Your prom category is very unique from bridal. Not only are the target customers a different age group and maturity level but the actual garments themselves are brighter, more sparkly and often take up more space in your store.
    Creating a merchandising plan that is specific to prom will help you be successful in this category. VOWS asked veteran retailers with booming prom businesses to share five simple ways to be sure your prom displays are working in your favor.

1. Create a plan that matches your customers. By now, you’ve noticed that your average prom customer differs vastly from the brides who visit your shop.
    For many, like Kathy Jensen, owner of An Affair to Remember in Fayetteville, N.C., prom customers don’t have time to place orders for a dress and they frequently don’t make appointments.
    “Our biggest challenge with prom customers is they are busy,” Jensen says. “They stay busy from the time they wake up till the time they go to bed. They don’t have time to shop.”
    Therefore she must stock more dresses for prom than bridal, and display as many as she can on the sales floor so customers find what they are looking for quickly. Last year Jensen sold around 1,200 prom dresses to local high school students. While her store is relatively small, she dedicated more than 2,500 square feet to prom alone.
    “Prom has taken over my store,” she says. “I have a small store, but last year I had to move my bridal section again because prom is just crazy.”
    Dresses at An Affair to Remember are arranged by designer, and then by size and color. Jensen says that girls this age make purchases based on designer and brand names. They spend their time online, looking up designers through Facebook and Pinterest, and have a good idea of what they want when they enter her store.
    This sentiment rings true at Apropos in Albany, N.Y., where owner Sindi Saita groups her styles by color and trend, as well as by designer.
    “We do segregate some vendors,” she says. “The popular ones, like Jovani and Sherri Hill, are grouped together so we can direct girls that way.”
    Saita has dedicated 3,500 square feet of retail space to prom merchandise and keeps the category separate from bridal.
    “We have found that prom girls love brides, but brides do not love prom girls,” she says. “When our customer walks into the prom showroom there is visual stimulation and colorful merchandising from floor to ceiling.”
    Saita utilizes large posters and banners from the manufacturers to help customers identify with the images they have been searching online at home. On the other hand, the bridal section at Apropos is simple, styled with only a few mannequins.
    Blush Bridal and Formal in Bangor, Maine, initially organized all of their prom dresses by silhouette just like they did in bridal, but recently incorporated them all together.
    “We had the bigger ball gowns in another area, but we quickly changed that because the prom girls in this area did not want to try ball gowns,” says general manager Karami Mantz. “The girls in this area are more into the sleek, sexy gowns but they were missing out on a lot of interesting dresses because they were scared off by the word ‘ball gown’.”
    Once Mantz mixed the shapes together more silhouettes were being taken to the fitting room and purchased.

2. Create fun feature displays. Keep your prom displays fun, playful and trendy so young shoppers can easily relate.
    The Wedding Tree in Lacrosse, Wis., did just that by installing a long runway in the center of their prom section. This interactive display allows customers to see their dresses in motion under lights that mimic those at The Grand March.
    Not only does this display make the dress shopping experience easier for the customer, but it also helps the store build its sales.
    “We built it because we know girls like to take pictures,” says prom and pageant manager Kasey Pesch. “Every time a girl tries on a dress she runs right over and strikes a pose. We always have groups of girls taking selfies on the runway.”
    Blush Bridal and Formal uses feature displays to showcase the variety of styles and designers they carry in store. Mantz dresses a cluster of mannequins near the entry way in dresses that show off the current trends, but are not the most popular sellers.
    “Those are tried on so frequently that we can’t use them in our displays,” she says.
    But they do show off current trends – like two pieces, gold sequins and rose gold – so customers know right away they can find what they are looking for.
    The Wedding Tree rents tuxedos as well and incorporates these into their feature displays in the prom section. Pesch will work in matching vests and bowties, and changes the looks out every week so that girls can easily visualize their entire look on prom day. Jensen also incorporates tuxedos into her prom displays.
    “Once they get the dress they say,  ‘What is my date going to wear? They always want him to match,” she says.
    At An Affair to Remember, customers typically buy directly off the rack so Jensen keeps each dress in a protective clear plastic garment bag to avoid damage that may occur as customers browse. This makes seeing some of the dresses hard so Jensen focuses on creating rotating feature displays within her store to better highlight the styles. Most customers already know what they want when they come in for their dress so it can be hard to steer them toward a different style.
    “Our goal is to get everyone thinking out of the box,” she says. “When young girls come in and they know what style they want, often they try it on and don’t like it as much. We have to have a back up for them.”
    Jensen says styling mannequins and paring them with posters and backdrops provided by the manufacturers helps customers better envision styles they may not have considered.

