Sometimes I have trouble deciding whether or not merchandizing is a science or an art form.

More often than not, merchandizing resembles a folk art, which is to say the successful practices get handed down from generation to generation with the best ideas surviving and the worst ideas falling by the wayside. Over time, the best practices are sure to improve.

But often they don’t because of variables beyond the merchant’s control. Technology, for example, has made many items smaller and smaller over the years. Those big displays in windows at an electronics store no longer make sense, now that phones, music players, even computers fit in the palm of your hand. This creates whole new parameters for store displays – like going from charcoal to oil painting or making the switch from an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar.

Retailers, meanwhile, are often confused about in-store merchandizing. Is this part of sales or is this part of marketing? It may very well be both, but it pays to make a decision. You can’t sell an item if a customer doesn’t know there is value in owning it. I’m not going to buy a wing-nut at half price if I don’t even know what a wing-nut is.

Merchandizing, then, needs to anticipate the consumer’s attitude. Clothing stores have dressing rooms for precisely this reason. I don’t know if I need a shirt until I know it fits and looks good. I need time and privacy to make that decision.

Do you use the same approach for selling milk? Of course not. I already know that I need the milk. I don’t need convincing. I just grab it and go along my merry way.

To buy a power drink, however, no amount of salesmanship will get me to buy one, because I am not convinced I need one. The best merchandizing message there would be to sell me a power drink would be large letters that said, “Restores Nutrients And Tastes Great.” Putting the price in large letters next to a cool-sounding sporty name would have no effect on me whatsoever.

In some retail environments you need to market quickly – Hot Coffee Available! That’s not a sales pitch, that’s just three words planting an idea into my head. That’s marketing. Put that sign near the door. The sign that says, “Grab A Quick Cup To Go – $1.99” is a sales pitch. That goes near the coffee seller or behind the counter somewhere.

The options for merchandizing in stores are varied. Look for the latest store counter display items for fresh ideas on how to creatively showcase products. Look at other stores and see what they are doing. Then do something called trial and error. Experiment with different options.

Observe your customers. Do they linger near a new item with a puzzled look on their faces or do the run up and grab that item without hesitation. Do they ask for that item if they don’t see it at the store? Do they mention a specific brand?

OK, your concept is to simply cram as many different items in one space as you can and hope that customers will want to dig you out. In some settings, you haven’t much choice. Convenience stores do not do a great deal of marketing. By definition, they are grab it and go types of stores.

Liquor stores are classically weak on marketing. Liquor retailers pack in as many bottles as they can with little regard to educating customers. Price (which is sales) has to substitute as a marketing device, which it is not.

In this case, I might buy a cheap wine and present it to my spouse, when I got home. “They said it was good,” I say, because truthfully I don’t know anything more about that bottle, except the country where it was made.

That would be an example of poor merchandizing, although wine may not be the best example.

But all this said, there is a tendency to think decorative merchandizing, where the bottom line is for a retailer to fill space with merchandize with no regard for marketing. The best displays are thought to be the ones that have as many items within reach as possible, hopefully in an appealing, decorative fashion.

But you can’t beat the advice of the customers themselves. What does their behavior tell you? Do they ask about the product or do they seek justification for buying it? In this, there is no right or wrong answer, either. Try different approaches and see how the customers react.