Retail therapy? Let Shola Steele help you out

A designer by trade, this New Zealander brings her brains and arm muscle to the shop floor as a visual merchandiser who wants to help you part with your hard-earned cash.

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Ever asked yourself the difference between a window maker and a visual merchandiser? “My job isn’t only about fluffing windows,“ says Steele, a fashion designer converted to the art of strategic store styling. “Visual merchandising is also planning the whole layout of the store, analysing sales figures, managing the space and researching human behaviour,” she adds, explaining that the latter sharply differs from city to city and store to store, and even shifts between neighbourhoods.

Arket, for example, targets shoppers happy to spend a little extra cash on a sustainable, tasteful-looking brand (part of the H&M-group). The thirty-something from New Zealand left London last year to work at the Nordic fashion store on Ku’damm. Before that, she worked as a designer for brands like London’s Jarlo, and even designed costumes for big-name musicians Groove Armada and Bat for Lashes. 

Steele’s mornings starts at 6:30 am. By the time most Berliners are sipping their morning coffee, she‘s in the shop’s backroom, crunching the sales figures, putting together outfits, combining the best sellers with some of her own favourites, accessories and a pair of boots. “It’s super physical work,” she says. As the season has moved from summer to autumn, knitwear and down jackets are the focus, and Steele and her team are busy conceptualising their new ‘story’: This fall, it’s “Nature Layers”, she says, explaining how she dressed one torso with a long, light-brown hooded sweatshirt dress and a brown puffer jacket. Accessories are kept relatively minimal across Arket.

On this torso, Steele placed a light turtleneck underneath the dress, plus a fleece bucket hat and chunky boots. “It’s foresty but chic, like you’re out for a hike. Not in your trackpants, though. It’s about creating a whole character. It has to catch someone’s eye. Our aim is to give people a treat when they enter the store. It’s a form of escapism, especially these days.”

According to Steele, there’s a customer for every item. “We have to understand how people walk around the stores, what leads them where, the hot spots and the dead spots,” she says. “We might put underwear closer to the changing rooms or find a corner for a selection of jeans, where people can spend more time undisturbed. Women, for example, will wander around and look at everything, but men usually want it easier and just get what they came for and leave.” When it comes to her own wardrobe, Steele prefers shopping online, mostly with brands like ASOS and COS where she’ll look for simple, mostly black pieces that she can turn into casual or elegant, depending on the accessories. “I’ve become too critical – I can’t enter a story anymore without seeing what could be done better. I even do that at people’s houses!”