Has this ever happened to you? You enter a showroom to look at the newest items from your favorite vendor. Everything looks good and you’re tempted to buy it all, but you show restraint and eagerly await your first shipment. It arrives; you unpack it and put it out for sale. But something’s missing. The product displays don’t look as good as they did in the showroom. What’s the difference? It could be the fixturing.

Fixtures are the framework of effective product displays, and showrooms know how to use them. They choose fixtures to enhance their products rather than compete with them. They pay attention to the colors and finishes of their fixtures to ensure the products they are selling are complemented. They’ve figured out what works best for their products, and you can, too, with a little extra time spent gathering fixture information and ideas.

While there are many different kinds of fixtures, not all may be appropriate for your store. What you choose depends on the type and breadth of your product assortment, the style and feel of your store and its image.

There are two basic categories of fixtures—stocking and display. Stocking fixtures are used for multiples of a single product. They include round racks and binning systems. Display fixtures are designed to cross merchandise a selection of products in an arranged and persuasive display to draw customer attention.

Within those categories, you can choose custom designs or stock products. Custom fixtures are designed to a retailer’s specifications. They tend to be commissioned by multi-store retail operations such as department and high-end specialty stores. The most commonly used and requested fixtures are often available as stock items by fixture companies. Many cities have retail supply stores that carry a good selection of racks, wall systems and accessories.

Before you invest in fixtures, let’s start by defining the most popular types, what they are best used for, where to place them in the store, how to use them effectively and where to find them.

The perimeter walls in the store are important selling spaces. They are highly visible and by using them effectively, you can create height in your displays without blocking other products. Walls can accommodate a large amount of product and are ideal places to position shelving units, hutches and etageres. Because they offer so many options, wall fixtures qualify as both stocking and display fixtures.

Wall fixtures are available in a variety of styles. Some attach directly to the wall, while others are freestanding. The simplest of these is the wall standard that accommodates shelves, rods, and waterfall and straight-arm attachments. This system is versatile and can hold a variety of products. Slatwall panels also will accommodate a variety of attachments and are highly functional and adjustable, but they must be attached to the wall.

Wall units are typically used for soft goods such as quilts, place mats and napkins; they also work well for small objects, such as figurines, that can be shelved. Some fixture companies that provide nice wall units include:

  • Dave’s Displays (www.davesdisplays.com)—Elegant glass, wood and metal etageres and shelving units.
  • D.B. Imports, Ltd. (www.dbimports.com)—Traditional designs in wood wall units and etageres.
  • Archatrive (www.archatrive.com)—Versatile wood wall racks and display cabinets in a variety of finishes.

Freestanding fixtures inhabit the interior spaces in the store. The sky’s the limit when it comes to the variety of freestanding fixtures available. However, six feet is the height limit of these fixtures. When using freestanding fixtures, never block the customer’s view of the store but do use fixtures of different heights for interest.

Gondolas are two- or four-sided freestanding fixtures, often on casters. They come in various materials, including wood, metal and slatwall, and in different configurations, such as merchandising towers.

Customers can walk all around gondolas to see the merchandise presented on all sides. This makes gondolas particularly effective at selling product. They can be configured to hold just about anything—clothing, folded items, small items in bins, cards, signage and more.

Place gondolas in the middle to rear of the store. Since gondolas can be moved easily, you can shift them frequently to change up product arrangements. You can find a good selection of in-stock gondolas online at these companies:

  • Display Direct (www.displaydirect.com)—Several freestanding shelving units (such as the stairstep shelving shown above) and wood and metal gondolas.
  • Ecowood Retail Displays (www.ecowooddisplays.com)—Two- and four-sided gondola units in attractive reclaimed wood.

In recent years, tables have become a popular retail fixture because they are easy to merchandise. In addition to the single table, nesting tables are retail “must-haves.” They come in three different heights and slip under each other and fan out for more display space. They also can be used separately. Tiered or pyramid tables with three or four shelves are also very useful.

