UK high streets walk tall

British retail designers are experiencing something of a renaissance at home and abroad, as Bhavna Mistry reports

Signals that the retail boom is maintaining its momentum have been underlined by what – at first glance, anyway – seems an unlikely source. A bullish report from shopfitting manufacturers’ trade body Shop and Display Equipment Association finds that growth in the industry is being sustained. Moreover, association members are confident of more growth to come in the immediate future.

This confidence is reflected in retail design. “Shopfitting and retail design go hand in glove,” says an SDEA spokesman. Obvious of course, but the fact that some 42 per cent of SDEA’s 150-strong membership is expecting continued improvement points to new work, rather than continuing implementation from changes made by major high street retailers a couple of years ago.

Design has almost certainly moved on from the glut of work triggered by retailers like the Burton Group, Sears and British Shoe at the start of 1993. Most brands in all the groups’ portfolios have seen some sort of design input. Other retailers, including Selfridges, House of Fraser and Army and Navy – not to mention the smaller chains – have followed suit.

Now the rest of Europe seems to have jumped on to the bandwagon, and some of design’s major retail consultancies are reporting that they are heavily involved in work outside the UK.

“I’d agree with the SDEA’s findings. Retail is maintaining its boom and there has been an upturn in new work, but a lot of it is coming from outside the UK,” says John Harvey, design director at Din Associates.

Other European countries have seen “what’s happening over here in terms of retail design and are now starting to think about updating”, he adds.

Harvey says a lot of work is coming from Germany and Portugal, but the eastern European markets seem to be just as buoyant. North American retailers are also experimenting with new formats, partly as a result of the work seen in the UK. “The North American retailers which are looking to expand are coming to London rather than Paris or Milan,” comments Harvey.

Checkland Kindleysides managing director Jeff Kindleysides agrees, adding: “In the UK we’re leading the way, and retail design has taken on a more strategic role. Retailers are no longer coming to us and saying ‘we want a new look’, they’re looking for a strategic partner who can help them achieve maximum impact and commercial viability, sometimes on an individual store basis.”

But the rosy picture is marred by insistence from the Retail Consortium, which represents the bulk of UK shop groups, that retailers themselves are far from experiencing boom conditions. Having said that, the consortium has been cautiously optimistic about trends in high street activity since the start of the year, and this is reflected in the sort of design retailers are asking for.

“Retailers want to see their position maintained and their brand reinforced, rather than embark on a repositioning programme,” comments Harvey. So while many clients are looking for new concepts, few are targeting new markets or consumer groups.

The last word comes from the SDEA. “This is all excellent news for the industry,” says the association spokesman. “History has shown that when our figures are good, positive news follows for retailers.”

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