The rich and the poor: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy…

…who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

The quote, of course, is Disraeli’s, and it was brought to mind after I read this piece by Marcus Leroux in Monday’s paywalled Times.

The gist of the article (for those of you without a Times subscription) is that 25% of non-essential retail spending takes place in just 3% of Britain’s shopping areas.  Of course, the crushing dominance of London – West End, City, Knightsbridge, Westfield – will help to skew those numbers, as London’s share of tourist retail is exceptionally high.  But forecasters CACI have reviewed 4,000 different shopping destinations, grading them from A to E, with anything below a C having questionable long-term viability.

The retail landscape has become more differentiated in recent years, as a combination of demographic polarisation, plus online, supermarket and out-of-town shopping, has caused the geography of the UK to divide more starkly between winners and losers.  I pondered this in a blog I published at the start of this year, seeking to identify 80 centres that I believed had future relevance; in Leroux’s piece, he notes that around half of Thorntons and Argos stores are in D and E banded locations.  And when stores close, which centres do you think will bear the brunt?

Well, here’s the good news (he said, a little acidly): the clone town will be a thing of the past.  No longer will there be identical parades and malls of the same jewellers, fashion stores, chocolatiers and gift shops, from Cornwall to the Highlands; instead, we risk a brutally stratified selection of pound shops, pawn shops and cheap booze in struggling towns and suburbs, while chi-chi boutiques and cafes overwhelm the rest.

I’m not convinced this is a good thing (I am a One Nation kind of guy); and I wonder if all of the government’s attempts to focus on local retailers (Portas towns et al) only takes us a short way down the road.  I very much support reducing business rates, slackening planning red tape and freeing up parking in order to revitalise a shopping district – but that revitalisation requires strong and solid national chains as well as entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Any smart indie retailer understands the appeal of well-known neighbours, preferably robust and well-managed ones.

There is a significant risk that squeezed, mid-market retailers will be closing in the top locations, pushed out by high occupancy costs and sophisticated online shoppers; and closing also in the poorer towns, where falling sales are precipitated by falling employment, collapsing aspirations and a general hopelessness.

We may need to move away from the purist “you can’t buck the market” view to a more nuanced standpoint that recognises that decent communities need a well-balanced high street (as well as good jobs, schools, healthcare, housing…), and that allowing high streets in densely populated areas to fail is akin to leaving broken windows unattended.  Of course, those retailers need to provide goods and services that their customers need – which of course is what mid-market chains have always delivered, tweaking their value offer as appropriate to local demographics.  But once “some quarters in the City” (Leroux) have prevailed on Argos et al to close their D and E locations, recovery in those towns will become just that little bit more difficult.

Blindingly obvious “two nations” photo: Cheryl de Carteret on Flickr

Front of Store – the e-book!

I started writing the Front of Store blog a year ago, as a response to British retailers’ 2010 Christmas trading numbers.  A year later, a new set of results has  been published, another Christmas has been put to bed, and it feels like a sensible time to take stock.

When I created the first entry, I couldn’t be certain what directions my blog would take – I knew I had plenty to say, both about my “home” trade of bookselling, and about the broader world of retail.  And the news stories kept on coming throughout the year – Borders, HMV, Waterstone’s, and more recently Westfield, Tesco and Mary Portas.  Underpinning the bricks and mortar triumphs and travails is the real unavoidable success story of modern retailing – online commerce, digitisation and Amazon.

Ah yes, Amazon.  An inescapable part of everyone’s life now, bringing good things (service and value) to the consumer, while driving a coach-and-horses through established practices in every sector it touches.  Like Apple, Amazon anticipates the future, leaving its competitors to react to its initiatives.  Too often, Amazon’s competitors try to protect their heritage, where instead they should be repurposing their companies for the future.

There came a point last autumn when I looked at the total word count and thought, blimey, I’ve got a book here.  Hence a Front of Store e-book – and, of course, I’m selling it through Kindle Direct Publishing.  Industry estimates suggest that around 1.3m e-readers were bought in the UK over the Christmas period, and of that number, 1.2m were Kindles.

