The History of Visual Merchandising


Visual merchandising may be a modern term, but its application has existed long before there was ever a set of words to describe it.

Early Traders

Humans have been trading since the beginning of time – think of bartering. But as a greater diversity of goods became available, a new value method was required. Money, in its various forms (eg. beads, cowry shells, coins, etc), became the universal medium of exchange.

Merchants of earlier times would also arrange their goods in way that would attract customers – the ripest, most fragrant fruit up top; the biggest catch of the day up front and so on…

Not much has changed since our early trading days, but several millennia of practice have allowed us to almost perfect the art of selling.

The First Stores

Pre-1800s, the retail store served more of a functional purpose than that of turning sales – the ultimate aim of visual merchandising. Rather than displaying merchandise in a store’s front, traders would fetch the item a customer required from a back room. The customer knew what they wanted, instead of items being suggested to them.

Signage of the time was also very simplistic with the shop name being displayed in very large typeface.

Retail in the 1800s

Stores during the period were characterised by cluttered, unattractive factory outlets. These were more open spaces for factory owners to sell their excess, imperfect and damaged stock than they were actual stores. There was merchandise, but it was hardly presented in a visually appealing manner. The factory outlets were also located far enough from cities to operate competition-free, while close enough to be accessible to customers.


The 1800s were also characterised by the Industrial Revolution. Ending in 1840, this period had a profound effect on early retail, allowing for technological advancements in the manufacturing of iron and glass. The introduction of fittings like skylights gave rise to enclosed arcades, creating a more visually elaborate shopping experience. But this didn’t extend into the stores lining the arcades, so customers became strolling observers – otherwise known as window shoppers.

Visual Merchandising in the 1900s

Retailers slowly realised that they would be more successful if they followed the arcade’s lead. They began displaying their merchandise in more ornate settings to attract the customer’s attention. Merchandising, as a result, became more visual. And so visual merchandising was born.

Industrialisation now meant that shop windows could be larger, and lighting fixtures could be tailored for displays. Themes were introduced, with miniature worlds being created around merchandise, which would eventually extend to the shop’s interior to tell a cohesive story.

Gone were the days of merchandise being kept haphazardly on the shop floor. Display tools like pedestals, stands, shelves and mannequins were being employed more and more. Telltale signs were also incorporated to tell customers what the merchandise in the window display couldn’t – like information about sales, new stock and so on.

Today in the Visual Merchandising World

Visual merchandising has grown into an industry in its own right, encompassing a wide range of techniques that are used across all retail sectors. It has, in fact, gone beyond the pure visual, stimulating all the senses as a means to a selling end.


Whether shoppers are looking for a bargain or sought-after item, or simply going window shopping, it is the retailer’s job to ensure that they have a positive experience that will ultimately result in a purchase.

Want to learn how to master these techniques? Contact VM Central to find out about our visual merchandising courses

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