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j petermanI have a friend who tells stories. For pocket money, she collects discarded pieces of furniture from hard rubbish days, and sells them on eBay. To increase the apparent value and sale price of an item, she makes up a story about it.

A bedside table, for example, was from a huge country house, which had been in a family for generations until bankruptcy forced the current generation to sell everything. All of a sudden the article becomes worth more.

It’s all fiction of course. And to a certain extent people know that. It’s just that everyone loves a story. It’s built into our make up – our earliest experiences are of our parents telling us stories to get to sleep – there’s a comfort factor in it.

The master of storytelling to enhance the value of ordinary items is J. Peterman.

The J. Peterman catalogue was a classic in 1990s America. It came printed on matte stock with everything hand drawn and watercoloured. I was surprised to find it has migrated online and is telling the same stories.

The classic for me is a simple cotton baseball cap with a soft leather peak. Peterman transforms it into an irresistible object of desire called Hemingway’s Cap.

“He probably bought his in a gas station on the road to Ketchum, next to the cash register, among the beef jerky wrapped in cellophane. Or maybe in a tackle shop in Key West,” the catalogue says.

“I had to go to some trouble to have this one made for you and me, but it had to be done. The long bill, longer than I, at least, ever saw before, makes sense. The visor: leather, soft and glareless and unaffected by repeated rain squalls. The color: same as strong scalding espresso, lemon peel on the side, somewhere in the mountains in the north of Italy.”

All this for a mere $59, although as the author reminds you, “He probably got change from a five when he bought the original.”

That makes it $54 for the story. Worth thinking about.

Three dimensional stories

Three dimensional stores can take storytelling to a whole new level where, like Alice walking through the looking glass, the customer can walk into and around the story.

Ben Sherman in its Carnaby St, London store tells the story of the brand through materials, finishes and visual merchandising.

Ben Sherman is a retro London of tube stations, mods, rockers, tough characters, rock ‘n’ roll, and sharp tailoring. You don’t just buy a suit; you buy into a little bit of that world.

Ben sherman london

Details are important in this respect. I recently came across a beautiful reference to a brand’s history in the Nike shop in Westfield Stratford. The shoe wall paneling is a reference to where company co-founder, Bill Bowerman, experimented with a waffle iron to create the first Nike soles.

Burberry Regent St in London uses technology in a big way to tell its story of squally, but stylish England. The big screen gets the attention of most commentators, but tablet displays tell individual product stories in a captivating way.

French supermarket giant, Carrefour, takes a playful approach in its city concept. Freshness and value are displayed in small point of sale elements that transcend language and make you smile.

Closer to home, McCartney Design has been helping Freedom to tell its product stories by creating a highly flexible and well lit environment where large or small stories can be created by the use of movable walls and rooms.

All colours and finishes can be easily changed in the service of creating new stories – think of it as a three dimensional home lifestyle magazine which is edited and re-created continuously.

There’s no denying that the product is important and has a value. But it’s the story that makes it worth more.

This article first appeared in Inside Retail Magazine’s October/November 2013 issue. Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design, an integrated graphic and interior design studio. Find out more at www.


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