Westfield Ho! Visiting Stratford City, Part OnePosted: September 20, 2011
Westfield’s latest gigamall has been open for a full week, and with the initial surge of retail CEOs and business journalists subsiding, we visited yesterday.
As you will have read, it’s vast, with three full storeys of stores on a banana-shaped axis, with a series of spurs and an open-air mall creating some sort of circuit. However, the layout is far from the “box” pattern of Westfield’s White City mall, and we reckoned customers are more likely to traverse the banana, change levels and come back again, than explore the byways, as currently configured.
With 300 shops and 70 restaurants, a single visit – even a five hour slog – only allows you to scratch the surface of what’s on offer. Much of the coverage so far has concentrated on the big fashion flagships on the First Floor. The fit-out and confidence of Next and Forever 21 are most impressive; however, my colleague and I focused on the sectors that most interested us.
Westfield is clearly zoned, with smaller stores on the Lower Ground level providing a variety of services; accessories and mixed fashion on Ground; and high fashion on top, as noted above. So let’s take a look at the Lower Ground.
If you come by train or tube, this is where you arrive, and a peachier location for a Starbucks is hard to imagine. The store is light, bright and comfortable, using natural materials in place of the traditional lashings of terracotta paint. Some of the comfort might have to be sacrificed in favour of more seating, but the three tills and six service staff were busy and cheerful. A good meeting point, and a strong start to any visit. With outward-facing seating, this is an excellent people-watching venue.
And the people we watched appeared to be overwhelmingly local on Monday morning. You don’t have to be wealthy to shop at Westfield – this theatre of dreams showcases mostly high street brands, including a vast Primark, and the bargaintastic Deichman Shoes. High-end brands are here in force, of course, but there is no space equivalent to The Village at White City. It’ll be interesting to see how the clientele balances out as the scheme matures, but, as others have commented, it’ll be hard to assess the real success of the scheme until the spring of 2013, when the Olympics are a memory and a second Christmas has delivered like-for-like data.
Right, back to the stores. Immediately opposite Starbucks, tucked in next to Eat, is WH Smith, which had to win the Worst Merchandised Store accolade. Appearing almost deliberately contrarian, WHS has opted for a cheap, “hospital convenience store” shopfit. The magazine section was incomplete, the book offer was thin, and the rear of this small, wedge-shaped store appeared to have been ransacked by shoplifters, with minimal recovery, confusing merchandising and gaping empty spaces. Staff were confined to the tills, and some of the ranging (the emphasis on CD-Rs, CD carrying cases etc) appeared to be distinctly last decade. Compared to Smith’s confident store at White City, this was a disappointment. It’s also only about half the size of the existing WHS store in the old Stratford Shopping Centre, which suggests that smaller Smith stores are here to stay.
After that, things improved, as we entered the Land of the Tech/Phone Shops. The biggest statement was the most confusing – the Currys/PC World “Black” store. This is an important strand of Dixons’ business realignment (in essence, doing what everybody in this sector has to do, and compete, somehow/anyhow, with Apple), but the message is a muddled one. Is this a Currys store, where I go for washing machines? Or is it a PC World store, where I browse the wonders of Packard Bell? It’s dual staffed with both brands’ uniforms in evidence; a helpful sales assistent tried to unravel the Black concept for me, stressing that PC World had a great reputation for laptops (I’ll grant, they’re a go-to location), and that Currys was equally well-known for cameras (this had passed me by). Staff at the Black store would offer advice on selection and set-up, but wouldn’t be delivering that legendary Dixons hard sell.
Gazing around at the thousands of SKUs, I was reminded of a comment by Graham Bishop in Retail Week. This recognised that:
Customers have more information on hand than sales staff [having arrived at the store after fully researching their choices online], and often have killer questions that they open with to test staff to see if they are worth talking to. [The future will consist of]… less stores, and a different role for the people manning them.
This seems spot-on to me. It simply isn’t possible for sales staff to understand the menus and functions of hundreds of different PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, sat-navs, cameras, MP3 players, hi-fis, TVs and all the rest. The only people who can pull this off are Apple, who essentially only offer five products: the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, the MacBook, and the iMac. These come in various sizes and capacities, but mastering five products that essentially reflect identical Jobsian logic, is doable, whereas being able to comment authoritatively on the whole market is just impossible.
Instead of using the technology simply to sell itself, it needs to be harnessed to provide a proper features-and-benefits, compare-and-contrast service. This could clarify the conflicts that the consumer has to resolve between functions, price/value, and style; it may mean that some manufacturers have to fight harder for sales floor space, but it would enable the savvy shopper to review what the store is selling intuitively, rather than being blinded by hundreds of matchbox-sized cameras or goofy docking stations.
Confusingly, three brands – Currys, PC World and Black – aren’t enough. Although Dixons (the most obvious moniker) remains on the subs bench, the store is also majoring on Knowhow, which has its own, separate look and feel. This is a bit of a Geek Squad me-too, but the “rainbow button” logo is strong, and a convincing store could be built around this principle, which would be far more appropriate than the very middle-aged Currys and PC World brands.
On, to Everything Everywhere. This not-very-full store was in the heart of phoneland, with Phones4U, O2, Virgin Media all in spitting distance, and it brings together the funky Orange and prosaic T-Mobile brands into a not-very-exciting whole. This was a pity, as Orange has created some exciting stores in the past, and is the most consistently imaginative of the major brand network providers. The Westfield store felt very generic, despite its spaciousness and good service; you can’t help but feel that ditching one of the consumer brands would be wiser than trying pretend that two brands can deliver the same service more effectively than one. Otherwise, aren’t we going to get lost in Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford territory?
The Vodafone store has yet to open, but Carphone was trading, out of a relatively small and conservative space. We got a distinct sense that Carphone might be mislaying its mojo, with a cautious and tight selection of phones and tablets.
Now, it should be emphasised that the service we experienced in all of these stores was excellent, and stayed helpful and engaged after it had become clear that we were retail watchers with no purchase intentions. Nevertheless, life in the basement of Westfield is tough, where phone shop fights phone shop for superiority. Only one brand rises above the fray…
London is full of Apple stores, and the Westfield store had no new products on offer. However, around one hundred Blueshirts were in constant motion, exciting their customers with their zeal and commitment to the world’s most successful consumer brand. It’s not for Apple to slum it in the bowels of the mall, jousting with the other tech providers. Apple is for everyone, and sits alongside Hollister and Zara in primo prime pitch on the First Floor. As I’ve already observed, the product range is deliberately limited, so the cathedral of tech can provide dozens of functioning examples of each piece of kit, instead of the one or two that other stores can offer. Despite the crowds, despite the absence of an exciting shopfit or indeed any memorable distinguishing features, this is the shop that delivers what the customers want. What’s retail success about? Product + service? Check.
And that’s long enough for one blog, but there’ll be more to follow, including a stellar M&S and a surprisingly disappointing JohnLewis. Watch this space……