By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine
Shop window displays could be cast in darkness under new rules for High Street retailers to cut energy use. But it would mean turning out the lights on the often overlooked art of the window dresser.
Light it up
A pair of sparkly red shoes the height of a double-decker bus isn't a sight you see every day. The extra-large ruby slippers were part of Harrods' recent Christmas window-dressing scheme - along with a glam Dorothy and a bejewelled Scarecrow.
Such elaborate displays hint at the emphasis some retailers put on shop windows as a means of enticing potential customers. But now shops are being asked to consider turning off the lights on all-night displays to save energy.
From April, retailers of a certain size will have to register for the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme and, from next year, pay for the carbon they emit. According to the Environment Agency, switching off the lights on all night displays could be a solution.
It would be a set back for the ubiquitous shop window display, which, according to Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium, have been around for longer than windows themselves.
"Displaying wares in an attractive and appealing way is actually as old as retailing itself," he says.
But the modern version of this practice - "visual merchandising" - was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, when plate glass began to provide protection for merchandise.
Windows have long been used to tempt shoppers inside
Shop window displays may help prettify shopping thoroughfares, but any savvy retailer has the ulterior motive of self promotion.
"It's like a 24-hour advertisement, even when the actual store closes," says Sarah Manning, a visual merchandiser who works for many big name retailers. "[Turning off the lights] is going to hinder that in quite a big way."
After all, the lights are what allow a window dressers' work to be seen - especially once the sun has gone down.
"When you add spotlight elements, it's a way of leading customers' eye around the window space," says Ms Wardley. "If you put a light on something, you get a magical display."
And magic is what some window dressers believe they help sprinkle to otherwise unremarkable High Streets.
"It's got to be exciting and inspirational for the customer," says Ms Manning. "It's kind of a theatre."
Procedures vary by store, but visual merchandisers consult everything from high fashion magazines to hot cultural items to determine their schemes.
"Ideas come from everywhere," says Janet Wardley, head of visual display at high-end fashion shop Harvey Nichols. "You just end up like a sponge to pick up things."
Behind every window is a simple motivation - sales. Shops, particularly smaller ones, gauge their windows' success by whether the featured products sell. According to Ms Manning, stores may highlight underperforming products to make them look "exciting and glamorous, to give the illusion of a 'must-have' item".
"It's making a statement about that particular retailer and the image it wants to portray," says Mr Dodd. "It's much, much more than displays of products. They're works of art."
At Harvey Nichols, the window displays have been an integral part of the store since its inception 200 years ago.
"Our purpose is to promote Harvey Nichols as a brand," Ms Wardley says. "In doing that, we show products that we stock."
But it's not just fashion Meccas that put effort into their window displays - charity shops and chain stores alike use the same principles.
'Tis the season to showcase wares
Every element of a window display is carefully considered and the products very intentionally placed to create a focal point. Items are arranged in "pyramid," "step", and "symmetrical or asymmetrical" groupings of threes or fives at the customer's eye level.
"I don't think anyone really questions it," says Jonathan Baker, a senior lecturer and course director at the University of the Arts, London. "All of these things are really important factors."
But although the shopper might not consider the influence of displays, shops plan accordingly. Christmas window schemes can be designed a full year in advance, and at large shops, can take nearly a week to put into place.
With all this planning comes cost. A brand-new flagship shop with a large visual merchandising budget could spend as much as £1m on its launch windows and in-store displays. New window concepts cost much less, but considering that the most famous shops change their windows every four to six weeks, it certainly adds up.
According to Ms Wardley, Harvey Nichols teams design, build and install their own windows and try to re-use materials to keep to a tight budget, rotating schemes to other branches of the store.
But although it might be cheaper - and the Environment Agency believes, more energy-efficient - to turn off the illumination at night, there would be an impact of dimming the high street lights.
CRC ENERGY EFFICIENCY SCHEME
Starting April 2010, businesses that use more than 6,000 Mega Watt hours of electricity a year must register and reduce carbon emissions or potentially be given a stiff penalty
The Harvey Nichols displays use theatrical lighting that isn't necessarily energy-efficient, but the store has recently reduced window-display wattage and opted for some LED lights. The display lights are left on during the hours people are out-and-about, but get switched off from midnight until shortly before the shop's 10am opening as an environmental and cost-saving measure.
Mr Dodd believes that darkening all the high street stores would have economic implications for nearby restaurants, pubs and theatres.
"You would find, if you spoke to town centre managers, they would have some real concerns about blacked-out town centres," he says. "Having blacked-out shops seems less appealing and safe."
Customer appeal is what matters. Shoppers need to be drawn into the store, and if they happen to be entertained along the way, the visual merchandisers will have done their job.