Shopping with frills

There is, many designers claim, still a huge opportunity for retailers to raise their game by creating stores that offer richer experiences and a sense of drama. Designers might well say this of course, as it is the conjuring of such delights from the drawing board that pays their bills. But there is no denying that to compete in the mercilessly cut-throat high street, as well as against burgeoning online retailers, demands an especially enticing offer. Responding to these challenges, the fashion sector in particular is currently abuzz with new formats, refreshed branding and store roll-out programmes.

‘Retailers are finally starting to do something after four or five years of stagnation with the white box concept,’ says Lewis Allen, director of retail at Portland Design Associates. ‘The Spanish invasion of people like Zara has really shaken things up and to some extent shown everyone else the way. They have brought theatre and experience to stores, with more products that are more seasonable. There is now more investment, better ideas and stronger visual merchandising propositions. Look at Marks & Spencer: they assessed styling, products and packaging, with a much stronger focus on the consumer.’

These changes are not simply the work of retail design agencies alone, but a collaboration between visual merchandising specialists, architects, store development directors and marketing chiefs. And the result, at least at present, is a constant upward drive toward the luxury, the chichi or the indulgent. As ever, brands need as clear a distinction as possible from one another, but to combat the internet in particular fashion chains are being forced to improve their level of service and create add-on offers for customers.

‘The internet is really a part of our lives now and there are many products that it’s better to buy online, such as books and CDs. But fashion retailing is a different thing: People are different sizes, they need advice and extra service. This means that they have to retain that high street presence, which is very expensive and competitive,’ says Jonathan Clarke, director at Universal Design Studio, which is creating store interiors for the forthcoming dedicated Reiss building on Barrett Street in London. Clarke says that added services are increasingly being used toward the luxury end of fashion, perhaps reviving the type of relationship customers had with dedicated tailors in years past.

One way of achieving this type of intimacy through store design is to introduce boutique style elements into what are essentially high street chains. Women’s fashion retailer Phase Eight launched a Caulder Moore-designed format along these lines in autumn last year. The company’s then-chief executive Joy Walters described as a ‘chic and glamorous’, saying it helped elevate the brand above the middle market with a more personalised and bespoke offer.

Universal’s concept for Reiss’ 10,000 square feet store near Bond Street in London will also represent a shift toward aspirational luxury when it opens this October. ‘It is a much purer look; a much cleaner space and a totally new approach,’ says founder David Reiss. ‘But we’re trying to bring some key elements and special features to the graphics, walls and space,’ he adds, reluctant to reveal further details.

The Reiss store will be housed in a bespoke redevelopment – by architect Squire and Partners – of the five-storey building formerly home to the London College of Fashion. ‘It’s effectively a branded building, which is a giant leap for the brand and something that I don’t think anyone else has done in the UK,’ adds Clarke. ‘David wanted to move the brand forward, but the existing stores [designed by D-Raw Associates] are already good and it’s hard to make changes to a good offer. However some of the stores had started to become to reminiscent of the collections themselves, so the clothes can get a bit lost in the same palette.’

But perhaps the most significant movement in the retail hierarchy at present is the budget sector’s push up against the mid-market. As the Primark case study here shows, the tactical use of visual queues from luxury brands, combined with super-low price tags, can have a potent effect on shoppers. And significantly, its high-value ethos can also take on the supermarkets at their own game. ‘The value copy cat sector has been driving fast-fashion hard. Peacocks has even launched a new format that looks more like New Look than New Look,’ says Michelle Du-Prât, insights director at design agency Household. ‘The store designs pump for a fashionable edge, with prices on basics set to match the supermarkets.’ Du-Prât asks whether this is sustainable, but then also notes that Peacocks is reeling in double digit growth at the same time as rolling out a new store format.