Tables are best used for folded, stackable or freestanding products, and are best placed at the front of the store as an introductory fixture and adjacent to aisles.

When using tables to display products, use risers or easels to vary the height of the items on display. Table displays need a point of view—one object that is primary and in the center. Position other products from high to low and overlap to create a display that moves the customer’s eye to each product featured.

You can find tables at antique stores or yard sales or through these fixture houses:

  • Specialty Wood Products (www.specwood.com)—Tables with slatted tops and painted legs.
  • Alpha Display Co., Inc. (www.alphadisplay.com)—Wood and metal tables in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Other containers, such as crates, baskets, trays and trunks, can add interest to a display as well as hold product. Baskets and trays are great for holding small items, while cubes and crates create height on tables and, when stacked, become freestanding displays.

Always be on the lookout for interesting containers at yard sales, antiques stores, estate sales, building demolition companies, and even at Goodwill, on eBay and in your own home. These unusual pieces add interest and fun to your store.

You’ll find some nice containers and interesting display pieces at these resources:

Display fixtures do more than just hold merchandise. Before you write your next order, know how you’re going to display the product when it arrives at your store. If you need a special fixture, find one. And on your next buying trip, if you see great display pieces, ask the vendors where they got them. Who knows? They might be able to supply you with them.

We asked retailers about their favorite display fixtures. While they use commercial fixtures for some products, many like to use “found” display fixtures to give their stores a country feel. Here are some of our readers’ favorites.

Angie Manson of Little Red Schoolhouse in Independence, Iowa, uses three old long, skinny and rusty metal tractor toolboxes with wooden lids to display CDs and sachets. She places them around the store on tables. “I was at my father-in-law’s farm one day, and I saw these boxes on his porch,” says Manson. “I like combining something rusty with something fresh and crisp.”

Amy Vickers of Seaside Country Store in Fenwick Island, Delaware, uses antiques inherited from her aunt and uncle who owned the store before her and accumulated a variety of antiques over the years. Her favorite fixture is an old wrought-iron bathtub, which she fills with packing peanuts and Lucite seashells to hold loose soaps. “I hate to see products all lined up in a row on shelves,” she says. “I use an old coffee grinder to accent my coffee and tea area.”

All year long, Philip Pascarella of Urban Moose in Calais, Maine, shops with an eye out for props to use in the store. He displays collections of napkins and place mats in several sizes of birch-bark canoes. Rings are displayed on small birch-bark logs, and shells and starfish in large brandy glasses. “I am always on the lookout for interesting display pieces and have fun figuring out how to use them,” says Pascarella.

Antique shops and flea markets prove fertile grounds for Sharon Mattern of American Harvest in Pleasanton, California. That’s where she finds the props to use in her store. Her favorite “fixtures” are antique mannequins on which she hangs jewelry and dresses in costume for Halloween and holiday occasions. “I like to use antiques all over the store,” she says. “Customers want to buy them, so I sell them. That keeps me looking for more.”

Marianne Barry of Old and Everlasting in Cazenovia, New York, is into home furnishings—antique benches, shutters, porch railings and doors to be exact. She uses the porch railings for hanging scarves, places benches on tables to create height, reworks shutters to serve as shelves for hanging signs, and positions doors to create room dividers. “When I travel, I always look for interesting objects to use in the store,” she says. “I use very few commercial fixtures.”

If there’s an old building being torn down in Monmouth, Illinois, you can bet John Kesinger will be there. He and wife, Diane, own Maple City Candy Company in Monmouth and have found ways to use old doors in their store. Kesinger rigged an old doctor’s office door, still sporting the doctor’s name and illuminated from behind, with wall brackets to hold shelves for figurines. He found used school lockers at the local college, removed the doors, inserted shelves and uses them to display sports items. “Doors are the entryway to someone’s imagination,” he says. “I develop themes around doors. They aren’t hard to find, and there are so many ways to use them.

Sharon Leicham is the author of Merchandising Your Way to Success and How to Sell to Women and is the creator and principal of merchandisingHUB.com. She is a frequent speaker and writer on merchandising.