Somewhere between the appearance of the first Jockey underwear fixture mid-century and the debut of Ralph Lauren's lifestyle shop in Bloomingdale's in the '70s, retailers have been negotiating floor space with manufacturers. While brands are proliferating, the trend line for the past decade indicates that store footprints are getting larger. Why then is there still that closed-in feeling in many of today's stores?

"Stores are definitely becoming more efficient," says James Frederick, director of visual merchandising for FRCH, a Cincinnati-based design firm. "Leases are generally paid by the square foot, so the pressure is on to make each square foot very productive."

Therefore, when retailers recognize a top seller, they load up so they can offer a high capacity of products without having to constantly restock, Frederick says.

Sale of the century "High-density presentations were once perceived by consumers to be low-end, or even discount, but now they demonstrate the retailer's authority in a category or item," Frederick says.

Take, for example, Century 21, an upscale off-price retailer of apparel and home goods with stores in New York City. The New York office of FRCH designed the company's new three-level, 190,000 sq. ft. store in Long Island's Westbury Plaza with wider aisles, higher light levels and a more open plan.

Even though Century 21 sells designer clothing and brand-name goods at significant discounts, the new store features many design elements associated with full-price departments, including plush carpeting and rich, wood accents.

A series of uniform, gondola-type fixtures were designed with color and hardware that can be changed for each department. The wood fixtures in women's shoes attractively house shoe boxes on the floor while visually warming the department.

"Self-selection requires dense presentation of the footwear to illustrate Century 21's authority," Frederick says. Similarly, Century 21's decorative tabletop department offers a mixture of high-capacity and feature fixturing, which blends product massing and display. Despite the Century 21 customer profile as a bargain-savvy shopper, the store still needed to be well-organized and easy for staff to maintain.

Although most of Century 21's merchandise is from major brands, customers are not likely to find vendor shops in any of its stores. That, however, is not the case with most retailers. "It's all about brand," says Frederick. "Many retailers selling top-brand merchandise can lose sight of the fact that they, as a retailer of brands, are a brand themselves."

FRCH's work with Sharper Image supports Frederick's assertion. The retailer retained FRCH to design its first new prototype in nearly two decades; it debuted last year near the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City.

Sharper Image's existing store was enlarged by taking over adjacent retail space, increasing the selling area from 1,650 to 2,250 sq. ft. A white and light green perimeter palette replaces the previously dark interior, which primarily featured display samples of products on gray slatwall.

Now, a modular fixture system provides flexibility while ensuring that merchandise is prominently displayed and accessible to customers. In addition, a circular focal fixture was placed in the middle of the selling floor to promote the latest Sharper Image-designed products.

"Well-balanced product density provides ample stock where sales demands it, and less where products are not volume drivers," Frederick says.

Instead of building walls to divide the space into separate departments, the designers used graphics to segment product areas. The design goal was accomplished in making the store lighter, brighter, better organized and easier to shop.

Free to be you and me Tearing down walls is an increasing trend, according to Greg Gorman, vice president and creative director of GMG Design, a St. Louis-based architectural and design firm. Gorman says more and more retailers are turning stockrooms into selling space.

"Some retailers use vendor fixtures because they are free, but 'free' isn't always the best solution," he says. "They really should be asking, 'Do the fixtures compliment or detract from my image?'"

Gorman, who also works with consumer goods manufacturers, explains, "If you do a lot of business with the brand, they may be free or partially subsidized. If you need the brand more than they need you, it's likely you'll be paying for the fixtures."

Speaking on behalf of his vendor clients, which include major apparel and sporting goods brands, Gorman advises proceeding with caution. "We want to make sure the investment is the best for them and not just the retailer."

Gorman designs multiple packages for his clients, with simple to complex options. Additionally, he designs with cost ranges from low to high, since volume differs between communities and regions.

Frederick shares Gorman's sentiments. FRCH's work with brands also runs the gamut of apparel to hardlines. "Recently we've worked with some major brands to develop full-shop environments modified for different channels of distribution."

Brands and retailers can profitably co-exist, providing the retailers' brand image becomes a canopy others can live within, Frederick says. "The most brand-savvy retailers take what the vendor is recommending and co-develop a presentation distinctive to the retailer but loyal to the brand."

Admittedly, vendors with "brand clout" can be more demanding. However, often the vendor's suggested fixture is used, but in a different material or finish that fits a particular retailer's environment.

More than cosmetic changes Arguably, some of the most aggressive brands are cosmetic companies, and concessions to these kingpins are legion.

Neiman Marcus' new store in the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu represents its evolutionary thinking about many departments, including cosmetics. The retailer has experimented with a more open-sell format - not as a concession to fewer sales associates, but for customer convenience.

"We've re-engineered the way we do our cosmetic promotions and the way our floors look," says Ignaz Gorischek, who is vice president of visual planning and presentation for the Dallas-based chain.

The look is sedate and void of most vendor programs, replaced with a different sort of focal element, such as one-of-a-kind carpets or pieces of furniture. "We've proven that we can still promote and sell cosmetics and fragrance without using all the corporate signs, tablecloths and bags with tissue," Gorischek says.

At a time when most vendors are seeking to establish consistent standards throughout their various channels of distribution, Neiman Marcus has prevailed in eliminating visual clutter, and its cosmetics business continues to grow.

Understanding that customers are usually on sensory overload, Neiman Marcus displays fresh flowers. "Flowers tend to soothe people," Gorischek says, adding that Neiman's departments also contain bowls of fresh lemons, tomatoes or other produce. "It's great color, it's fresh.

So while everyone else is thinking of graphics and more signs and more signs, we're trying to go simpler and cleaner."

For all Neiman's success with a clutter-free cosmetics area, vendor shops are still a way of life for everyone, including the iconistic retailer. "The landscape of Neiman's is changing drastically," Gorischek says. "We've got more vendor shops on the books than ever."

Working with vendors to co-author shops, Gorischek and his team will reinterpret a floor fixture or wall system in Neiman's distinct design language. There is no set pattern on who pays for what, Gorischek says: "We go both ways."

Unlike more mainstream retailers, Neiman Marcus features more limited distribution brands or ones exclusive to them. Working with smaller, entrepreneurial companies also differentiates Neiman's vendor structure.

"If we were to bring in 50 new vendors a year, then something would definitely have to go," Gorischek says. Perhaps other retailers, he suggests, are not going through the merchandise review process as rigorously as Neiman Marcus.

Therein lies the key to taking control of the selling floor. "Anybody can buy everything," says Gorischek. "But a professional buyer knows how to edit."