It would therefore be profoundly foolish to début anywhere other than on Kindle.  Naturally, if I have a smash hit on my hands, I’ll make use of other formats – but the effort required to make a Kindle book has been fairly demanding – many evenings of editing and formatting in, and swearing at, Microsoft Word.

The initially published result was below par, so today’s buyers are being offered the second edition; after KDP struggled to translate tables and jpegs into ebook format in the first version, I went back and substituted lists and descriptions.  This probably says more about my book-creating abilities than it does Amazon’s – but it underlines the complexity of creating “real” books, and the relative ease of ebook publishing.

I was talking to a friend last week who spends much of her life on planes and trains, and who loves her Kindle – convenience, accessibility and readability all score high marks with her.  However, she confessed that she struggled to remember what she’d read on the Kindle; by contrast, physical books have a tactile presence that imprints itself on your memory (and thereafter, they sit on your shelves, whispering “remember me?”).

“A Year at Front of Store” is journalism, news and comment as it happens.  I’ve carried out some pretty vigorous editing – excising time-expired pieces, eliminating anything that required colour illustration (or indeed any pictures at all), improving syntax (a bit), and adding in summaries and afterwords in the appropriate places.  I’ve also included pieces that were published elsewhere, and added the full text of my Frankfurt address from October.

What I haven’t done is to apply any Winston Smith editing, so I don’t foresee that Mamut will buy Waterstone’s in June, or that London will riot in August.

There are a number of themes that I’d like to explore for a book “proper”, which will require a shift from journalism to more considered writing.  The retail industry continues to be the most fascinating business arena – fast-moving, unpredictable, unsafe, and undergoing its most fundamental changes since the birth of the supermarkets.

I’d like to give a big hurrah for WordPress, which allows the Front of Store blog to happen, and whose text is relatively easy to shunt into Word, and thence to KDP.  The blog has created opportunities for the Front of Store consultancy, as well as opening up some fascinating opportunities to speak at conferences and to advise behind closed doors.

Finally, thanks for reading.  Readership of Front of Store has been growing exponentially – January’s hit-rate is 30% higher than December, which was 48% higher than November – and so on.  Here’s to an exciting, challenging, ever-changing 2012.

A Year at Front of Store is available in all Amazon Kindle territories – United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.  Treat yourself to a copy!

Fewer, bigger/smaller, better shops – who should be planning the future?

Under four weeks to go until Christmas, and the retail stories are falling thicker and faster than last year’s snow.  And – like the snow – there’s precious little good news in most of them – but kudos to The Scotsman, which looks to the future and makes some strong points.

Although struggling/challenging stories have been running for many months (Comet, Black’s, Game etc), it took Philip Green’s (accidental?) candour to set the hares running across the weekend papers.  Although Arcadia tried to play down the suggestion that 10-15% of their stores may close, tried to suggest that this was no more than robust landlord/tenant manoeuvring, if you were PG – well, of course, you’d be planning to close stores – lots of them.

Simon Laffin writes occasional columns for Retail Week that are always worth reading.  This week, he reflects on the swing back to smaller stores, whereby those dreadful supermarket chains have revitalised high streets by opening convenience stores and small supermarkets that are greatly superior to the old local food offer.  He also notes that, with changing work patterns and social structures, the big Saturday shop is no longer the routine it used to be.

Is there a contradiction here?  I don’t think so.  What Laffin’s article and Arcadia’s intentions underline is the extent to which the retail landscape is permanently changing.  The shoppers of today and tomorrow are using the following channels with enthusiasm:

Big regional malls and centres:  Westfield Stratford is hogging the seasonal headlines, but Bluewater, Meadowhall et al are all still going strong.  Big cities that have wisely invested in their shopping environment – Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, London’s Regent Street – are also enjoying strong footfall, and will eventually be the primary beneficiaries of the Christmas boom.

“Open A1” retail parks:  The big out-of-town parks with open planning consent will continue to offer a regional, one-stop draw.  At Fosse Park, Teesside or Fort Kinnaird, the shopping experience is safe, structured and functional, with intelligent tenant management ensuring the retail offer meets customers’ needs.  Good parks can often be found outside cities where the retail offer has deteriorated, or where car access is poor.

