Heightened competition between the retailers is putting greater pressure than ever on all those within the clothing industry - not least the designers, retailers, store designers and merchandisers who are increasingly turning to 3D visual merchandising, store layout and communication systems.

Consumers are getting more demanding. No longer is it enough to have the right mix of designs and co-ordinated ranges in the right place, at the right time and at the right price, but the garments must be displayed to make the most efficient and attractive use of space within the retail store.

Customers must first be drawn into a outlet, and then 'worked' through it via an easy and enjoyable shopping experience. Providing the garments that the customer wants, along with co-ordinates and accessories, not only maximises sales but also encourages that shopper to return to the store. And for this to happen careful planning and communication is essential, as is the consideration of how the products will look, in store, right from the range building and scheduling stage.

For several years different CAD packages have enabled store layouts to be designed ahead of time, providing a graphical representation of how the store should look with specific ranges in situ. Historically these designs have tended to be in two dimensions and communicated as hard copy prints that provide a snapshot of the planned range in the store, showing how and where products should be displayed for the maximum aesthetic effect, and how to maximise on multi-product sales. As well as generic CAD packages such as Micrografx, apparel specific tools are available and include AssyGraph from Assyst, and Artwork Studio from Gerber Technology. Some even have the advantage of direct access to a certain amount of information relative to each individual garment - price, availability, sizes, colourways, and fabric type, for example.

3D Tools
However, the benefits of this type of visual merchandising can be radically enhanced when using one of the three dimensional visual merchandising and retail space planning tools that have been specifically developed to enable apparel manufacturers and retailers to plan, simulate, visualise, adjust and communicate merchandising ideas, brand concepts and store layout plans more efficiently throughout their organisation and onto the retail floor.

With these, designs can be imported direct from almost any of the CAD packages either in sketch or photographic form, they can be scanned in or downloaded from a digital camera, and then placed on generic or company specific fixtures and fittings in a 'virtual' copy of any store or sales space. It is even possible to 'walk' around the store viewing the result from any angle. Thus merchandising ideas, brand concepts and store layout plans can be visualised in 3D virtual reality, adjusted and communicated throughout an organisation and to the retail floor. Packages such as Fashion Yield, Logikos, and 3D Visual Merchant are examples.

When designs are linked to a central database, further benefits ensue. Costs can be associated, enabling a merchandiser to value the products planned in any store or on any fixture or fitting and view potential profitability. The capacity of each fixture can be maximised. Co-ordinating garments, size ranges and colourways can be readily identified, and notes on products can be added. Where designs are extracted from CAD packages with product data management information attached, one database should be able to integrate with the other, thus enabling almost any stored information on a product to be identified, communicated and reported on.

Electronic Merchandising Solution
Such is the case with Fashion Yield which, says developer Yield Software Ltd, is a complete electronic merchandising solution. Far more than just a 'virtual store', buying, visual assortment planning, purchase order processing, planogramming and visual merchandising are all included.

Two key software applications also feature. Interfacing with assortment planning and computer aided design systems, Yield Collage collates financial and styling details into one simple shopping list, providing buyers with the ability to manage their Open to Buy and present visual range previews to management and colleagues either in person, or electronically by utilising images from digital cameras, scanners and video as well as referencing text, numbers and voice notes. This wealth of information can then be transmitted worldwide via the Internet.

Yield Display provides buyers, merchandisers and visual merchandisers with the means to visualise the developing range from the all-important shopper's perspective, and includes all the tools needed to create the virtual 3D store. This store can be explored on screen, and allows easy movement of merchandise from rail to rail or rail to wall unit, or even offers the ability to alter the configuration of the fittings and fixtures. Circulation space guidelines ensure that optimum use of space is combined with customers' ease of movement around the store. New season fashion can be successfully married to store identity without the time-consuming and costly process of having to build a mock store, and optimum in-store visualisation of the new range can be provided before any range buying overheads are actually incurred.

Once the design is agreed a comprehensive and highly visual store merchandising guide can be produced, making it clear to shop floor staff how to merchandise the store correctly. With e-commerce tools built in, both store design and product information can be passed from 'head office to store', to buyers in other departments, merchandisers, visual merchandisers, suppliers or management, around the globe.

With installations in Germany, South Africa, USA, Italy, Holland, UK and Spain, Fashion Yield's growing international client base includes Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Bhs, Mervyns of California, Target, Daytons, JC Penney, Hamells, Capstan Bay, Foxy Fashions, ProMod, Gruppo Vestebene, and Buddellie Mode.

