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Upcycling: the latest trend for innovative merchandising

By the NUS Services buying team

Two of the clearer definitions of upcycling are as follows:

“Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value” – Wikipedia.

“Upcycling is similar to recycling in that you are taking something and reworking it into a new form for continued use. However, the main difference is that in the case of upcycling, you are generally not altering its form back into its components for reuse” – WordPress.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the need for sustainable living, the mantra of reuse, reduce and recycle is becoming firmly entrenched in the leading high-street stores.

Independent stores have been upcycling for a while now. Quirky high-street favourites Republic and Urban Outfitters have led the high street, but now even iconic brand Hermes is getting on board. If it’s good enough for Hermes…

What does that mean for students’ union stores? It’s not appropriate for every outlet, but if you are trying to emulate the high-street shopping experience in a clothing or card and gift shop, a relaxing but on-trend area in a bar or catering outlet, or a study area where students can work together in an attractive environment, being aware of the current and aspirational trends and implementing them in the students’ union can bring you more in line with the competition and show your students that you are aware of what they are looking for in a venue.

How do we achieve it?

Well, the bad news is that achieving the upcycled look can be time-consuming. The good news is that it is both cheap and fun to do! If your union or institution is having a refurbishment, this is the ideal time to ‘rescue’ old fixtures and fittings, freshen them up and give them a new purpose.

Old catering equipment such as vegetable trolleys or stainless steel cabinets can be used as an interesting display table. Old doors can be used to create a changing room in a corner of the retail store or as toilet cubicles in a trendy bar.

Old photoframes can be converted with blackboard paint to make attractive noticeboards, advertise daily specials, price lists, this week’s offers or a ‘what’s on’ guide.

All display items should be thoroughly cleaned before being transformed for their new purpose.

Other current high-street trends that are easy to incorporate if you have the time include patterned varnished stairs, giant letters, jewel colours, ‘make do and mend’, vintage transport and afternoon tea.

Another current trend that will remain for at least spring and summer is old travel artefacts such as vintage maps, stamps, postcards and travel trunks. These can also be picked up from charity shops and antiques stores.

If you would like to give upcycling a try but are stuck for inspiration, why not ask your student staff for ideas? Design students may well have a project of this nature to complete and may be happy for their work to be exhibited in one of the union outlets.

If there are no willing design students to hand, here are some easy ideas as food for thought.

Old wooden spoons are widely used as food order numbers, but how about metal spoon chandeliers?

Light bulb vases – as traditional style light bulbs become obsolete, retain expired bulbs to make attractive vases for wildflowers – are great for table-top flowers in cafes and restaurants, or hung from the ceiling. This is an iconic design that also ticks the ‘retro’ box.

Letters made from wine corks – decorative words have been around for a while. Increasingly, individual letters are being sold so that people can create their own effects. The outlet name could be created from old wine corks and mounted behind the bar.

Sheet music roses – the rose continues to be the most used and widely recognised flower used in décor. If you find some old sheet music in your recycling, these could easily be fashioned into rose embellishments for the walls of any student study or socialising area. By spring, the trend for vintage fashion drawings will be breaking through, and tape measure designs are already being used for accessories. If you have a fashion or textiles department, ask if they have any old equipment that you can use as attractive and on-trend features.

Make it stand out

Clearly the inside of the outlet is the main focus, however, the first impression will always be formed before the customer has even crossed your threshold.

Retail consultants across the country are advising their clients to ensure that their store windows stand out from those of their competitors by incorporating visually impactful designs. As Christmas approaches, there will be no shortage of the traditional snowflakes and baubles, but the woodland theme is likely to also strongly feature.

Hollister has taken the opposite approach by almost cloaking their products from the window, inviting curiosity and prompting people to go in just to see what is in there.

Time will rarely permit students’ union outlets to be able to regularly change their windows and displays. However, a little bit of creativity can keep it fresh. Once products are in the window, it is easy to forget about them after weeks of walking past the same display (this is why they should be refreshed regularly).

Take time out to check that the products are still stocked, any promotions or prices advertised are still in effect, any seasonal products are still relevant and that the products still look attractive – no faded hoodies!

This is the ideal time to ‘rescue’ old fixtures and fittings, freshen them up and give them a new purpose.




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