Online:  What proportion of Christmas gift shopping will be online this year – 12%?  15%?  According to IBM, “Black Friday” retail sales in the US are up 24.3% against last year, and although a day is hardly a measure of a season, it’s one hell of a jump in a struggling economy.  Online offers convenience, value, long tail and one-stop.  There is much more growth to come.

Local:  Per the Laffin article, local is getting better, but we’re talking about “real local” here – proper high streets that customers can walk to, where chains and indies can exist harmoniously, and where shopkeepers know their customers by name.  Not Bedford Falls, but a regular feature of dense cities and suburbs, where a car is more of a hindrance than a help.

Three of these channels are Big – a reflection of the global market; one of these channels is Small.  Which leaves the Squeezed Middle, the medium-sized offer that was good enough when we knew no better, but is not much good now.

Overall retail spending is falling, and more of it is going online.  Furthermore, other high street users are suffering – Thomas Cook will be closing around 20% of their agency locations (more will follow), and any product or service that can be digitised has to adapt or die.

There isn’t going to room in the future for shops to hang on and hope.  Of course, a quiet retail frontage might contain a global online business, but medium-sized shops and medium-sized town centres no longer offer great experiences, great value, or great convenience.  In order for these centres to be sustainable, they will have to be shrunk and repurposed.  That means fewer, better shops, easier access (public and private transport), more and better town centre residential (not just buy-to-let hutches), and rent deals that sustain, rather than drive out, commercial users.

Are councils carrying out this sort of long-term planning, or are their horizons no further than the next election?  As a smug Londoner, I have easy access to world-class retail and great local shopping, but beyond the M25 there are millions of consumers whose spending is constrained by recession, and who see no incentive to spend (indeed, little incentive to hope) in their town centres.  How many of Arcadia’s anticipated lease-ends are in these towns, and how will landlords/councils make streets, malls and open spaces work in the future?  The current approach shown by some (hike up parking charges, close libraries, let parks go to ruin, cancel Christmas lights) is distinctly short-term.

At a time of constrained public spending (though with a promise of capital expenditure in tomorrow’s much-trailed Autumn Statement), councils would be open to criticism if they spent money on merely prettifying high streets.  Strategic rethinking, though, is more important, more exciting, and ultimately more urgent.  Can it be done?


Afterword: Wednesday November 30th:

My thanks to My Retail Media, who have republished this piece today in their “Insight” section. is a website dedicated to the Retail Sector, covering all the major retail categories, and offering finance news, videos, comment and insight.  They also produce News at Nine, a free daily eNewsletter, and offer bespoke subscription services, aggregating retail news from over 4,000 sources, and tailored for individual subscribers.

WH Smith – how does it keep on squeezing those margins?

I mentioned WH Smith’s continued walk-on-water results in my last post, with sales down and operating margins up, and I’ve started to worry that I might be obsessing about a single brand.  However, on reflection, this is understandable – Smiths is the only retailer in the book sector whose current performance is visible to the public.  Waterstone’s is now privately held, so it’ll join Foyle’s with Companies House filings only published many months after they cease to be relevant.  And Amazon of course never breaks out UK performance, and reveals no more than it chooses to through its Luxembourg base.

We all know that WHS is no longer the serene multi-layered-management arm of the Imperial Civil Service that it once felt like.  We can only speculate as to its market share in the critical Toblerone sub-sector.  And as a well-known retail guru and government advisor observes on Twitter this morning:

Mary Portas

@maryportas I truly hate WHSmith. Used to be a loved British biz & now a dump. Rush hour, 7.45am at Euston. One person on till. Queues. And shitty promos

But, spitting feathers aside, and noting obvious savings in staff costs, shop-fit etc, where is WHS’s continual margin gain coming from?  With twenty minutes to kill in their new store at Westfield Stratford yesterday, I went strategy spotting.

One of the best ways to drive margin is through own-brand, and WHS continues to extend own-brand and unique stock throughout all its categories.  WHS has always carried a sizeable slug of own-brand stationery and the like, but many of its categories are now dominated by own-brand to an unprecedented degree.  Take calendars.  There are multiple suppliers of wall calendars in the market.  Some of them own valuable IP – eg Top Gear, The Simpsons – but a large proportion of the market is generic – kittens, landscapes etc.  And WHS (at least in Westfield) no longer stocks generic calendars that aren’t own-brand.  The opportunities to increase margin are significant.