Concession Layout
The American khaki producer Duck Head has been using 3D Visual Merchant for some time to help ensure that the most beneficial use is made of its concessions' floorspace before the goods arrive.
The area of the store allocated to Duck Head is photographed and measured. Back at the head office, Duck Head's staff input the floorplan information which can then be visualised in 3D. Both standard style and customer specific fixtures and fittings, again in 3D, can be added, colour and lighting schemes changed at will, and images of the actual clothes placed on the fixtures. Many 'what ifs' are experimented with until the company arrives at the store layout it is most happy with Ñ neither over-crowded nor under-utilised, with ease of movement for consumers around the area and maximum visual impact.

Forms containing information about each product are added, then accessed by a mouse click, as are order forms. The whole package is used to demonstrate in 'virtual reality' what a new Duck Head concession in any store could look like, as well as helping them display new season's garments to their best effect. The photo-realistic simulated images can either be viewed on-screen or printed. As Duck Head points out, it is not enough to have a hot product. They need to get the product onto the shelves and into the customers' shopping bags.

When negotiating with new outlets where it wants to gain concession space, Duck Head finds the system invaluable for communicating what the proposed areas will look like within the actual store.
JC Penney, Levi Strauss & Co and Tropical Sportswear are also users of 3D Visual Merchant, a system originally developed by Modacad in the States but recently purchased by Lectra Systmes. To quote Lectra's chairman and chief executive Daniel Harari: "3D Visual Merchant is a perfect complement to Lectra's existing product line. We can now offer our clients, from the largest retailers to product manufacturers, a complete set of comprehensive solutions that start from product concept to full retail space planning, merchandising and assortment management. Companies will be able to create and design products, immediately carry the products into merchandising and brand concepts by building virtual store settings, and instantly exchange data within and outside their organisation".

Design and Communication
Logikos is a similar product that was launched in the States about four and a half years ago and to date has only been used by clients within the USA - though the company is hoping to extend sales internationally.

Calvin Klein has been using the system since 1996, originally investing in the product to help maintain a consistent look for the designer's in-store boutiques and to make it easier for retailers to merchandise the range. Although a consistent look is needed throughout its stores, the company also has to accommodate the needs of individual clients to experiment with different merchandising configurations, and to save shop co-ordinator's time thinking about how certain products and colours look together.

Also using Logikos is DKNY Underwear and Intimate Apparel which has planned a new range of shops from scratch using this software. "The system is an important component in our strategy to build brand image on the selling floor", explains John Bowman, president of Donna
Karan Intimates, and DKNY Underwear and Intimate Apparel, both divisions of Wacoal America.

"I can't tell you how excited I am about this technology and its ability to help us design and communicate with the retailers", says Sue Grunenwald, director of store planning. "One of the most important things about the system is that the images of our shops and fixtures are tied to a database, which provides us with a powerful management tool. This database not only helps us design, but helps us keep track of costs and shipping information as well".

Rebecca Cotterell, a strong advocate of Visual Merchandising within the UK, is ex buying director for the Burton Group, a past managing director of both Adams and British Shoe Corporation, and a former chief executive of Jaeger. She has recently opened her own consultancy operation, Workshop, which specialises not only in visual merchandising, but also in buying, quality control, sourcing and retail operations. She explains that visual merchandising is aimed at providing a total shopping experience combining store design, products, visual effects and brand conformity, differentiating and strengthening a brand or store group from its competition.

"The whole idea behind visual merchandising is to make it easier for a consumer to shop, attracting and wooing them, making the experience interesting and stimulating whilst communicating brand values". She examples the differences between The Body Shop and Superdrug, where the basic products are not dissimilar, though the merchandising creates a totally different concept.

With 3D simulations it is possible to see reality from the customer's viewpoint before products hit the store, or preferably before the range is finalised. It is not simply about putting products on fixtures, says Cotterell, it is about the relationships between the products, fixtures, space shapes, floors and walls, and building a range and display which compels the customer to buy.

This concept starts by attracting a potential customer to cross the road to look more closely at the shop and then, as they look at the window display, providing a product range and presentation that compels the customer to enter. Once inside it makes it easy for customers to find the products they want, but also to wander around, linger and look further, with the store design and product range stimulating interest and showing how to co-ordinate the garments -leaving the customer with a positive feeling to return.

With the use of 3D packages not only can companies visualise and plan, without even needing a sample or a swatch of fabric, but they can easily communicate ideas within the office and around the world. Thus a general concept can be transmitted to a store manager who can adjust this idea to take account of the physical constraints of a specific store, and return the plans to head office for approval.
Despite such powerful tools being available to the industry,
Cotterell explains that their limited use to date is not so much an aversion to new technology, but is more fundamental. The concept of visual merchandising is still new to many and much training and education of the basic skills and understanding needs to take place before the tools can provide maximum benefit.