City Sidewalks, Dressed in Holiday Style


December 19, 2017 | Main Street Spotlight | City Sidewalks, Dressed in Holiday Style | By Allie Jeka, Retailworks, Inc.

The Mini Classy’s display in the historic Iron Block Building; Photo credit: Eli Liebenow
The display designed for The Mini Classy combines graphic elements from the retailer’s latest clothing line, an iconic Milwaukee skyline, and mannequins decked in The Mini Classy’s newest collection of apparel. Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

Too often, as we’re strolling our favorite Main Street, we pass empty or dark shop windows that make us want to hurry home a little bit faster. Imagine instead, a charming streetscape adorned with vibrant, lively window displays, showcasing retailers’ favorite products and seasonal gift ideas.

That’s what we had in mind when we, a commercial interior design, display and branding firm, designed festive window displays to bring life to vacant storefronts in downtown Milwaukee this holiday season. Partnering with the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District #21, we created Wish List MKE, an initiative to promote local retailers and fill empty storefronts by sprinkling cleverly designed window displays throughout the city. (Those who attended the 2016 Main Street Now Conference in Milwaukee will be very familiar with this area!)

We designed five custom window displays, four of which featured products from local online retailers, including: The Mini Classy, designers of children’s apparel (sold nationally in stores such as Barneys New York and Ron Robinson); Linda Marcus Design, makers of couture clothing and handbags (Linda was a contestant in Project Runway, and her apparel has appeared in New York fashion shows); Fyxation, creators of urban bicycles (local company with global sales footprint); and Wander & Co, sellers of accessories and other products to benefit multiple causes (the owner participates in trade shows nationally). The fifth display showcased Milwaukee Downtown BID’s collectable holiday ornaments—this year featuring a replica of the striking new Northwestern Mutual Insurance building.

Each of the displays were designed with the retailers’ unique messaging and merchandising needs in mind, and incorporated two- and three-dimensional design elements to attract attention and keep passersby engaged. They were all strategically illuminated to be seen from a distance at night.  

The project partners were excited to bring displays to multiple historic buildings, as revitalization leads to an increased sense of community pride and historic appreciation. In the historic Iron Block Building, The Mini Classy’s display tells the story of giant child mannequins (and even a mannequin pup!) weaving their way through a Milwaukee cityscape composed of fun graphics. Next door, designer Linda Marcus’ display evokes a runway feel, with her one-of-a-kind designs displayed proudly on mannequins below drapings of matching materials.

Caption: Linda Marcus Design’s display in the historic Iron Block Building; Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

Linda Marcus Design’s display, featuring a runway feel and couture apparel, brings life to the historic Iron Block Building. Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

Fyxation Bicycle’s display, located in the historic Germania Building, features a sleigh pulled by two Fyxation bicycles (complete with a red nose) flying over a 2-D version of a local neighborhood skyline. The sky is studded with falling snowflakes constructed from bike parts, including gears and handle bars. Meanwhile, Wander & Co’s display spans two windows in the historic Colby Abbot Building, incorporating creatively merchandised products on hanging chairs and life-sized photography. A few blocks away on Water Street, the BID’s window features their holiday ornament collection complete with an oversized version of the 2018 bauble suspended by a bright red bow.

Fyxation’s display sets the scene with bicycles pulling a sled over the silhouette of a Milwaukee neighborhood, complete with falling snowflakes made from bicycle parts.

Fyxation’s display sets the scene with bicycles pulling a sled over the silhouette of a Milwaukee neighborhood, complete with falling snowflakes made from bicycle parts. Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

In addition to supporting local online retailers by providing them with temporary, decked-out storefronts, the Wish List MKE project also benefits Milwaukee’s brick and mortar businesses. Research shows that when storefronts are improved, 90 percent of surrounding businesses report an increase in sales (The Impact of Empty Storefronts on Communities; Greil, Sarver, Lawniczak, & Welty, 2016). Wish List MKE improves placemaking by reducing vacant storefront space and garnering increased foot traffic on Milwaukee’s streets. The window displays were unveiled in tandem with Milwaukee’s Holiday Lights Festival, a time when holiday shopping and local events are already drawing locals and visitors alike downtown.

Wander & Co’s display display in historic Colby Abbot Building; Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

In Wander & Co’s display, products are creatively merchandised across painted chairs, framed by illuminated snowbanks and life-sized photography. Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

The project’s benefits, however, do not end there. Filling vacant storefronts often results in increased rental revenues for property landlords. Each design incorporated a vinyl banner into the window display promoting the vacant spaces for lease. The displays showcase the potential of the empty spaces for retailers or other prospective businesses and will hopefully attract new tenants.

The Milwaukee Downtown BID #21 display; Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

The window displaying the Milwaukee Downtown BID #21’s holiday ornament collection displays past ornaments and an oversized version of the 2017 collectible. Photo credit: Eli Liebenow

Of course, Retailworks and the BID also wanted the displays to enchant the public. All of the displays are designed to entice shoppers to linger, to stop inside and shop. In this case, pedestrians can use a Tiny URL on each display to shop the online retailer’s merchandise. Wish List MKE offers the public an improved sense of place and an embellished holiday shopping experience. Strolling past the no-longer-empty windows now, it’s common to see passersby pausing in front of the displays, pointing and taking photos.

Retailworks and the BID have extended the project into the digital space by engaging shoppers on social media. We put a spin on the traditional holiday “find the pickle” game by disguising a pickle in each of the five window displays, and inviting those with a keen eye to present their finds on social media. They have also worked with the BID to stash Billie the Brownie—the iconic mascot of Milwaukee’s old Schuster’s Department Store—in 13 windows around the city, including the Wish List MKE displays and brick and mortar stores alike. Pedestrians who spot Billie can post a photo with him on social media for a chance to win a Milwaukee shopping spree.   

As the popularity of online shopping grows, retailers can gain a competitive advantage by ensuring their physical space offers a shopping experience full of ways to charm their customers. A creative, dazzling window display can be part of what makes an in-person shopping experience memorable. We hope these and other seasonal window displays in downtown Milwaukee start a trend of Wisconsin businesses prioritizing engaging experiences for their customers from the outside, in. We are already discussing plans for expanding Wish List MKE next year with the Milwaukee BID.

This year’s windows will be on display until the end of January 2018. If you’re in Milwaukee, stop by to see how creative displays provide downtown delight!

About the Author: Allie Jeka is the Social Media Strategist and Marketing/Creative Assistant at Retailworks, Inc., an award-winning branding, design and display firm headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They create engaging, branded environments and thought-provoking intentional art/display installations to positively influence the customer experience. More information is available at