Value publishing – creating attractive books to be sold at a lower-than-expected price – has been a staple of store chains like The Works for many years.  It served us well at Borders, and WHS has always had a toe in the water, but its commitment to value publishing is now more substantial, and takes many forms.  Value titles are no longer separated out, highlighted as “second-class” goods – they’re integrated into the main offer.

WHS is proving particularly adept at providing alternatives to current trends/titles – eg baking books to accompany the Great British Bake Off.  This can be yours for a fiver:

Placed strategically close to the Guinness World Records dumpbin is a selection of similar facts’n’entertainment titles like “You Won’t Believe It But…”, “Gruesome Facts”, “Planet Earth” and so on.  These are retailing for £5, half the price of Guinness (which in turn is nominally 50% off its £20 RRP, though I defy you to find any chain merchant selling it for over a tenner).  WHS offers a cheap alternative to Guinness which isn’t as time-sensitive, and will earn a higher cash margin per unit sold than Guinness.  Win-win.

Now, here’s an interesting offer – any two for £10 on over forty best-selling hardbacks.

That’s a great deal in today’s market, but it’s also a clever deal, recognising that WHS’s average customer isn’t a Bookseller subscriber or regular attendee at the London Book Fair.  These are, for the most part, last year’s books (long available in paperback), or they’re illustrated publishing of the sort that The Book People specialise in – big print-runs on reliable topics, sold into specific outlets at low-low prices.  Describing these books as “best-selling” is accurate – they certainly have been best-selling in their time, and with offers like these, perhaps Ant & Dec will sell better second time around…

Here’s another way to get mileage out of old books.  On the new books table at the front of store, two hot biographies of major cultural figures, both best-sellers, but Keith Richards was published 12 months before Dickens/Tomalin:

The River Cottage Veg book is new, and appears to be selling at full price – though keeping up with stickering is hard work in this environment.  (The Cheryl Cole at bottom right was published in September 2010, and is on a not-wholly-attractive “2 for £10 or £4.74 each” offer, if I’m reading that sticker right.)

The Keith Richards was a huge success last year, and representing it for Christmas 2011 works for everyone.  At 70% off, it’s retailing for £6 – somewhat higher than a traditional remainder seller would price it, but excellent value nevertheless.

Elsewhere, WHS has bought heavily into what is essentially “Jamie Oliver’s Greatest Hits”, a collection featuring previously published recipes from all over Europe, priced to sell at £9.99.  This is more heavily featured, and more cheaply priced than this season’s new Jamie – and as a recipe selection, it may well be more attractive to many customers.  Given WHS’s stock commitment, a better cash margin also looks likely.

*     *     *     *     *

These are just a few examples, culled from a brief stroll around one store, but they underline WH Smith’s absolute commitment to creating a consumer offer that will drive the strongest possible margin.  Lest this sounds merely blindingly obvious to any general retailer, this isn’t how a traditional bookshop works – stock selection is driven by frontlist publishing, and by the creation and maintenance of a diverse and credible backlist range.  The bookseller will haggle with the publisher for margin and payment terms, marketing support etc, but their commitment to the “right” titles will limit their ability to grow margin.

What WH Smith has done is to free itself from the old dependence that retailers of copyright products (books, news/mags, music, movies, games etc) have on producers, by analysing what its customers want to buy, turning the screws on suppliers in exchange for exclusive deals and big buys, and generating large volumes of unique and own-brand stock across all categories, from bookazines to giftwrap.

I still share the general bogglement at Smiths’ ability to keep pulling off this trick, again and again – last month, Kate Swann announced that a further £11m-worth of savings had been identified across the business.  And I wholly understand the dismay that Mary Portas and many others have in the current WH Smith store environment – these are no longer pleasant stores.  (Younger readers, when I were a boy, WHS and John Lewis felt very similar to each other…)  But WHS now has a much greater level of control over what they stock and sell.  How all of this will fare if digital content takes over 50% of the book market (and the magazine market?) is hard to say, but as a survival strategy this looks more robust (if less attractive) than that of the old “stockholding bookshop”.

