Christmas is over and we’ve all been shopping like crazy for something special for our nearest and dearest. We’ve endured department stores, jewellery shops, electrical superstores and toy stores, all in the name of goodwill to the entire world and a Merry Christmas to everyone. But for me, the whole retail therapy experience was tainted by a lack of inspiring retail environments on the high street.
Retailers are like farmers. They’re always moaning and they will blame anything, except themselves, when describing why life is not treating them well. They never admit that the problem has something to do with them. And sure enough, around the first week of December, came reports of disappointing high street sales. Retailers blamed the weather. But I have a different opinion.
My ‘lack of difference’ observation first came to me while walking around Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre before Christmas. This experience was inspiring, yet depressing, at the same time. The inspiration came conclusively from the new retail emporium commissioned with bravura by Selfridges. Everything about this enterprise is astonishing and the fact that it was brimful of Brummies spending their hard-earned cash is testament to its success. The design is great and shows what can be done when a retailer is ready to do something truly different. The depressing bit came when I saw the other retailers in the Bullring. Apart from a few notable exceptions (such as the Orange phone shop) there was nothing of any great difference anywhere to be seen.
Some of the most notable culprits are the high street fashion labels. Why is it that when it comes to selling fashion, the most fickle objects of desire available to us all, that retailers insist on selling from bland, characterless white boxes with about as much soul as a dead parrot? We all know it’s highly possible to sell extremely desirable frocks in very desirable environments. Just check out the Prada and Stella McCartney stores in New York or the Martin Margiela shop in Paris (a white box, incidentally, but with attitude). The clothes aren’t exactly boring in the high street; indeed, they are successful because they are unashamedly based on the catwalk designs of that particular season. However, the retailers that sell them seem to be reluctant to do so in an environment that enhances anybody’s buying experience.
And it’s not just the fashionistas who are boring. Why do WH Smith and Woolworth’s exist anyway? I don’t really know why I need to go into those shops, do you? Then there are the electrical goods retailers. I know that most of them are owned by the same company, but do they all have to look like the inside of a 1970s roller disco?
When you analyse the possible reasons for this dearth of imaginative environments among mainstream retailers it is very difficult to justify. For starters, the retail design sector in the UK is supposed to be a world-beating creative force. So, theoretically, the retailers have a rich source of choice when it comes to finding creative talent to help them make that vital design difference. Now I also accept that re-modelling your entire chain of high street stores is extremely costly. But if customers are not walking into your store intent on spending lots of money then we must be talking about a chicken and egg scenario. Call me old-fashioned (and only ever do that from a distance if you value your life!) but isn’t shopping supposed to be therapeutic?
How can you be made to feel better about yourself when you can’t even distinguish a Next from a Top Shop, a River Island or a French Connection? Do customers always have to be presented with predictable timber floors, white walls, incessant video walls and chrome fittings, wherever they look? Is there some mysterious ideas factory out there somewhere that churns out slightly different versions of the same look, because there sure as hell isn’t a lot to choose from when it comes to materials, colours and presentation.
My theory is that the UK retail mass market has sunk into a severe case of apathy, with not one of the major players wanting to take a risk. I am sure the designers they use have tried to present new and innovative ideas, but why are their clients not listening? Isn’t it a bit depressing when it takes the smaller and less dominant players to show a bit of bottle? Well done to the Karen Millens and the Whistles of this world. At least you understand that ‘me too’ is not in the least bit inspiring to anybody, least of all your most important asset, the customer.
Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to firstname.lastname@example.org