The art of elegant merchandising

When working on branding and merchandising, business leaders should spend a lot of time unpacking words. Everyone around the table in an organization needs to understand the nuances involved in their brand’s descriptors and fit chart adjectives.

For instance, if someone is operating with one definition of the word “trendy” and someone else understands the concept a bit differently, there’s a good chance that decisions will be made using potentially conflicting criteria.

Redefining elegance

Matthew E. May’s book, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, takes a different look at the word elegance. When you hear “elegance,” all sorts of brand names come to mind: Jaguar, Chanel, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Rolex, Waterford and others.

From the title, you may think May’s book is going to be all about luxury branding. It isn’t.

The concept of elegance as defined by May is all about “being two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. One without the other leaves you short of elegant. And sometimes, the unusual simplicity, isn’t about what’s there, it’s about what isn’t. At first glance, elegant seems to be missing something.”

He goes on to say that “elegance cuts through the noise, captures our attention and engages us. The point of elegance is to achieve maximum impact with minimum input. It’s a thoughtful, artful subtractive process focused on doing more and better with less.”

In other words, less is more. Or ,more specific, doing the right less can produce the right best.

As a former Toyota insider, May provides many examples from that brand of elegant engineering. He also showcases other companies you might expect, such as Google, Apple and Lexus, as well as some surprises like In-N-Out Burger.

By his way of thinking, elegance is not reserved for high-end luxury brands. “Elegance isn’t about being hoity-toity,” May writes. “It’s not about lofty concepts and grand designs. It’s not about beauty or grace, or anything to do with aesthetics — ugly is okay.”

Elegance is about something much more profound, according to May. “It’s about finding the aha solution to a problem with the greatest parsimony of effort and expense. Creativity plays a part. Simplicity plays a part. Intelligence plays a part. Add in subtlety, economy and quality, and you get elegance.”

This redefinition of elegance to mean purposeful subtraction can be helpful in branding and merchandising. It makes you stop and think about the hyperactivity that we can all slip into unintentionally.

It reminds me of the purple kitchen colander on my work desk that I use as a visual to remind me of the power of sifting. The colander is a symbol to me that just because everything could be done, doesn’t mean that everything should be done.

Connecting with customers

So, using May’s definition, just how elegant is your brand’s product line? Whether you are selling insurance, oranges, shoes, office supplies, high-tech equipment or children’s clothing, the art of elegant merchandising is a discipline worth pursuing.

But before one can craft products or services that truly “cut through the noise, capture customers’ attention and engage them,” a merchant must be a diligent observer of their customers’ behavior. This is one activity that most brands need to increase.

How much time are you spending in direct customer contact? One sure way to increase your brand’s merchandising intelligence is by increasing its customer intelligence.

The companies May cites are all active anthropologists of their customers’ lives in their respective product categories. This is how they prepare themselves to find the “elegant solutions.” This is how they know which features are too many and which ones are just right.” Let’s look at a couple of “just right” examples from the not-so-glamorous product categories of tea, socks, stationery and kitchen utensils:

Tea Forte Cocktail Infusions

This brand caught my attention from its inception, and it continues to evoke emotion (namely, “I must have this!”) and engage my senses.

Founder Peter Hewitt had big dreams: “My original vision was modest, just to reinvent the entire tea ceremony, a centuries old tradition! I wanted to create a total sensory and emotional experience that was relevant to life today. I considered taste, smell, touch and, of course, visual presentation. I wanted to create a simple ceremony, a special moment to enjoy with family, friends or just by myself.”

And Hewitt did just that with his gift-worthy silken tea infusers and unusual Zen-like presentation pieces. What’s more, the company was able to bring that same sensibility and symmetry to another category in a unique way: cocktails.

Tea Forte now has a collection of cocktail infusions (think teabags for your spirits) and artisan cocktail glasses and even a mixology set.

The merchants at Tea Forte have mastered the art of elegant merchandising. It will be exciting to see what they do next.

LittleMissMatched Socks

This brand has always made the lowly sock a fun and fresh item. With its tagline “Think Outside the Socks,” LittleMissMatched continues to add whimsy and novelty to this category — these are socks that you don’t want to keep in the drawer!

The merchant’s latest holiday limited edition features something called Kooky Socks, a pack of three knee-high, double-cuff socks that give the wearer 48 ways to match them up. Colorful, irresistible and yes, kooky, LittleMissMatched subtracts boredom and conventionality from its category and serves up a great deal of creativity and ingenuity.

Crane & Co.’s Greeting Card Caddy

Even though people may not be writing letters as much these days, they still might take a minute to jot a note. Crane & Co. understands that it is now competing with the speed of e-mail and the fun of social media. So the venerable stationery brand has developed a simple product — a greeting card caddy that can sit beside its customers’ workspaces or inside their desk drawers — that makes sending a note quick and easy.

Crane & Co.’s greeting card caddy doubles as a mini-organizer complete with a perpetual calendar for recording dates and 12 greeting cards. It’s simple, accessible, containerized and a problem solver for customers.

Pyrex Measuring Cups

If you’ve ever fumbled around your gadget drawer for the 1/3 cup measurer only to come up with the 1/4 cup and the little ring that used to hold all four together, this new product from Pyrex is for you. Pyrex solved the problem of separated measuring cups with an elegant solution: magnetized handles.

The kitchenware manufacturer has also redesigned the cup portion so each scoops and pours flour and sugar more easily. An everyday product with unusual simplicity.

Why not use these examples to jumpstart your own internal elegance discussion? What areas of your brand need a bit of sifting and editing?

Look for ways you and your team can do some purposeful subtracting. This will not only increase your merchandising intelligence, it will help engage your customers more fully into your brand experience.

Andrea Syverson ( is president of IER Partners, a brand and merchandising consultancy.

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