Christmas: far too early to call

Not a great deal of action on the Front of Store blog in the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been out on the road a lot, assessing stores, formats and catchments.  Plenty of news in the retail sector, though, with the end of the Best Buy brand in the UK, and the sale of Comet for £2 (with a £50m dowry); as the Observer comments on the electricals sector this morning:

Amazon’s small overheads and Tesco’s huge scale have enabled cheaper products to eat away at the specialists’ profits. So far they have resisted the fate of the book and record stores swept off the high street by online rivals. Could the worsening economy now push yet another retail category into the virtual universe?

It has been a difficult autumn across most retail categories, with the continued mild weather slowing down sales of winter fashion and precipitating a series of one-day events at the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams.  Recent results at Next and Marks & Spencer both illustrated how challenging the middle market is, even for the best-run businesses, and WH Smith unveiled lower sales and higher profits for the nth successive quarter – Nils Pratley has commented astutely on this.  (Nationally, book sales are poor, running 12% down on 2010 last week.)

There are just 41 shopping days left until Christmas, and though the streets of Staines were busy yesterday afternoon, there’s still a lot more window shopping than actual commerce taking place.  Consumers are well-versed on tough Christmases now, and the question is not “will prices fall?” so much as “how early will the sales start?”.  There’s already plenty of red-and-white in the windows, as hard-pressed retailers seek to liquidate stock and free up cash.

London’s West End tourist boom continues, with Crown Estates announcing that there will be fewer, larger stores in Regent Street in the future; Westfield Stratford has welcomed millions of customers (I’ll be back there on Tuesday) and has indicated that the old Whitgift Centre in Croydon could be next for the Westfield treatment.  But London has never been as disassociated from the rest of the country, in retail terms, as it is now.

It’s going to be a difficult Christmas, with every sale a small victory against consumers’ tight purses and low levels of “feel-good” (despite that “Capracorn” John Lewis ad).  Online will grow, device sales will soar (Best Buy may be dead, but Wireless World is Carphone’s focus now) and new retail formats will emerge on the shoulders of the old.

On a lighter note, here are a couple of stores positioning themselves for the future of the book trade:

Westfield Ho! Visiting Stratford City, Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of the Front of Store Westfield tour…

Sticking with the Lower Ground Floor, we emerged from the phone shops into a world of children’s specialists.  Build-a-Bear, Lego and upscale clothes stores like Polarn O Pyret and Atelier de Courcelles are already in evidence; Mamas & Papas will follow on a higher level.  (Observation: upmarket children’s stores have foreign names.  JoJo Maman Bébé would be another.  Whereas the mass market has clunkier, English names.)

So, The Entertainer.  The six-day toyshop is a staple in many shopping centres, and this was a pretty standard store – reasonably fully stocked, but many popular brands had been allocated limited space or were unstocked, and generic product took their place.  Putting all the rollerblades in “Boys Toys”, including the pink ones, summed up a rather formulaic experience; staff stayed firmly behind the tills (including those wearing “can I help you?” sashes), which rather defeats the experiential joy of a good toyshop.  We left, feeling a bit flat, and crossed the mall to Mothercare.  Here, shopfit quality has been lifted (attractive light woods and pastels), and roomsets show off nursery furniture to advantage, but again, there were no staff on the sales floor.  The customer may have sought assistance with car seats or buggies, or wanted some show-and-tell in the curiously unbranded Early Learning section at the rear, but all staff were again coralled behind the tills.

Retailing isn’t easy at the moment (you may have noticed), but it does seem curious to under-staff your most important new stores within a week of opening.  If you can’t throw some payroll hours at converting new customers to your brand, and you don’t have a high-concept store design or radical new products, how are you going to get your store to stand out from 300 others at Westfield?

Pausing to admire the publishers’ pack-shots on the Foyles hoarding (opening next month), we headed into one of Westfield’s biggest draws, the John Lewis store.  And our initial impressions were… oh dear.  This has all gone badly wrong.

