What’s a CVSM?

A visual standards manual can make your store looks its best

A Custom Visual Standards Manual, or CVSM, is one of the best ways to guarantee your employees maintain the look and feel of your stores. A CVSM details how a store should look and how to keep it looking that way. A good manual allows room for change and teaches the store employees how to access their creativity, while staying within the boundaries of the stores’ image and brand.

Visual standards include everything that can be seen as you drive or walk up to, into and through the store to the back door: lighting, signage, flooring, all surface materials, fixtures, merchandising the fixtures, displays, focal areas, aisles, wrap desks, daily maintenance, safety standards, back room standards, washroom standards and office standards.

Not every employee’s personal style or ideas will be in keeping with your image. A standards manual gives clear direction and boundaries to the individual creativity and expression.

If a chain of stores (of any size) has an image that requires presentation standards, or they are recreating their image and want to retrain their employees, a manual is one of the first steps to making this transition happen consistently and successfully.

How to develop a CVSM
Assign this job to one or two people who have a clear understanding of your merchandising, visual merchandising, fixtures, signage, store design direction and overall brand and image. If you choose two people, consider one in marketing and one in operations. Alternatively, hire a third party with CVSM and spa store experience.

Develop an outline for the manual. Whether the CVSM is online or printed, the development will be the same. If you choose to film the manual, the concept will be very similar, but the execution will be more involved.

Take a ton of photos. Before and after shots of merchandise presentation and displays are especially valuable and great teaching tools.

Your CVSM should include these chapters:

  • Introductions: What is a CVSM, how to use it, and why is it necessary?
  • Look and feel of the store: How you want customers to perceive and experience your stores.
  • Façade, windows and entry area
  • Aisle plan and fixture placement
  • Water-quality testing area
  • Fixtures. If you have departments in your stores, organize this chapter by department. Add fixtures for each department, and then how to merchandise and sign each fixture. For example: Chemicals — List the type of fixtures in this area. What merchandise should be housed on each type of fixture. What best standards do you have to show the chemicals? Some choices may be: Do you merchandise by vendor, housing a vendor’s chemicals together? Or will you merchandise by the end use of the products and place them in vertical or horizontal rows? Within each row, merchandise from smaller to larger — left to right, or top to bottom. You may also want to put the more expensive brands around eye level and the less expensive brands below.
  • Display and focal areas
  • Cash-wrap area
  • Sales desk/s and customer conference area
  • Non-selling spaces: Offices, hallways, restrooms, stockrooms and loading dock, plus attic and basement if applicable.
  • Overall lighting including what type of bulbs to use and how to install, maintain and aim them
  • In-store promotional signage
  • Daily and weekly store maintenance schedule for all employees
  • Safety standards for each area and the entire store

Determine what format will work best for your employees and stores — a loose-leaf book, a bound and printed manual, a webinar in several parts or a training movie. In each case, you may consider a quiz after each section to make sure your employees read the CVSM. The document will need to be flexible. If you use a loose-leaf binder, remove pages and add new ones as fixtures/logos/products/displays change. If the manual is recorded, it may be able to be edited with new information spliced into the recording.

Have storewide or companywide meetings, and introduce the manual either in a seminar or hand it out to each person. If it’s digital, give everyone the link and let them know when they will be quizzed on the book. That’s pretty much the only way they’ll look at it all the way through.

Rather than just stating rules, explain why the rule exists and why it’s necessary. It will be remembered much longer than if it’s just stated without explanation.

A CVSM is more than a training tool. It’s a clear, concise reference book that helps a chain of stores upgrade and maintain their look. If one store is falling down in sales, one of the most easily observable issues may be the visual presentation. Getting everyone on the same page will keep the stores looking great. If a store manager or other employee consistently ignores the standards, you have a good, clearly stated reason to write them up for noncompliance.

A good manual is a secondary form of training for new employees (on-floor training comes first). Any store with two or more locations can benefit from this training manual.

I have written the CVSMs for American Express Travel Related Services, Singer, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lancôme, United Rentals, Taubman Malls, Rori (menswear, Venezuela), Armi Studio and Totto (Colombia), The Bowling Proprietors Association of America and Alamar Uniforms. During each process, I learned how to pare down information so it’s a good mix of photos and copy. People today are used to reading bullet points and listening to sound bites.

Less is more.

A CVSM will help your stores stay attractive, neat, clean and welcoming. All this will reflect on your sales and service in a positive way.


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