Caulder Moore joint managing director Irene Maguire also points at the launch of fashion ranges in supermarkets as a cause of major ructions in the high street fashion sector. She believes that this is compelling players in the middle market to ‘seriously consider’ how they differentiate. One of the ways high street retailers are combating this is by making branding even more central to their thinking in terms of store environments, she claims. ‘Retailers are working hard to define their own individual, distinct ‘emotional’ territory in the minds of their customers. Our belief is that design can create an emotive bond between the brand and their customer. Establishing this connection successfully allows a retailer to elevate their product beyond a commodity into something which is a special experience.’

Working with brands including Gap, Next and River Island, as well as Primark, Dalziel & Pow’s portfolio straddles the value/mid-market offers. ‘This push by value players has prompted the competition to raise their game significantly. The middle market retailers are now investing heavily in the design of store environments to protect their position or establish a new more premium position,’ says director David Dalziel. H&M’s new COS format, for example, takes cues from designer brands but addresses the mass consumer in a mid-market segment. However, some have questioned how well the format is performing. Dalziel says that although the stores look good, there is too much discounted product and not enough space, while Clarke also remains unconvinced that the format has really been effective.

And what is the effect of all this budget and mid-market jostling at the premium or luxury end of the street? As all retailers take more and more design cues from premium styling the top strata are feeling the pinch. And according to Dalziel, they are not reacting effectively. ‘The high brands are pressured to respond and in my opinion they are failing. Too many premium stores are not providing the differentiation considering the investment. High brands should be fulfilling a fantasy, inspiring their customers, not simply reassuring them with another ‘smart’ store. The spark and creativity is lacking,’ he claims.

In many respects, this is the challenge for everyone on the high street: to somehow provide an easily identifiable point of difference while at the same time developing an efficient and alluring store format. Having just opened Bench’s first standalone concept store in Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, the company’s head of retail and former Ted Baker man Greig Fowler is aware of the challenge of trying to stand out in the marketplace. ‘Everyone’s raised their game and doing a good shop fit is not enough anymore. You have to go the extra distance to stand out, which is extremely hard in this day and age.’

Case study: Primark – budget bonanza
There’s a lot of talk about how the budget sector is putting the squeeze on mid-market players such as Next, Dorothy Perkins or River Island by raising the game in terms of store environments. Perhaps at the apogee of this movement is Primark’s 35,000 sq feet store on Oxford Street, which opened late last year under a design by Dalziel & Pow, its retained agency for almost 20 years.

Lambasted by some as a purveyor of gluttonous and unsustainable over-consumption due to its low-price, high-turnover product, the store was nevertheless stampeded by wanton consumers at launch. Although this frenzy has since abated to some degree, the store is still around 50 per cent over its initial trading targets and is set to turnover more than £100m a year, according to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel. Footfall on the street outside rose by 16% in the three months after opening and it takes around a 100 staff to replenish the stock overnight. ‘There are still queues at the weekend and inside it’s running at four times the pace of Dorothy Perkins,’ claims Dalziel.

The retail design challenge is to accommodate – and indeed promote – this kind of throughput. The agency’s scheme has 64 tills positioned across two floors. This quantity is typically found in supermarkets, but here – in order to maintain a fashion store ambience – the cash desks must not dominate, so they are broken into four banks of 16. Sub-brand areas, such as children’s range Young Dimension and household goods in Home, give the store a ‘departmental feeling’, although there are only about seven finishes and a predominantly monochromatic colour palette, normally associated with higher status brands. ‘Spot and fluorescent lighting combinations and accents of other materials, such as baroque wallpaper and heavier timbering, are more sophisticated than you would expect. But it’s also important that people don’t think it’s out of their price range, so the space is clear and unfussy,’ says Dalziel.

And this is how Primark starts to trade up the budget sector. Using design, its low-cost and abundant products are set in an environment which suggests a higher price tag. ‘It’s almost like the price has been misprinted: a £40 dress for £4,’ reckons Dalziel.

This is article was written for Marketing, 26 September 2007.

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