack found numerous other books of interest, which lead to a lively discussion about his favorite stories and the books on his summer reading list.

The occasion provided an excellent example of visual merchandising’s impact and how self-sufficient young people are at finding what they want when given helpful clues. I thought about how to translate that experience into school libraries, where a wealth of products is waiting to be found. We can take a few pointers from retail and merchandise resources so students can enjoy the pleasure of information discovery.

The first issue every school library must address is space. How do you create space for merchandising? I have two thoughts on this issue. First, there is the simple, numeric model, the dollars per square foot rule. In retail, nothing stays on their valuable floor space unless it is paying for itself; so merchandisers must ask: Are customers buying it? If you take this approach in your library, you have to decide not only what your students’ need but what do they use. Weeding collections for relevance to contemporary students is obvious. Just do it. Get rid of the resources that are not being used and do not complement your curriculum. Or, if the resources are current, offer them to an appropriate classroom. If you simply cannot part with these items, put them in temporary storage and wait to see if you really miss them.

What is just clutter?

A few years ago the administrators at a college asked me to consult on why students were not using their library. The library was across campus from the dorms. It was a wireless campus and students were basically “shopping on-line” for information. Initiating a trip anywhere means your destination is a place you want to reach, and unfortunately, walking to this library would be a lot like going 10 miles out of your way to buy milk.

The library’s layout was very traditional with long rows of shelving on the first floor and numerous, empty study carrels with stiff, wooden chairs adorning the perimeter. “Why are you keeping all of them?” I asked. “Students used to use them.” was the answer. Past tense. It was not the way students were currently working. That afternoon, I observed about 50 students were gathered around computer workstations on task chairs and clustered around several large tables apparently working together.

My second thought on merchandising is: “What do you mean you don’t have space to merchandise?” “What could possibly more important than letting your students know what you have to offer?”

Ten years ago your library might have been the only store in town, but today, you have big competition. Wal-Mart has come to town and they are selling ease of use, 24/7 access, and have flashy advertising. So what if you can’t find a knowledgeable sales clerk. Students will just select the information that has the best shelf position and is a popular brand. Convenient perhaps, but we are not turning out learners who can navigate through a complex mall of ideas and resources and come out with a bag full of valuable information.

What to merchandise?

Libraries have two merchandising opportunities. The first is place, both the physical and virtual aspects of your library and the second is content and resources.

Does your library have a brand identity? Does it look and feel like a place your “customers” want to frequent? Just as people decide to enter a store based on the impression they form looking through the windows, what do students see when they look into your library? You want them to see an active environment with students engaged, as well as, a floor plan that considers activity and content adjacencies. Multimedia production can complement a computer research area and as a bonus, it is an interesting activity to watch through your front window.

Looking through your windows do students see displays that have a theme or tell a story? Is there graphic signage that supports that theme? Can they differentiate the “departments” and know which “department” best supports their needs? Do they intuitively know the best place to read or the tables that best facilitate a collaboration project? Using color, textures, balance, repetition, lines and shapes along with furniture placement-you can create small clearly understood areas within the library.

Lighting is a critical tool to create ambiance and highlight key resources. Does natural sunlight or an overall wash of fluorescent illuminate the area? Have you used accent lighting to draw attention to displays or special parts of the collection along the walls? Does the reading or multi-media production area have task lighting that enhances the work being done there?

Has priority wall space to the left and right of the entrance been used to communicate? Is there a focal point further back in the library that draws students into the space? Could students walk in and immediately locate books of interest to them? Are there long rows of shelves like a warehouse or has the content been split into smaller, less intimidating clusters? Mobile shelving allows you to move and focus attention on sections of the collection. In retail, it is called “soft aisles,” and it encourages people to move more freely around a space. These visually interesting floor plans demand signage.

Merchandise resources

Creating signage must start with sign holders. Handwritten signs taped to walls, end panels or doors are ridiculed in retail and should be just as frowned on in libraries. Floor to ceiling sign holders can be placed anywhere in your library. Study the placement of retail signage and how it communicates and influences your movement in a store. Apply the same process in your library.

Computer generated messages, illustrated with clip art or photographs are an expectation today. Generating well written, easy to understand signs with artwork and a reasonable amount of white space is a skill you need in the library. It is probably a skill that a student volunteer could master in very little time and enjoy doing for you. You probably have access to pre-printed, graphic signs, shelf labels and posters, but sometimes , the most meaningful signs in your library are those you create yourself.

Another way to entice students explore your library resources would be to create inquiry-based questions or problems to enrich Dewey classification signs. Copywriters for retail signage rely on a wealth of creative tools to attract attention such as alliteration, puns, quotes, rhyming words or familiar phrases. Using just a few of these writing tricks can create a unique way to self-direct students through your library.

Virtual merchandising

E-merchandising is exploding, and electronic merchandising tools can be used in your library as well. Kiosks outfitted with large monitors can be used as both an instructional tool and a communication board. In the multimedia area you can loop information on available software, to preview on-line resources or preview clips from student presentations. Kiosks are also a great way to alert students to new resources or programs in the library using the scroll bar.

Retail merchandisers love to leverage blogs, FaceBook, and YouTube in their communication mix. You should employ these resources as well, and just like retail, monitor what is being said about your products, programs and services.

A library blog should encourage students to write about resources they have successfully used for research or to complete projects. The blog could also be used as a tool for book discussions, particularly non-fiction material that supplements course work . Students writing to endorse or critique resources could create a lively dialogue among peers.

Focusing a class on how to augment their student iGoogle page by including key library resources should be offered at the beginning of each seminar. This personal connection is similar to the programs retail stores develop to build loyalty and promote patron frequency. Encouraging students to participate in the development of promotional content can be educational and allows them to express their creativity. Student YouTube videos would be an entertaining way to tour your resources.

Websites are also a great merchandising tool. Retail sites have a great deal of interaction, are designed to encourage customers to visit frequently, and products practically jump off the screen. Promoting your on-line resources, accompanied by links, can help students working remotely to explore new information.

Leveraging what works

Teenagers are experienced and sophisticated consumers. They are projected to spend $208 billion in 2011. They have access to a broad selection of retail environments that are branded specifically for them, including electronics, toys, casual wear, and communication. Leveraging retail techniques with students is a way to invite them to explore your library resources. Try using the visual merchandising tools to make resource both exciting and fun to find. Children, like my nephew Jack, should walk into the library with anticipation, eager to start information exploration.

Bell, Judith, and Kate Ternus. Silent Selling, Best Practices and Effective Strategies in Visual Merchandising.
Second ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.

Morgan, Tony. Visual Merchandising, Window and in-store displays for retail.
First ed. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2008. Print.

“Teen Spending and Web Usage Up.” www.eMarketer.com. N.p., July 2007. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

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