Fair game

DIY stores are diversifying into design products and lifestyle interiors to entice women into this typically masculine environment.

As anyone unlucky enough to have been caught up in the midnight stampede at Ikea’s store in Edmonton, north London earlier this month will testify, homewares and DIY retailing is big business. And it’s changing. The design revolution in consumers’ homes, and the growing number of women making decisions about their home’s interiors, are fuelling a change in what retailers sell, how they sell it and how they position their stores.

DIY retailers are expanding into home accessories such as mohair cushions and table lamps, forming design partnerships and revamping their interiors to create ‘inspirational, lifestyle’ outlets. It’s no longer enough to stack ’em high, warehouse-style; stores must now offer the right experience. And the stakes are high – long-established names such as Courts and Allders are suddenly no more, and Marks & Spencer’s Lifestore closed last month in ignominious failure and a rumoured cost of £50m.

Leading the counter-attack is B&Q. Last December, it opened a trial store, in East Kilbride outside Glasgow. Gone are overpowering strip lights and split bags of concrete. Instead, the store features a café, a ‘colour and inspiration’ zone designed to help customers choose colour in their homes, soft furnishings, prints, designer radiators, room sets and a mezzanine showcasing bedroom furniture. Designed in-house with South African consultancy ITI, the concept is female-friendly – while retaining B&Q’s core DIY tools offering – and reflects the next stage of a gradual move toward more design-led retailing.

For East Kilbride, B&Q also collaborated with Royal College of Art head of textiles, colour specialist Clare Johnston, and it’s currently working with research associate Duncan Turner on design-led air-conditioning products, still in their early stages. These build on a series of consumer-savvy collaborations, including its range of Tate-branded paints and wallpapers and two female-friendly power tool products, Sandbug sander and Gofer screwdriver, designed by RCA research associate Matthew White. While rationale for its sponsorship of round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur is self-evident, will its design tie-ups be as successful?

The RCA collaborations have more ‘meaning’ than celebrity-branded ranges, argues B&Q marketing director David Roth. ‘Design talent is more important than a name. We’re making design integral to everything we do, even for our “harder” products. In making products like sanders easier to use, particularly for women, they end up better designed for all,’ he says.

In working with respected brands such as Tate in this way, retailers such as B&Q can stretch their brand into areas they might not have the ‘authority’ to enter on their own, says retail design consultant Paul King, who conceived B&Q’s collaboration with Matthew White.

B&Q isn’t the first, or last, homes retailer to identify women as a key growth area. Homebase, which launched its summer 2005 product range last week – including picnic tumblers, mats, salad bowls and cushions – has been trying to shed its nuts and bolts image for years.

And MFI is currently upping the ante with its store redesign project with Conran Design Group, opening its latest last November in Farnborough. ‘We’re introducing elements to stores now that would have been unheard of three or four years ago: real wood floors, mood lighting, design studios, lifestyle “messages” on screens,’ says CDG director Peers de Trense. ‘We’re trying to create shopping experiences similar to those consumers get when they go to fashion or department stores.’

Mintel director of retail research Richard Perks agrees. ‘Success stories in the DIY retail sector are those selling aspirations and lifestyle, not just products,’ he says.

But in diversifying, retailers must pitch their products exactly right or they’ll fail. ‘Allders didn’t try hard enough and Lifestore got its homewares market horribly wrong,’ he suggests.

King believes the sector will splinter into smaller specialists. ‘Consumers are very sophisticated,’ he says. ‘If they want quality, up-to-date accessories, they’ll shop elsewhere.’ The danger is, he warns, DIY retailers will fragment so much that they lose their core appeal.

But retailers must develop stores that offer home interiors-as-fashion, argues Perks, to insulate themselves from the housing market and its cyclical nature.

Lifestore may have launched in a difficult year, but many believe its failure was down to the products themselves. ‘Consumers need to look at products and think “yes, I could have that in my home”,’ says de Trense, ‘and that’s where Lifestore failed. It went too far.’

King says the future of DIY stores is ‘stores within stores’. ‘They have all this space and don’t know what to do with it. B&Q needs to bring its ceilings down and offer separate areas.’ The café and colour zone in East Kilbride are a start – but it’s too early to know if this concept will roll out. David Roth says, ‘East Kilbride is an experiment. There’s ‘no going back’ to being a traditional DIY store, but we’re not turning into a department store, either.’

The DIY store revolution

IN

• Cafés • Mezzanine floors • Cushions, throws and picnic ware • Female-friendly power tools • Departmentalised stores • Colour, and one eye on current fashions

OUT

• Draughty warehouses with long aisles• Male-biased stores • High strip lighting• Single product offerings

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