Chain store signs blasted by conservation group

English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley has launched a damning attack on the branding used by high street retailers, urging companies to ‘tone down’ signs amid fears of creating identikit urban environments.

The Government conservation organisation claims chain shop facias are too bright and visible, resulting in look-alike towns, all with unnecessary branding and aggressive signs.

It singles out Tesco and McDonald’s as prime offenders, arguing the retailers do not go far enough to dilute the impact of their signs. Occasional concessions, such as the McDonald’s outlet in Bath, which is painted gold and black in sympathy to its historic location, are considered rare and the result of pressure from local authorities, rather than a concerted effort on behalf of the retailer.

To address the matter English Heritage is to publish a policy document on 21 April. The report is expected to outline a strategy and provide recommendations on how best to tackle the problem. Thurley is also aiming to establish a dialogue with the UK’s leading retailers to thrash out some of the issues. The New Economics Foundation, one of the UK’s largest independent think-tanks, will also unveil a national survey in June. This will investigate the phenomenon of homogenised high streets and the emergence of ‘clone towns’, caused in part by high street signage. The survey aims to discover the extent to which chain stores are driving out local businesses.

It is a follow-up to a report published last year entitled ‘Clone Town Britain: The loss of local identity on the nation’s high streets’. The findings concluded that planning and regeneration schemes are creating a retail infrastructure hostile to small, independent businesses.

A spokeswoman for the NEF says the survey will give the ‘full picture’, showing how far the nation has gone towards clone towns.

Branding strategy and environmental design consultancy 20/20 has worked with various high street retailers, including Sainsbury’s, Allders and 20/20 Optical Store. Managing director Jim Thompson believes some of the major high streets have taken on a clone-like appearance, with retailers doing little to personalise their brand to suit the building and character of the street they are positioned on.

He speculates that rent incentives and reduced rates will ‘encourage more independent retailers back on to our primary high streets, which will diversify the customer choice and make shopping on our high streets an enjoyable experience again’.

Fitch London was recently appointed to design a series of retail outlets for streetwear brand Carhartt for the UK, Germany and Holland (DW 2 December 2004). Tim Greenhalgh, consultancy managing creative director, says the problem is a ‘difficult subject’ and argues that ‘while we must advocate moderation, we should not tone down signs so much to deny the fact that a high street exists’.

He ponders instead a return to ‘wonderful shop fronts’ to celebrate the great tradition of the high street and create a ’21st century view of what signage could be.’

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