Center City chain has mastered the art of the window display

Courtney Fairfield, 24, looks over the Free People window display with friend Dana Daniels, 25.

View it as window dressing at its finest.

Window displays have been around forever as an early form of "experiential retail."

But in an era when a mouse click seals a sale in seconds, brick and mortar stores have to stand out.

Free People, a women's boutique store with eye-grabbing window displays at 1625 Walnut St. in Center City, seems to have mastered the technique.

Curbside, viewing the store's spring display is like looking at a painting. Textiles, metals and tissue paper are intricately shaped into leaves that dangle from string to create the look and mood of spring to match the new inventory.

"They always have nice displays," said Free People regular Dana Daniels, 25, as she admired the window earlier this month with Courtney Fairfield, 25. It features headless mannequins wearing the ultra-chic bohemian outfits that the brand is known for.

Next door is Urban Outfitters, which, like Free People, is owned by Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters Inc. Anthropologie, Bhldn and Terrain round out the company's brands.

Retail experts say such strong visual appeal can catch a shopper's eye and the wallet.

"Bricks-and-mortar retailers absolutely must give customers a reason to step into their stores," said Garrick Brown, a Sacramento-based vice president of retail research at Cushman & Wakefield. "It's how you first engage your customer's senses."

Brown cited leading sporting goods retailer Bass Pro Shops, which opened a store in Atlantic City last year, as being good at this. Each store has massive display units and dioramas, sometimes including an indoor water feature stocked with fish. "Their displays are a huge part of the experience," Brown said.

Urban Outfitters was created in 1970 by anthropology graduate student Richard Hayne and Wharton student Scott Belair. Belair needed a project for his entrepreneur workshop, and over beer, the two came up with the idea of an inexpensive store for college students. They pooled $5,000 and opened the first Free People Store near the University of Pennsylvania campus with secondhand clothing, scented candles, T-shirts and ethnic jewelry, among other items.

The first Free People-branded store opened in 2002 and sells products to about 1,400 specialty stores and select department stores. The clothes exude a free-spirited, inspirational feel with short and long flowing dresses and embroidered tops, but on the pricier side. A shirt can run from $68 to $108, and a pair of heel shoes average $168.

"I have always been impressed with the way Free People is not afraid to take risks with their display windows, a direct reflection of the Urban Outfitter business model," said Larry Steinberg, senior vice president at CBRE Retail Services. "It's so refreshing to see a store that creates an exciting shopping environment, instead of rows and rows of metal racks."

On Monday Urban Outfitters, Inc. reported that total net sales for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2016 were flat at $1.01 billion, compared with the same quarter last year. But comparable retail segment net sales rose 2 percent at Free People, while decreasing 2 percent at the Anthropologie Group and 3 percent at Urban Outfitters.

"We enter each season posed with the challenge and opportunity to transform our entire store interior," said Alex Moran, store design and display director for Free People. "We create display pieces that support and elevate the brand's year-round trends. When designing a display, we find inspiration in interesting materials and techniques, which we strive to incorporate into new ideas to set the mood for each season."

The Free People window is changed four times a year: for "spring, summer, fall, and holiday." The process starts about a month before every new window display rollout.

Moran said that, five years ago, Free People added so-called district display coordinators to the field team "to make each store look and feel its best."

"For us, it's the thoughtful composition and careful hand touch in all of our display pieces" that makes a display effective, Moran said. "If a window display makes our customer smile, enriches his or her shopping experience, we've done our job well."

Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said such attention to detail pays off,

"Retail windows are important in people's purchase process," she said. "We often think of making a purchase, not as a single step, but rather as a journey - or people call it the 'path to purchase.'

"You may see something in a window that you weren't planning on buying, but seeing it in the window gets you interested," she said. "Retailers are just beginning to understand just how much more they can be doing with these store windows.

"We are going to see even more innovation in this area as stores begin to incorporate technology."

She said recent tests have transformed a store window into a giant iPad and consumers interacted with content on the window.

Analyst Brown said that, to be successful, a retailer doesn't have to create a window like Saks Fifth Avenue's Winter Palace, which took 250 people, 10,000 hours, and more than 225,000 lights to produce last holiday season.

"But the days of stores with nothing special in the windows, if anything at all, are coming to an end," he said. "Those stores that don't find ways to entice and engage customers are doing so at risk of their own peril."