How to Set Up Retail Space

If the top item on your bucket list is opening a retail store, you’re in good company. Nearly every retailer starts out in your shoes, usually after wandering through other people’s business and declaring, “I can do this better.” It’s easy to take the first steps: choosing the merchandise you'll sell and then hitting regional markets to place your orders. Once the lease is signed, it's just you, four walls, a floor and a ceiling. You won't be the first person to say aloud, “What now?” There's an art to outfitting retail space. Visual merchandising professionals are taught to make every available inch matter. Once you are familiar with working in your own space, you'll learn the art at warp speed, at which point neophytes setting up their own retail businesses will regard you with respect and awe. This is when you shake your head, smile and think happily about your artfully-arranged bottom line.

Visit as many stores in your area as you can to ascertain the way they are designed and merchandised. Observe and estimate each facility’s square footage to determine their capacity for product and people. Make notes of signage, standing and tabletop display units, and point of sale marketing materials. If you can do it discreetly, snap photos of store interiors you admire.

Meet with a general contractor. Based on your walk-through experiences at other shops, work with him to plan and execute the build-out you’ll need to accommodate your merchandise. It helps to have a contractor with considerable retail experience. Don’t forget to show samples of the products you plan to stock so accommodations are made for hanging, racked, tabletop and binned merchandise.

Shop for satellite display racks, table and counter units--with and without end caps--and other fixtures needed to supplement the store’s permanent, built-in display cabinets, shelves and alcoves. Find a link for a display and fixture house below.

Draft a plan-o-gram. This blueprint gives you and your staff a fixed location for merchandise, specifying the exact place items to be shelved or hung. If you’re comfortable working with CAD software, you can create three-dimensional schematics of each display vignette. No worries if this isn’t your cup of tea. There is plenty of software on the market to do the job. Find a resource at the end of this article.

Hang one copy of each plan-o-gram on the appropriate counter or shelf once the interior build-out is complete. Begin stacking, hanging, folding and installing merchandise according to that layout. Don’t bring out the additional displays you chose until the wall and built-in counter areas are all filled. You may find that you’ve over ordered display pieces or that you really don’t need or have room for some. If they’re still in their boxes, you can return them without having to repack them.

While display units are being stocked, set up your point of sale area. Install the cash register, computer or other equipment necessary to ring up sales and store receipts. Set up supplies for taking credit card orders. Fill under counter space with various sizes of shopping bags or boxes. Consider installing an alarm mechanism if your shop is a satellite and you’re concerned about nighttime security.

Set out signs, marketing materials and other display pieces at the checkout counter and beside appropriate merchandise. Some vendors will supply you with free signage to promote their brand–most often if you purchase a minimum amount of goods. You may also receive posters, ceiling banners, window stickers and other items from suppliers. Use it to inform shoppers of sales, specials, new items and promotions.

Invest in decorative props. If you can’t afford to hire a window/store dresser to artfully trim your window and interior, try your hand at it. You needn’t spend a fortune if you shop for these touches yourself, but remember this principle: people most enjoy the shopping experience when they don’t feel overwhelmed by too many bells and whistles. Take a page from the competitors you visited when you set up shop and follow their lead until decorating your space becomes second nature.


  • Every retail store management situation is different. Some require new tenants to use their contractors while others don't. This should be stipulated in your lease, but if it isn't, ask before you sign.

    Hire visual merchandising students from community colleges to help get you up and running.

    Most manufacturer's sales reps are retailer gold mines. They know what works and what doesn’t. Most are happy to be of help, especially when you’re just getting started.