Retail is a highly competitive marketplace where store owners battle competition from the Internet, mail-order companies and other retail stores down the street. Retailers are discovering that one of their most valuable tools is dramatic and fun store design and visual graphics.

Customers want to visit stores with ambience, where shopping is an enjoyable experience rather than a simple visit to pick up product. Some stores encourage interaction between customers and the product, but store design and style remain a powerful pull for customers and will keep them coming back.

Companies such as Sacramento, Calif.-based Shari's Berries, Fairfield, Calif.-based Herman Goelitz Candy Co., and Sacramento-based Java City have found an interesting way to bring customers in to browse and, more importantly, to turn these lookers into buyers through dramatic graphic design.

Ferrari Color has worked hand-in-hand with these retailers and others to formulate graphics and designs that tie directly into the images and products being sold. The process entails far more than a splash of color here and a dab of color there. It means starting with the product and exploring options that showcase the products or services to encourage sales. It's all about marketing and never design for design's sake.

The Internet has been motivating retailers to find new and exciting ways to lure and invite customers. Internet shopping may provide some convenience and lower cost, but it's not always an enjoyable shopping experience. A dynamic retail environment, combined with product/ customer interaction, provides a competitive advantage.

Drawing in the customer When it comes to store design and graphics, where should a company begin? First, the retailer needs to be aware of design and how it can positively impact a store's image. Many retailers become so used to their current design that they give little thought to the possibilities. Retailers should try entering their store as a customer would for the first time.

Is there something to invite the customer into your store? Something to promote curiosity? That first impression says a lot about who you are and what you have to sell. If the store looks drab and boring, that perception reflects your image and the quality of your products and services. The next step is to decide what you want the image to be and then design around it.

When considering store design, first decide how you want your customers to feel when they come into your store. For example, if the store's image is technology based, make sure there are elements within the store that support a technological message.

Second, design the traffic flow to give customers plenty of room to move around and allow for easy access to the cash register. Any visuals or products drawing a lot of attention should be easily accessible. Be cautious about drawing the customer's attention to off-limits areas.

And third, identify the store's main objective. Is it impulse purchases, lingering customers or education? Answering these questions will give the retailer a new perspective on how to make the store customer-friendly.

Incorporating graphics Sometimes design must be coupled with production of large-format graphics. Such was the case with Shari's Berries, a growing specialty chain selling chocolate-covered strawberries and other confections. To highlight its main product, a giant-sized chocolate-dipped strawberry cutout was developed. The brand image: the biggest, most decadent chocolate-dipped strawberries.

With product and brand image in mind, the design objective was to overwhelm customers when they enter the store. Why the large strawberry? Graphics, such as life-size and giant-size cutouts, should be considered when a photograph is needed to describe the product.

Shari's product is so enticing, it's best viewed in a manner that captivates the eye and captures attention. In order to make customers notice the strawberry, the store was designed with a lot of plain space and filled with a few smaller-scaled areas of specialty gift baskets. The key was to not clutter up the store with too many visual distractions from the product.

Other graphics used in Shari's Berries included a backlit duratrans display featuring a large photograph of different berries. With backlighting, the photograph comes to life.

Adding a splash of color Once a brand image is identified and the feel, flow and objective are determined, the element of color should be considered. Colors should be consistent with the corporate look. Color schemes should be carried throughout the store and coordinated with fixtures. When using bright splashes of color, don't let the customers' eyes get distracted; rather, surround areas of bright color with areas of neutrality. Give the eyes specific focal points with direction toward the product.

Once colors are selected, consider incorporating graphic images that feature products, welcome and thank-you signs, or general artwork relating to the store's image.

Mike MacGillivray, retail marketing director for Herman Goelitz Candy Co., notes the importance of color and graphic elements in the newly designed Jelly Belly Visitor Center.

"In designing the visitor center, we took color very seriously," says MacGillivray. "It had to be bright to capture the appearance of the product. Candy is what we do here, so we wanted to amplify that with special graphics."

For the floor graphics, a photograph was taken of Jelly Bellys scattered all over the floor. The photograph was then printed on adhesive vinyl. The feeling was fun and highly dramatic. In addition to the floor, adhesive vinyl was added to one of the walls. Its image is an actual photograph of the factory in production.

"Our primary audience is children, so we wanted something educational," explains MacGillivray. "We wanted kids to feel as if they are where the real action takes place."

Other considerations for graphics are counter cards, tile printing, textured graphics, fabric banners and photomurals. Today's technology allows for photographic reproductions on almost any surface, from floors and walls to many different fabrics and tiles. These techniques were applied to Java City, a major coffee chain in California that wanted a special environment for its regular clientele.

The goal with Java City was to have a warm and inviting backdrop in the coffee shop. The larger-than-life graphic was created by electrostatically printing an image onto adhesive vinyl, then applying the adhesive vinyl to the wall in multiple panels, in a similar fashion as wall paper. This material works well because it can be easily cleaned.

Using these tips, retailers can turn stores into dynamic retail environments. Remember, if the store's objective is fun, make it a fun place to shop. Educate customers about products, if that's the goal. Interact with customers by letting them know you want them to visit. Successful stores are becoming destinations that captivate, intrigue and make your customers smile. Try using color graphics, and once the crowds flock to see that beautifully designed store, make sure the product is still great too!