It is a sad irony that a discipline that laid the foundations for design as we know it should now be taking its toll on the business. Retail design made the names of Rodney Fitch, David Davies and Rasshied Din in the 1980s, yet now it is proving the downfall of some specialists.
Regardless of the reasons cited by its founders, the demise of Astound (see News, page 3) will worry many an independent retail consultancy.
The south London group earned a tidy sum over the years from its retail projects – a big chunk of which involved roll-out schemes for Tesco. You’d have thought it would have been secure, with a steady workload. Yet rivals suggest that it undercut fees to win work to an extent that might have affected its finances. It, like Din Associates, clearly hadn’t worked out a succession plan.
Retail still provides lucrative work for some consultancies, but it is rarely at the back end of things, with roll-outs more likely being handled by contractors boasting a design office. Those that appear to be doing well include strategic consultancies. Groups like Circus, which is repositioning John Lewis, work at the top end of the chain. They don’t offer design, but they will help clients identify the right team for the job.
Then there are those that have diversified. Redjacket, for example, was a retail specialist in the 1990s, but now its portfolio also includes hotel, office and other interiors projects.
Even those with retail at their heart can adapt to meet market needs. Some, notably Dalziel & Pow, have played up their expertise in retail graphics at a time when interiors makeovers are less frequent. D&P is promoting graphics as a separate offer – a shrewd move that could hook in clients for when high street fortunes pick up. And, of course, to survive you have to seek work abroad, given the UK’s reputation for retail design.
Retail analysts confirm it’s tough out there. But by staying lean and nimble you can hack it as long as you charge realistic fees. Let’s hope the deaths of Astound and Din will prompt other groups to rethink their business strategies.