Britain may no longer rule the waves, but British retailers are topping the charts in Europe, according to a report by Mintel Retail Intelligence released last week. The report says Marks & Spencer is Europe’s favourite fashion store, while Tesco has consolidated its position as the Continent’s second biggest grocer after French-owned Carrefour. Meanwhile, British owned B&Q/Castorama dominates the pan-European DIY sector.
And it seems European retailers are casting covetous eyes across the channel in the direction of these success stories and targeting British designers to help them achieve similar results.
British designers are increasingly sought after in Europe for delivering hip retail interior concepts. Major Continental retailers like Mango and Tom Tailor are forsaking home grown talent in favour of UK groups because it seems they’ve mastered the knack of combining innovative design with hard-nosed business sense.
Recent British exports include Design Ministry’s revamp of Spanish toy retailer Imaginarium (DW 15 August), JHP’s concepts for Dutch developer Corio (see News, page 7) and 20/20’s brand identity and wayfinding for German department store
Karstadt (DW 12 September).
Design Ministry managing director Valerie Lloyd says the British obsession with retail therapy is a key factor in UK design domination. ‘Brits love shopping. The Latin Europeans prefer food, wine and sex. The eastern Europeans prefer alcohol,’ she says. ‘Specialising in retail has given British designers a point of difference in Europe.’
The Nest chairman Alex Willcock agrees. He says that in contrast to ‘conservative’ Continentals, British designers have shown an understanding of the ‘theatre of retail’ and pioneered an experimental approach to interior solutions and corporate design whic is opening doors in Europe.
‘Europeans are witnessing a marked level of success in the UK high street and want to replicate the formula,’ he says.
Willcock thinks commercial nous also plays a big part. He says European retailers are fazed with ‘off-the-hanger’ interior concepts developed by local designers, that might look stunning on the drawing board, but don’t necessarily get the cash tills ringing.
‘Here designers are actively engaged in the retail process and therefore have a grasp of commercial and creative dynamics, such as understanding retail space per square metre, lead time, supply chain management and product merchandising,’ explains Willcock.
According to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel, British designers are also proving highly responsive to the commercial potential of local trends.
Dalziel points to the rise of brand individuality between European territories and even between individual branches of the same chain. Mango, for example, deliberately adapts interior design and product offering from branch to branch to fit in with local customs and fashions. Dalziel says the challenge for British designers is to produce solutions that project individuality yet retain an aura of corporate cohesiveness.
‘There is a shift towards responding to local trends. European and US designers are considered prescriptive, whereas London is seen as flexible,’ says Dalziel. ‘Selfridges, for example, is proving a model for Europeans where floor space is a great deal more flexible, brands speak for themselves, and there is less control,’ he says.
JHP claims around 70 per cent of its business now originates overseas and most of that from the Continent. But JHP director Steve Collis says business is not simply landing in laps. In fact, he says, the opposite is true. UK groups are actively seeking European clients because their concepts are more likely to fall on receptive ears.
‘Europeans treat us like experts, but UK businesses are reluctant to heed advice. Mango has prospered in the UK and Europe because it listens to its designers,’ argues Collis.
Collis also feels simple economics as much as design expertise is working in favour of British consultancies. He cites the rise of budget UK-based air travel, which means it’s relatively cheap for British consultancies to shuttle around the continent meeting clients, as an example. On mainland Europe, where budget travel has not taken off to the same extent, commuting between countries is costly.
Collis was en route to Venice when he spoke to us, a trip he was proud to declare cost his business ‘a mere twenty quid’.
‘Flying is no obstacle for British designers, helping us keep down costs and making our services more cost-effective. The reduction in the price of airline travel between the UK and mainland Europe is a big factor in Brits’ ability to win business,’ he says.
Although the mystery continues over whether Britain will leap into bed with the Euro and throw its hat fully into the European political union, it seems certain the future of UK retail design is firmly linked – to the Continent. Yet designers warn against complacency.
The US, once the bastion of forward-thinking, lost its crown to Britain in the 1990s. But its designers have little taste for humble pie and are once again sending feelers into the European arena, challenging British consultancies to continue to deliver innovative and successful solutions.
Three tips for winning European business
Explore the market by spending time on the ground meeting consumers and the client in their own territory. Get under the surface of cultural differences by understanding both customer and client expectations
Adapt design to local needs and deliver a solution that combines individuality within brand consistency. Be aware that big companies are as open to innovative solutions as smaller ones
Good design makes money – in the European market there’s a distinct lack of awareness surrounding the commercial advantages design can offer