3. Highlight your accessories. Feature displays that incorporate jewelry and make it accessible to customers streamlines the shopping process and contributes to add-on sales.
    Mantz feels that it’s important to allow customers to try on the jewelry with their dresses during the initial fittings so they can see the overall look. As such, she displays jewelry on shelves in the prom section so it is easy for associates to pull and help style customers. Necklaces and bracelets are held on jewelry display holders while earrings are kept on cardstock backers with the Blush logo on them.
    “Statement earrings and bracelets were big this year,” she says.
    The Wedding Tree has built a “Glam Station” that features a jewelry wall with mirrors and the same lighting that’s used on the runway so customers can see how jewelry will shine on prom night.
    “We did a little bit of trial and error to determine what lighting was best,” Pesch says. “It mimics daylight and also the lighting they use at The Grand March.”
    Jensen incorporates jewelry and accessories into her displays, being sure to style each mannequin with a statement-coordinating necklace or shoes.

4. Make your window displays stand out. One of Jensen’s store’s biggest assets is that her second floor is made up of large windows.
    “The entire second floor is windows and the road I’m on is a busy highway,” she says. “So we built a stage and display five dresses in the window, and we try to keep them in line with a theme.”
    For example, after the attack in Paris last winter she dressed the mannequins in the colors of the French flag and added blue and red lighting. For Memorial Day she dressed the mannequins in red, white and blue gowns, and when a local high school won the state softball championship she created a display in their school colors.
    “This helps connect us to the community,” Jensen says. “We have over 12 high schools around us.”
    Mantz focuses on incorporating playful props to create a story around the merchandise.
    “For us it’s not so much about the dress that’s on the mannequin but the impact the window is having as a whole,” she says. “We are on a busy street and our windows are the first impression. We want them to be impactful and fun.”
    This spring Mantz decorated the window with umbrellas and raindrops for an “April Showers” theme. To depict the “May Flowers” portion of the window she attached long strands of yellow ribbon to a paper plate to make hoop shapes, and stapled fabric flowers onto the ribbons. And to kick off summer Mantz cut up a pool noodle to create popsicles and ice cream cones.  
    “All three of us who work on the windows are visually creative and are always looking for what’s around the office that we can use,” she says. “We repurpose things we already have because we don’t want to spend a ton of money and we change the windows so frequently.”
5. Don’t overlook social media. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, et al., your displays can also help with your online marketing. High school girls are constantly using their cell phones to take selfies and share them with friends.
    “They are picture takers,” Saita says. “They will take about 1,000 pictures of a dress before they buy it.”
    All the selfies that get taken on the runway at The Wedding Tree typically end up online, posted to social-media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
    “We have our logo on the bottom left-hand corner of the mirror so when they are sharing their pictures, and when they are brides themselves, they remember us,” Pesch says.
    Similarly, Saita has hung a step and repeat in her front window that features the logos of a popular vendor as well as her own. She says this draws the attention of high school age shoppers and their images are frequently shared through social media.
    At Pancsofar’s By Blush in Presque Isle, Maine, customers who purchase their prom dress at the store are photographed with a sign that reads, “Best Dressed by Pancsofar’s Bridal Boutique.” Manager Amber Hews posts the image to the store’s Facebook page, and she also takes a photo with the customer’s phone.
    “Then they share it on their social media and it gets out to their friends,” Hews says. “It reaches more people that way.”
    The sign also includes the hashtag #pancsofarsprom, which directly links those who search it to images of their latest prom styles and shots of their customers on prom day.
    Hews says a lot of the store’s success is due in part to social media.
    “We try to post more videos of the dresses rather than just pictures,” she says. “And we are constantly posting our new inventory. Girls get excited. They want to see it and they want to come in to try it on.”