The hard sell

As activity on the high street moves up a gear, DW goes client-side for some tips from two forward-thinking customers

Work in the retail sector is once again on the up, which can only be good news for the design industry. One thing it does mean is that work in this sector has never been so competitive. so how do design consultancies get the edge?

Two very different retailers tell us how they buy design and what they expect the design profession to bring them. One is a successful menswear retailer with an ever-expanding chain of stores and a long-term relationship with one design consultancy. The other is a major player on the high street, with a newly appointed design manager who is looking to expand its design portfolio.

Alex Brick

Director, Speciality Retail Group

The Suits You brand was first launched in 1983, with a shop on Watford High Street. The business grew rapidly during the next two years to five stores throughout the country. It was at this point that we realised we needed a design input to take the business forward.

With a non-existent budget, we did the rounds of about ten design consultancies, asking each to pitch for a redesign of the first store in Watford. The carrot was the redesign of a major store on London’s Oxford Street. The programmes presented by the consultancies varied considerably: one envisaged closing the shop for four weeks, another said eight weeks. With only five stores, that represented a large percentage of the total turnover of the company.

The successful team, Tilney Lumsden Shane, responded by presenting a tight programme, which involved working upstairs while we traded downstairs and vice-versa. The store closed for just two weeks and we only lost two Saturdays’ trade.

Today, the store-opening programme is opportunity-driven. We target towns and, as opportunities come up, take a look at them. We have no design budget, but continue to work with TLS, bringing it in at an early stage of the project.

Working with the same group for more than ten years does have its advantages, in that it knows our business, our budgets, and is able to work closely with us to develop new ideas. I would say that it is a good working relationship.

My role is to be fully involved on the technical side: finding the sites, overseeing the building and construction, and liaising with contractors. My brother and business partner Brian Brick handles the creative side, including the visual merchandising and window displays. We keep up-to-date on what is happening on the high street with our competitors and I expect TLS to do the same, and more.

The consultancy’s remit is to give us the best possible environment for men to shop in – men between 18 and 60 years of age. And we rely on TLS to oversee the jobs from concept design through to the day the store opens – and beyond. We have had a lot of heated discussions particularly on the creative side. But this is healthy, and demonstrates the strength of the relationship.

Similarly with the graphics, it has all been about relationships. Although TLS came up with the original Suits You identity, we now have a good relationship with London group Sears Davies – which was recommended by our former graphics group, the now-disbanded Indigo. Indigo designed the Protocol brand – a hire unit within the store.

Sears Davies has brought a fresh new approach to our look. It has created a new visual package for our three outlet stores, and has designed the brand for Suit Direct.

Case study

Suits You, Leeds

Brief: to develop a new retail concept which reflects the increasing sophistication of the business, and its staff, products and customers

The intention of the latest Suits You store, which has just opened in Leeds, was to attract the discerning younger generation, while sustaining the friendly and comfortable image that has proved popular over the years.

The result is a new design that essentially divides the shopfloor into front and rear areas. Although they house the same merchandise mix, the two spaces are very different – the front forms an introductory area where people can browse, while the rear section is more intimate. High seating is placed around the service desk in the rear, adding to the informality. If successful, new stores will be fitted with the design, and there are several planned for the future.

Gerrie Smith

Design manager, Virgin Our Price

Being a “one-girl band” in handling design management for Virgin Our Price, it is key to each project that I develop “family” relationships with designers. They adopt me. I adopt them. We create a team with a single goal: to deliver beyond the brief and leave with a giggle. If this is not achieved then something has gone wrong along the way.

It was acknowledged early on in 1996 that there was a need for a design manager in Virgin Our Price, because of a stronger focus being put on marketing-led initiatives within the retail environment. The position initially carried responsibility for managing all store design projects across the two brands, including design, layout and merchandising development.

I took up the role in May 1996, having previously been part of a close design management team. Since joining the company, my role has developed to be project-specific, working on key strategic projects in the business and identifying new ones, but always leading by design.

Both individually and as a company, we are not shy of taking risks; challenging current practices and delivering the unexpected, or sometimes the obvious. As design manager, I see it as my priority to commission progressive design, aiming to create and lead fashion in the field of entertainment retailing – setting new standards of retailing for the year 2000.

Any individual who is charged with commissioning design must be responsible for keeping abreast of the consultancy market. We all have within our reach the ability to pick the best and juiciest berries from the tree, so why always go back to ones within easy reach?

By this, it may sound as if I do not endorse design rosters, but this is not the case. As I have said, “family” relationships which are beneficial to both sides are central to my working practice, but they must be kept alive with squirts of those juicy berries. it’s a balance between the two approaches – rosters have to be regularly reviewed. I think I’ll drop the berry analogy now. Commissioning design is just like anything in life, you have to keep it alive, inject excitement and sometimes uncontrollable talent into your work.

I always have my eyes and ears open, throughout the day and into the night. I read and take advice from anyone, and, of course, attend trade shows, even regularly “cold call” on new consultancies. I am always intrigued by the response when I first call a new agency and ask for the new-business manager, stating where I’m calling from. The response compares to a call from Shergar.

My advice to agencies which have continual problems in getting a foot in the door is this: letters say nothing and show no creativity. Do something innovative to grab attention. Make me feel privileged.

Case study

Virgin, Wimbledon

Brief: to review the current window-display mechanism and propose alternatives

The solution for a new window-display mechanism had been a mystery for far too long. This project had to be approached differently. Along with Richard Watson from client advisory agency EDR, we identified that what was needed was a consultancy with expertise in exhibition design.

We completed a three-way paid pitch and Pile Probert Kelly was successful. PPK identified that the mechanism had to sit back and be a canvas, flexible enough to allow the ongoing promotional creative to dominate. We trialed the new mechanism within one of our stores and researched it within the business. Unanimously, it proved to be an excellent solution offering even more flexibility than anticipated. This was an example of delivering the unexpected with the obvious.

Key to the ongoing success of this project is our relationship. We enjoy our meetings; they are lively and, most importantly, open and honest.

Part of my role is to identify general snags which crop up as a result of the complexities of the project. There is nothing sweeter than to find that at the start of a meeting, the agency has not only identified the same problems, but proactively offered a choice of solutions. Thank goodness, this is a regular working practice of PPK.

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