Dressing to impress

As cheap becomes chic and notions of class-based consumer segmentation fade away, value retailers are having to take a more creative approach to store design. Clare Dowdy talks to three consultancies working in this sector

It used to be straightforward. Rich consumers shopped in expensive stores, middle-income consumers in mid-market stores, and poor consumers in cheap stores. And the store environments were designed to reflect each price point, so you had deluxe boutiques at one end of the spectrum and sheds at the other.

But with consumers of all shades increasingly taking a ‘pick’n’mix’ approach to shopping in both fashion and food, retail designers are having to respond accordingly. Fitch talks of ‘no-brow’ consumers, who no longer fit a stereotypical demographic or class. ‘Now, there’s no stigma about you and where you spend your money,’ says Fitch creative director Simon Threadkell.

It’s at the cheap-as-chips level that the changes are happening. Asda, Aldi, Primark and others have upped their interiors game, recognising that they too can attract shoppers armed with Chloé clutch-bags. ‘The trend in fashion is of really not caring about the prestige of a brand, provided it’s fashionable,’ says JHP joint managing director Steve Collis.

Gone are the days when discount retailers flogged their wares in warehouse-style hangars. Now retail design consultancies are introducing the design cues (or at least an imitation of them) to budget stores that previously would only have been associated with the more upmarket brands.

Mintel noted in its recent Market In Brief that, ‘There is a growing trend in retailing for lower-priced retailers to add value by designing their stores to look as good as retailers in the mid-market.’ Or, as JHP joint managing director Raj Wilkinson puts it, ‘These are retailers who don’t want to spend £1000-£2000 per m2, but rather £300-£500. [A smaller budget] focuses the mind on where best to spend the money.’

Mintel, too, has highlighted this. Its April 2007 Market and Business Development report stated that the shopfitting sector’s annual level of growth had slowed since its peak of 24 per cent growth in 2002. Last year saw just a 6 per cent increase, at just over £4bn.

Primark’s Oxford Street flagship is a prime example of ‘cheap chic’. ‘There is the subtle difference,’ says its designer, Dalziel & Pow creative director David Dalziel. ‘With “higher brands”, the shell is the box designed to take on further enhancements; with “value brands”, the box is typically the final solution.’

Upgrading tricks range from simplifying displays and going monochrome to rearranging flooring and lighting.

Primark has been decluttered, says Dalziel. There is a good reason for doing so, as he explains. ‘By opening up the shop floor and letting the customer circulate the space, the impression of the brand is immediately boosted,’ he says. ‘Often, more volume is sold from fewer options.’ Fitch, which created the concept for George at Asda’s Southend store, also talks of reducing product density.

Further afield, JHP concentrated on layout and circulation for low-to-mid market, 44-strong German department store chain Wehmeyer. The group worked hard to avoid the aircraft hangar look when it unveiled its redesign of the retailer’s Düren outlet last month.

Discount retailers are now increasingly ditching vinyl and carpet tiles in favour of hard flooring. ‘Monolithic, seamless hard floors in vinyl, tile or screed will create a feeling of open, uninterrupted space,’ says Dalziel.

JHP swapped Wehmeyer’s grey carpet for clean, cream-coloured ceramic tiles, complemented by a darker tile. ‘Vinyl-tile floor is economic but ceramic and timber suppliers have got more savvy and become more competitive. It can now be more economical to put in a quality floor rather than an imitation one,’ says Wilkinson.

Designers are also replacing those low-voltage lamps – so popular in the 1980s – with recessed, energy-efficient lights.

‘Using less ambient light and more highlighting will take the clinical edge off a basic interior to create a sense of quality and drama,’ says Dalziel.

Threadkell talks about using ‘relevant, contemporary finishes and materials’ to design a space that’s flexible and easy to change. But ultimately, for him it is about the experience that designers can create, rather than the ‘envelope’.

The gentrification of discount retail environments is all well and good for the bottom end of the market, but where does it leave the mid market?

Mintel believes that it puts pressure on the mid-market retailers to justify their prices by creating even more innovative store designs. In turn, this has a knock-on effect on upmarket traders.

Dalziel agrees with this assessment. ‘Today, it seems the premium and value brands have a point of difference, but the centre ground is struggling,’ he says. ‘Once the centre ground catches on, the premium brands may be forced back into the niche position or be forced to diffuse their offer and spread their appeal. All of this activity pushes up the middle market.’

However, if the consumer cottons on to the fact that unfeasibly cheap products are often environmentally unfriendly or unethically sourced, these value brands may have to rethink their strategy.

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