You can spend an awful lot of time in a store without noticing its mannequins. From a retail perspective, that's sort of the point. Mannequins aren't meant to be noticed, exactly. They're often faceless, even headless — cookie-cutter forms for displaying a scarlet silk frock or a sleek suit.
But make no mistake: From a store-image standpoint, mannequins matter. Their plastic grins and Manic-Panicked wigs speak volumes about the brand's customer and why she shops.
"A good mannequin is the silent salesman," says Ralph Pucci, chairman of Ralph Pucci International, a mannequin company that has been used by Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. "If it's the right mannequin for the right merchandise, the mannequin will sell the clothes."
At BCBG, the mannequins' jutting clavicles are dusted with sparkles. At Barneys Co-Op, mannequins are fashionably androgynous and Smurf blue. Sisley's glamor girls and guys have thick, glossy manes and look ever so bored. Each one offers a clue about who shops there: BCBG's customer needs a sparkly frock for Saturday night. The Barneys client is stylish but quirky; she has a sense of humor. And it's almost certain that Sisley's Euro-chic regulars have never uttered the word "C-Mart."
Over the past three years, women's retailer Chico's has been rolling out new mannequins: Out went the Spartan forms that the company had been using. (Devoid of faces, hands or curves, the angular creatures were as close to two-dimensional as possible.) The chain's new mannequins resemble cheery, retro pinup girls, if pinup girls wore comfy tunic tops and cotton capris.
"I think they've made a smart move," says Claire Brooks, president of brand consulting company ModelPeople. "Chico's is about a fun dreamland of upscale resort wear." The new-and-improved mannequins "have that fun, full-of-personality vibe," she says.
Sometimes mannequins do get noticed, and not in a good way. At Victoria's Secret stores, pseudo-Giseles with splayed legs and come-hither expressions have drawn complaints from some shoppers (and long stares from others). After a recent sales decline, the company's chief executive said the chain had gotten "too sexy." The brand's vampy televised runway show is probably the bigger issue here, but can those mannequins really be helping?
"Whenever you're in that whole lingerie category, you don't want to be so cutting-edge that you become Frederick's of Hollywood," says Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group, a firm that studies consumer behavior. "You're trying to appeal to the mass market."
Few shoppers, mass market or otherwise, will ever visit a store because of its mannequins. They're there for the fair prices, the good service or the no-questions-asked return policy. A mannequin's function is far more subliminal: It coaxes customers through the door and onto the field of dreams that is the selling floor.
"Shop windows create this aspirational world," Brooks says.
"The mannequin has to say, 'This could be you.' ''