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February 14, 2024 6 minute READ

A Story for the Ages

tags Behind the Scenes | Local Flavor
locations All
A Bee-U-tiful story

It’s no secret that Mast General Store loves to tell a good story. There’s the story of the Original Store – one of the most well-preserved examples of a 19th-century general store in the Southeast. There are the stories of its owners, who grew the store in their own ways, from a time that predates the “Mast” name to the present under the stewardship of the Cooper family.

There’s also a story behind each Mast Store location. Mast makes a point of never building new structures for its stores and intentionally selects sites not only for their unique character, but for the meaningful role each of their previous tenants filled in the community. Several of these buildings, like the Original Mast Store, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Everybody Gather Round

And stories abound from every community partner the Mast Store supports, every company whose merchandise is offered to guests, and every Mast Store employee, too. All these stories are extensions of Mast Store’s identity and tell a living history.

The Mast story wouldn’t be complete, however, if we didn’t literally “look inside” of the stores themselves. There, you’ll discover a vibrant scene comprised of products, displays, antiques, and, of course, creaky wooden floors. The presentation of all these things creates an atmosphere that, in many ways, comes together to tell the story of the Mast story.

Christmas windows in BoonePutting together all of those stories is an important job that’s carried out by a team of highly skilled visual merchandisers. Mast Store’s Visual Merchandising Program Manager Linda Arndt describes her team’s work as coordinating the numerous – not only visual but comprehensive – sensory elements that every guest encounters while shopping in a Mast Store. 

“The term visual merchandising is used to describe everything you experience when you walk up to and into a retail environment,” Linda said. “Window displays are the first thing that come into your mind when you hear the term ‘visual merchandising,’ but displays are only a small portion of what visual merchandising means to the store.

“Visual merchandising plays a significant role in, not only windows but also, entrances to the store, signage, lighting, smells, sounds, flooring, fixtures, color schemes, store design, brand logos, upkeep, props, merchandising of stock, and so much more.”

Linda elaborates that the effect of these elements working in concert is intended to “inspire, excite, educate, and stimulate” Mast Store guests. 

She says, “Our visual teams create stories throughout each Mast Store that help guests see themselves using these products in their own lives by pulling the items into their world and making them personal.”

Pulling Together the Characters

Creating a personal story for a display usually begins with a simple theme, but, as in all types of storytelling, details bring the story to life. For instance, a guest who steps into the Mercantile Department might come across an eye-catching display featuring honey. Within it, however, are dozens of individual products thoughtfully selected and artfully arranged to capture – not only varieties of honey guests would enjoy eating and kitchen utensils helpful to serve it but also – the essence of what a person might feel or think about when, perhaps, throwing a garden party, planning a picnic, or decorating the house for spring in anticipation of the arrival of those hard-working, honey-producing bees and the glorious flowers they need to make their sweet elixir.

The honey display is therefore merchandised with kitchen towels and oven mitts in warm, golden tones; cozy, rustic throw pillows stitched with bees hovering above the inviting phrase “Bee Kind;” cookbooks specializing in varied uses of the ingredient; reusable melamine plates and cups covered in animal prints or honeycomb patterns; and, obviously, honey-based sauces and locally-produced Mast Store Provisioners Honey.

The Plot Thickens

While some themes, like honey, appear in all Mast Store locations, others are concepted by a store’s visual merchandiser. Each Mast Store’s staff has its own Visual Merchandiser, who helps incorporate their community’s story into the Mast story.

Shanna Millender is the Columbia Mast Store Visual Merchandise Coordinator. She has worked in that location since it opened in 2011. 

“Telling the Mast story through visual merchandising is important because it shows the store’s local connections and how Mast supports our home community by offering local products in each department, like foods, books, apothecary, and crafts,” Shanna said. 

She also expressed a personal connection in her storytelling thanks to her familiarity with the community and the store’s guests.

“Some of our guests come in daily. They get popcorn and a soda or just a few pieces of candy to get them through the rest of their workday. Somes guests you see maybe once a week, once a month, or just around holidays. Each one sees something different in Mast, and you want each one to see something they want to pick up and take home with them, which could be a new bookbag or pair of shoes for school, supplies for their next adventure, or something that reminds them of their childhood, like games, puzzles, or that same cast iron pan their Nana used on Sunday mornings,” Shanna said.

Carhartt sign on Columbia's high wallsWhile the tantalizing smell of freshly popped popcorn and neatly presented displays that are pleasing to the eye are vital to a Mast Store guest’s experience, so, too, is feeling a connection with the past, as Shanna illuminates. 

Many legacy brands are available in the Mast Store, like Lodge Cast Iron in which Nana very likely fried her chicken every Sunday, but other items not available for purchase are also some of the best at conveying a sense of time gone by.
The top of the display units lining the walls in every Mast Store is filled with an assortment of antiques. A number of these have a direct connection to each store’s local history. 

Mast Store Columbia’s General Manager Jeremy Becraft recalls how Jeff Meadows, Mast’s Vice-President of Branding and Development, seemed to believe he had struck gold when he unearthed an early 20th-century tin Carhartt advertisement sign folded in half and tucked inside the wall as they prepared to open the Columbia Mast Store more than a decade ago. 

This one-of-a-kind vintage ad also bears the name of Efird’s, Mast’s predecessor in the building, which served Columbia as the city’s premier department store from 1915 until 1959. Today, it is prized among Columbia’s “above the wall” antique collection and unites the Mast Store’s own story with one of a similar retailer many locals fondly remember. Be sure to hunt for the iconic Efird’s Carhartt sign on your next visit to Columbia! 

Also, on your next visit to any Mast Store location, be sure to look up at the antiques, study the beautifully curated displays at length, breathe deeply to take in the aroma of popcorn and candy, and search for local products and connections to your hometown. Stories can be found all around you at the Mast Store – in large part thanks to visual merchandisers – as well as in the past through your memories and in the present with every creak of the floorboards beneath your feet.

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