A Few Good Mannequins: Best Practices for Drafting Your Silent Sales Team

by Carolyn Evans, Staples® Contributing Writer

There she was at the main entrance of the local department store in our small southern town: the beautiful mannequin. She was thin, coiffed, and perfectly styled — more than just a display piece — and she greeted us every time we shopped. But over the years, she became weary, starting with chipped nail polish. Eventually, she lost an entire finger. It was depressing.

Nothing’s sadder than a nicked or chipped male or female mannequin, so you need to make sure your shop’s non-human ambassadors are kept in good working order.

Of course, like any good sales associate, mannequins don’t work cheap. Purchasing enough of these inanimate models is quite an investment for an independent store, so consider these expert tips to get the most for your money.

Know Your Needs

Fiberglass? Plastic? Fabric? Mannequins come in all shapes, sizes and materials, so selecting the right one for your space can feel overwhelming. “Traditionally, the most lifelike mannequins are made of fiberglass coated with plaster,” clarifies Linda Cahan, retail merchandising consultant and owner of Cahan and Company.

But this beauty comes at a price. These are the most expensive models and require the most care, as they chip and scratch easily. Plastic ones are not as realistic, but cost and maintenance are significantly lower. The bottom line: Buy the highest-quality models you can afford.

Consider a mannequin with a rubber surface for high-traffic areas. They are far more durable than the plaster-covered models, so you won’t have to repair and replace them as often as you would other models.

Reflect Your Customer

“What your mannequin looks like tells your customer who you think they are,” says Cahan. So choose models that reflect your customer base — or the customer base you want to develop. This is made easier by an emerging style.

“The trend right now is semi-realistic mannequins with no features,” she says. “You can do a lot by accessorizing, and that makes it fun.” Some store owners use masks, photographs or illustrations (on paper or as decals) to create “faces” that are easily changed by the season. Use caution, however, as some stickers and decals can ruin the form’s finish.

“Every purchasing consideration is an envisioning experience,” says John Jordan, owner of Protocol, a gift and luxury linen store in Wilmington, NC. “Mannequins are able to take an �I like’ and turn it into an �I want’ by giving the customer a realistic backdrop for imagining what the product would look like.”

Strike a Pose

Are you selling evening gowns or yoga pants? Nancy Greer, director of retail stores for Gazelle Sports in Kalamazoo, MI, stresses selecting mannequins that can be positioned and posed to show your merchandise in a realistic way. “An active pose really only works if you’re selling active wear,” Greer says. Conversely, make sure the width of the leg spread is not too wide if you plan to model dresses. If versatility is a must, invest in a lifelike mannequin with lots of movable parts, or dress forms, which have only torsos.

For small items, like jewelry, hats or shoes, consider investing in just “body parts” that enable you to showcase merchandise somewhat realistically while saving money and space. These are especially useful on countertops and in retail displays.

Try a Little Tenderness

Don’t neglect a mannequin’s personal hygiene. Each manufacturer includes care instructions with their products, and those should be followed to the letter. In general, however, if you have a hard-surface model, use a soft feather duster for regular dusting, and a mild, non-abrasive cleanser and soft cloth when a more thorough cleansing is needed. For fabric-covered forms, invest in a good lint roller and use it regularly.

“Be careful with the parts,” advises Cahan. “Whenever you’re dressing or undressing the mannequin, put the limbs on something soft, like a towel, and not on the floor. And don’t drop them!” Unfortunately, accidents do happen. Leave any repair work to the pros. What might seem like a quick repair with fingernail polish or makeup can end up doing more harm than the original injury.

Don't Limit Yourself

Don’t limit mannequins to selling clothes and accessories. They can add a human element to store displays in everything from kitchen stores to bookstores and tire dealerships.

That said, you don’t want to overdo it. Like an overanxious salesman, too many can be a detriment to sales. If you keep it fresh and simple, the impact of your silent sales force will be noticeable.

Carolyn Evans has a long-running passion for innovative products, great design and interior decorating, and is a believer in retail therapy. After a session of reading insightful cocktail napkins, she decided to leverage her experience with start-up companies and financial institutions to build a career as a retail consultant for independent stores and young gift and apparel manufacturers across the Southeast. Evans resides in Chapin, SC.

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