Visual merchandising at Red Cross Eltham – Guest Blog by Russell Bowes

I’ve been designing the window displays for the Red Cross Shop in Eltham since June 2015. Since then, I’ve changed our window displays nearly every Saturday morning, although I always say to my fellow volunteers that if they want to “have a go” they are most welcome, so occasionally I get a week off! Designing and installing a window can be fun but is often exhausting physically and mentally – usually a display will take 2 – 3 hours (or sometimes more) of clambering around in a restricted space and dodging customers, so I like to get an early start and arrive at the shop at around 0800hrs on a Saturday to get a head start.

Mostly, my inspiration comes while sorting through incoming donations – a piece of clothing, a soft toy or a bit of bric-a-brac will be the conduit for the bolt of lightning that suddenly strikes when I pull something interesting out of a plastic bag. Often I will be able to visualise the entire display practically immediately – my manager says that she can always tell when an idea has suddenly arrived in the mental “in box” – apparently my face changes slightly and she says she can hear the cogwheels turning in my head! The ability to suddenly “see the window” is often a blessing but often also a curse – I can be walking along the road, peer into a skip and suddenly I can see something not for what it is at that moment but for what it could possibly become. This means that my garage is usually full of odds and ends waiting to be turned into something else! Luckily it also means that I am rarely stumped for an idea, but conversely it means that a particular idea may have to wait some considerable time to make it into the window – at the moment, I have a list of weekly ideas stretching into April 2017! Fortunately, I have a very understanding manager in Sylvie Mayers who has allocated me a clothes rail and storage space in the rear of the shop where I can hoard things. Other volunteers occasionally add something interesting to the rail “in case it comes in useful” and I have a list up of things that I am specifically looking for in case I am not around when it comes in. I keep an eye out in the shop for other items to add to the theme, turning ideas round to suit the things I find.

Often I will make a prop out of discarded odds and ends – I made Cinderella’s pumpkin out of cardboard shapes and papier mache over the course of a couple of evenings (I like to get multiple uses out of things to justify the time and effort involved in making them) – it has subsequently been repainted several times and done duty as a tomato for Healthy Eating Week , a strawberry for Wimbledon, a giant peach for Children’s Book Week and back to a pumpkin for Halloween). More often than not I know exactly what I am going to do with a window display, but sometimes I go into the shop on a Saturday morning with no more than the vaguest idea of what the end result will be, so I turn the “creative tap” on and let the idea shape itself – often the result is much better and more interesting than if I had planned it specifically. Windows where this has happened include the “mermaids” window (which I more or less made up as I went along) and the “Music of the Night” window – it was originally a way of displaying several musical instruments that had been donated and only the day before did the idea of incorporating the “phantom” figure occur to me; even then, the window was nearly complete before I suddenly hit on the idea of having the sheet music cascading into the air.

When an window is in the planning stage, I will start mulling over ideas three or more months in advance and let them gently “cook on the back burner” until the idea coalesces and then I start looking out for particular items to fit the idea. Sometimes I will make some props, often I will rummage around in my cupboards at home and lend things to the shop to pad out the display. We have several other good charity shops in Eltham and I often buy odds and ends and donate them to shop stock after I have finished with them. I find it is worthwhile looking at the window displays of large chain retailers – they often have interesting and potentially useful display items and are generally happy to let people have these after they are finished with, as often they are merely destined to go in the dustbin. The lamp-post for my “Narnia” window last Christmas, the cotton plants for the “Cotton on to Gift Aid” window and all the leaves and vines from the “Jungle Fever” window were all acquired in this way. I hate to see useful things go to waste!

First thing on a Saturday morning my manager will strip out the previous week’s design so that I’m ready to start as soon as possible, and piles all the odds and ends out in the sorting room for me to clear up afterwards. I then clean the window and usually use a “chalk marker” for any words that appear as part of the design, although recently I’ve found that poster paints give impact. Sometimes there is a painted or stenciled design (I usually cut my own stencils out of laminating film because commercially produced ones can be expensive, and if I make them myself I get exactly the design I want) and this is next to be added. Then its time to dress the mannequins and position them in the window space, and then props are added in the appropriate spaces. As I go along, I make a list of sizes and prices of any clothing and props used that are for sale and this goes behind the till so that items can be ticked off as sold if a customer wants to buy them – I’m fortunate that our customers are usually more than happy to pay for something and collect it the following Saturday so that things don’t start disappearing out of the display immediately its finished. All the while I’m going outside to check the effect from the street as I often can’t judge this from inside. Usually the last stage in the process is putting up some kind of backdrop to finish the display –without a backdrop you can see the clothes rails immediately behind and this can be visually distracting. At this point I will then go and stand outside and look at the window for several minutes in order to spot anything that doesn’t look right or isn’t in quite the right place. It can be a real challenge knowing when to stop fussing about with the design but I’ve gradually taught myself that it is possible to over-do the entire thing! I then head back into the sorting room to clear up the things from the previous design and have a well deserved cup of coffee .

I’m very fortunate to be given the chance to support the Red Cross and indulge my creative urges by designing our windows. My Manager Sylvie and Area Manager Berni are very supportive and enthusiastic, and our customers are always very kind with their appreciation. In fact, we have a growing band of customers who now specifically come past the shop at lunchtime on Saturday just to see what the new window display is. Two highlights – we are very near to Eltham Palace and once had a large group of Japanese tourists stop on their way to the Palace to have their pictures taken in front of my Mary Poppins window. When I put in my display for HM The Queen’s birthday last year, I had just left the shop when a little girl aged about six ran over, stood in front of the window and called to her mother “Mummy, mummy, will you take my picture with the Queen?”, which completely made my week.

With Christmas fast approaching, my run-up starts with Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, followed by Victorian Carol Singers and a comedy version of “The Twelves Days of Christmas” featuring Alan Partridge in a Pear Tree – after which I’m giving myself two weeks off!

Designing and installing a window can be fun, challenging, exhausting, frustrating and fulfilling and I would really encourage every charity shop volunteer to “have a go” and support their shop by getting creative in the window space. Let your imagination run riot and see what you can achieve. And don’t forget to take a picture and share it with the rest of us!

To see more of Russell’s work check out this blog post Charity Shop Visual Merchandising & Display Inspiration of the Month – Red Cross Shop Eltham..

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