Frank New is a New York-based designer and creative. Primarily, though, he’s a visual merchandiser with 17 years’ experience working with everyone from Target to Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman.
As a freelance visual merchandiser, he’s also growing a unique roster of boutique retailers who he helps create “magic from nothing” on small budgets.
We spoke to Frank about his journey to visual merchandising, his freelance career, and his advice for independent retailers on a budget.
The power of pastry case upkeep to career development
Originally from New Orleans, design and visual merchandising weren’t on Frank’s radar in his youth. It wasn’t until he worked in a coffee shop as an adolescent that he discovered a flair for design.
“I sort of had a knack for arranging the pastries in the pastry case,” Frank says, “though I didn’t know what visual merchandising was.”
As a high-profiting city coffee shop, it was always bustling – but certain standards slipped. The shop was graded on pastry case upkeep and it frequently scored badly because staff were too busy serving customers.
On a whim, Frank took the task over and the store soon nabbed its first 100 percent. Inspired, Frank realized that design was a skill he could cultivate. He did his research, which took him to Chicago for college in the Illinois Institute of Art.
With a sharpening design mind, Frank began to dip his toe in internships and professional experience. On campus at school, stores had small vignettes and Frank noticed that Jamba Juice’s window needed work: it often wasn’t updated and didn’t grab attention.
Working up his courage, Frank introduced himself to the store manager and offered to dress the window for him. He wasn’t paid, though he was offered “free smoothies, which as a college student,” he says with a laugh, “was enough for me.”
With an impeccable eye and keen resourcefulness, Frank’s career quickly flourished. After college, he worked with Nordstrom, which later took him on to Florida, before he finally struck out on his own in New York. High-profile clients like Neiman Marcus followed – which “covered the luxury store department angle.”
Unlocking true creative freedom in visual merchandising
While Frank enjoyed his work with luxury brands, he yearned for the true creative freedom of working for himself. In the latest iteration of his career, the multi-hyphenate tackles everything from visual merchandising to set design and costuming.
It’s a trio of skills that makes him particularly palatable as a freelancer in design – which means he can dig deeper into the projects he really enjoys.
“The more I work for myself, the more I never want to work for anyone else again,” Frank says wryly. “I’ve done things in the last two and a half years that I never imagined. Right now, I’m travelling the country decorating Christmas trees for a living. It’s like, ‘who am I? Like what?’”
“I have the variety to do so much more,” he notes.
It’s this variety and flexibility that truly comes to the fore when working with smaller stores. “I can do things [with a great boutique] that potentially I would never be able to do at a luxury store,” he says.
With a growing roster of boutique clients under his tutelage, Frank offers his key advice for independent retailers looking to better take advantage of their visual merchandising.
Frank’s advice for visual merchandising as a boutique/independent retailer
1. Understand the importance of your window to your store
While it might sound a little airy-fairy, your window really is a glimpse into the soul of your store. It should set a scene and help to establish a mood for your customers.
Above all else, it should draw attention.
“A window display is the first introduction to a customer,” Frank says. “It should catch their eye within 30 seconds. The second most important part is the store, of course: the layout, the format, and how things are presented.
“For me, it’s important that the window translates into the store. They should be friends with each other. It should be cohesive. It’s really about understanding the customer: it’s not about what I want and what I think is pretty. It has to make sense to the store and the customer; they have to connect.”
2. It’s not about you; it’s about your customers
On that same note, a beautiful window may grab attention – but retailers must ask if it makes sense. Ultimately, too, it needs to inspire customers to want to buy from the store. It’s the old adage of putting lipstick on a pig: aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake will only go so far.
Before Frank does any design, he’ll endeavor to understand the business and the customer. It’s a two-pronged approach that should overlap: what are the needs of the store? How does that relate to encouraging a customer to come in-store and buy?
As Frank sees the project through from concept to sourcing and dressing, it’s very important to really understand the store and its customer base.
“Once you have that full understanding, you need to pull a concept or inspiration,” Frank says.
3. Seek inspiration from everything around you for better visual merchandising
Not everyone is creative and not every retailer will have the nous to create a window from scratch – but that shouldn’t discourage them from coming up with ideas or concepts and asking someone more suitable to bring it to life.
Inspiration is important to Frank, who draws from many different sources. Of course, inspiration can be amorphous and messy; other times it strikes, fully formed.
In instances where inspiration can be hard to come by, Frank will turn to several ‘usual suspects’.
“I use Pinterest a lot,” Frank says. “As a search engine, it has a vast array of categories you can check. Instagram too, and magazines. Living in New York is an inspiration in and of itself. Just walking around the city can inspire an idea.”
For local stores, the location should play a part. It’s esoteric but it rings true: New York, in particular, has become a character in its own right in TV, books, and film for its uniqueness and sense of personality.
Whether your store is based in small-town America or a sprawling downtown, there’s much in any locale to inspire. Take a walk and make note of anything that strikes: a certain person, a color, architecture, style, design, even a sense of something.
Great design is all about tapping into that sense of mystery and making it real. Again: this isn’t a skill that comes to everyone, but it’s almost certainly something that can be cultivated and finetuned.
4. Unlock the magic of making something out of nothing
With small boutiques, the budgets aren’t high – but that shouldn’t mean that great design is inaccessible.
For Frank, the secret is in mastering how to make something out of nothing. By necessity, visual merchandising as an independent retailer requires resourcefulness.
Essentially, any window or store dressing needs to be inexpensive but impactful – which is, of course, easier said than done.
In Frank’s work with Pointy retailer beehive designer collective, an obvious example is their fall 2019 window, which utilized fringe to create a sense of fun and frivolity, while still staying true to the promises of fall.
To pull the look together, the tutus in the window were also used throughout the store interior. As an overall piece, it’s simple but strong. Much of the detail is in inexpensive materials like foil and fringe, which can be picked up cheaply.
Ultimately, the window tells a story and crafts a scene. It will stop passers-by in the street and entice them inside. And it was created on a budget – which ticks every box a retailer could ask for.
Frank’s entry into the world of design typifies how independent retailers should approach their visual merchandising: while it began incidentally (via pastry organization), it has become a pursuit of creativity, know-how, and – eventually – mastery.
The key for most retailers looking to get into visual merchandising is in that nugget too. The first step, as with everything in life, is to start.