Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Do's and Don'ts of Outdoor Displays

A furniture store in Sanford, FL
curates a seating patio outside its store.
Nur Asri is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

The public realm is extremely important in commercial districts. While plazas and parks offer areas for visitors to rest and enjoy a meal, sidewalks make up a larger percentage of the public realm and are often optimized by businesses to attract customers. As a result, many store owners have taken to displaying merchandise on sidewalks as ‘teasers’ to what else is in store for potential customers.

However, business owners need to be aware that every city has its own regulations around sidewalk merchandise displays. Here in NYC, although stores are permitted to have outdoor displays of merchandise with no required licenses (for the most part.. Note: ‘Zero Sidewalk Display’ streets and streets in historically designated areas), these displays are restricted by types of goods and by size and structure.

The City requires that items displayed outdoors consist only of goods that are available for sale inside the store and that all sales must still occur inside the premise. Structures used to display the merchandise outside the store must also be temporary in nature and may extend no more than 3 feet into the sidewalk from the building line, and no higher than 5 feet. If a business owner were to break any of these regulations, a fine between $250 and $300 may be issued by the City.

In Cambridge, MA, where we recently completed work on a citywide retail strategy, the outdoor display of merchandise is even harder to do because a sidewalk obstruction permit is required by the City of Cambridge and costs $75 to submit.

Regardless of municipality, businesses must recognize that the regulations around sidewalk merchandise display are often well-intentioned and aim to meet the following three key principles:
  1. Maintaining standards of cleanliness and hygiene
  2. Enhancing pedestrian comfort and safety
  3. Ensuring collective business viability

More than 8' width pedestrian zone outside
this fresh food market in Mt Vernon, NY.
Through our work in different downtowns and commercial corridors across the state and country, we’ve seen a number of best practices in outdoor merchandise display but we have also seen some that have done more harm than good to the overall business environment. Here are some quick tips to ensure you use outdoor merchandise displays to your business’ and your corridor’s benefit.


Leave sufficient sidewalk space for pedestrians to walk. On busy downtown commercial streets, for example, the City of Boston recommends a minimum of 8’-12’ width dedicated as the ‘pedestrian zone’ to ensure easy flow of pedestrian traffic on sidewalks. The clear path will ensure the sidewalk remains accessible to multiple users, including those in wheelchairs or pushing strollers, and will also maximize the foot traffic for businesses.
(NYC sure was right in limiting the depth of outdoor display structures to no more than 3 feet from the building line!)
Shoes on display outside this men's clothing store
maintains a clear path to the doorway.

Keep the path to the store’s entrance clear from any physical barriers. The fewer the barriers to entry, the more likely the customer will walk beyond the entryway. Having seen a teaser of products outdoors, businesses will want customers to continue browsing merchandise indoors and extend their dwell times so ensure that outdoor merchandise displays do not block the entryway nor reduce the visibility of the store’s entrance.

Maintain a neat, organized and relevant display rack. The success of your business and the success of your overall commercial district are interrelated. If your district’s sidewalks were spilled over with messy and unmaintained outdoor merchandise displays with expired or irrelevant products, the overall image of the district would be spoiled and customers would perceived a neglected commercial street and take their shopping elsewhere.

Switch out and rotate the merchandise you put on display outside every other day (in the case of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables) or every few months (in the case of seasonal gifts and clothing) and ensure the display racks are kept tidy. Maintain a good image for the corridor and your business will only reap the benefits.

Curate and get creative with your outdoor merchandise display. A well-curated outdoor display can attract both visitor and resident customers. Take the time to select and curate pieces that market your business best. Furniture and antique stores, flower shops, and even bike shops are increasingly using outdoor merchandise displays to their advantages and luring customers with unique and colorful outdoor product displays.


Florist on Montague Street, Brooklyn NY
Clutter products in the allowable outdoor display areas. If displays appear cluttered and messy, customers are more likely to be confused by the products offered by the store and will quickly move on to neighboring businesses. After all, “less is more” is the common rule for merchandising. According to retail experts, high product density results in visual chaos that overwhelms the shopper. There isn’t enough time for the shopper to sort through the clutter and determine if the merchandise is of enough interest to stop and shop. 

Stack products high in front of store windows. Often, business owners get overexcited about being able to promote merchandise outside and forget the importance of maintaining transparency of storefronts. Sure customers are now able to see products on display outdoors, however, storefront transparency also serve to discourage crime with ‘more eyes on the street’ and reduce energy consumption by letting natural light into the store. Remember that many storefront guidelines recommend having 70% of the fa├žade surface completely transparent between 2’ and 10’ height above the sidewalk.

Display products that are hard to reach by customers. When businesses pack as many products as possible outside, it becomes physically impossible for a consumer to shop comfortably”. As a result of stacks and stacks of products, shoppers are often unable to reach most of the products on display and are therefore unable to examine the merchandise more closely, resulting in them losing interest and walking away.

While outdoor merchandise display can do wonders in advertising and promoting goods on offer in stores, it is important to note that some products lend themselves better to outdoor display than others. For example, lighter-weight articles can easily be blown over by wind outdoors, and food and drinks may become spoiled from long exposure to sunlight and humidity. We’ve also seen long articles of clothing getting dirtied by outdoor dust and particles, ruining the overall appearance of the sidewalk display.

If you’re thinking of enhancing the vibrancy of the sidewalks in your commercial district, first make sure you abide by the regulations set by your municipality and, secondly, ensure that the displays don’t result in dirt or mess on the sidewalks, and don’t create tripping hazards, fire hazards or nuisances for your customers. After all, your customers’ experience is central to the success of this effort.

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