The Partnership has built a large store that feels small.  Perhaps the escalator cut-out is too big, but where M&S is spacious, JLP is cramped and tight, particularly on Lower Ground, where the juxtaposition of menswear to the right and kitchenware to the left feels absurd.  The shopfloor has been segmented using fretworked screens and other devices which only serve to further cramp the feel of the place – the aisles are tight, and the product juxtapositions frankly bizarre.  And the severed hands hanging from the ceiling are downright creepy.

Things improve on what Westfield calls the Ground Floor, and JLP calls First (women’s fashion, accessories and beauty), and things are as they should be here and on First/Second (furnishings and fabrics).  The top floor is strong, with the best toy offer we’d seen all day – at last, someone carrying all the brands, facing the plush towards the customer, and keeping the offer clear.  But the top floor also contains a big fat compromise of a space, which may explain why the bottom floor is such a dogs’ dinner.  A huge London 2012 shop sells every imaginable take on Olympic mascots and logos, complete with a viewing gallery offering a sensational panorama of the Olympic park.  This must take up over a quarter of the total retail space on the floor, so you have to conclude that several categories will exit the lowest level and move to the top in due course – but not until autumn 2012.

An aside – isn’t it about time we stopped treating the 1960s as the pinnacle of British grooviness?  Routemaster buses, Concordes and original Minis barely exist in modern London, and are surely irrelevant to our image of a 21st century cosmopolitan capital city.  At least red phones boxes and beefeaters still exist, but we need better, more modern icons.

Back to the shops, but before we leave John Lewis (after a reliable lunch at The Place To Eat) I should note that customer service was as exemplary as ever.  There’s nothing unfixable about this store, but it wasn’t delivering the experience we’d come to expect.

What makes John Lewis more profoundly disappointing is the quality of Marks & Spencer.  M&S has created a proper department store in a free-standing building that provides a sense of occasion on every level.  I haven’t seen the prototype fit at Kensington High Street, but this was a classy, well laid-out and very shoppable offer.  Menswear (complete with a tailor running up alterations, and much clearer definition for brands like Blue Harbour) was simply the best I’ve ever seen in an M&S; home and furnishing were strong, and a delightful top-floor cafe offered treats that the customer could also buy from the Foodhall.  I’ve written recently about the challenging legacy of old stores that M&S has to deal with; by contrast, in a brand new space, they are creating some of the best retailing in the UK.

Clinton’s has made a bold attempt to update its image.  The orange and purple trialled in St Albans is much in evidence, but some of the shopfitting was cheap, and the juxtaposition between a funkier feel and some of the granny-targeted merchandise was jarring.  Service was excellent, though; Clinton has too many shops, many of them desperately old and tired, but there’s a place afor a mid-market gift/card chain, and one hopes that the new management team can move the business forward.

Timothy Melgund at Paperchase has often asserted he runs a fashion brand, rather than a stationery shop, and the new store is on the prime fashion pitch, beautifully presented and ideally sized.  Cards can be generic things, and Clinton/Scribbler/WHS are subject to constant price comparisons with the supermarkets; Paperchase overlays some quality and product uniqueness, and lifts itself well clear of the fray.

A few years ago, a vast HMV would have taken dominant space in a new mall like Westfield.  Not any more – a smaller unit on a side aisle has to suffice.  The CD/DVD offer is what it is, slowly and inexorably declining (though it doesn’t look as though anyone has told the buyers – stock density is extreme); games appear to have been circumscribed, and the technology offer – pitched to save the business – hasn’t noticeably moved on from the Islington protoptype.  This was very disappointing; Apple, Currys/PC World Black, and the upper end phone stores were displaying better tech on better fixtures, with dangly cables under control, and staff to explain and sell.  HMV offers MP3 players, boomboxes (archaic term, sorry) and accessories, but it’s hard to see for whom this store would be first choice for this product.  Execution of these ranges will have to be more stimulating if they’re to offer any real hope to HMV.

Next time I visit Westfield, I look forward to seeing more stores trading – there are still a lot of “under constructions” and “to-be-lets”.  I’ll rope in a teenage daughter and we’ll take a proper look at fashion.  However, I also wanted to understand where the customers were coming from.  Great play has been made of Stratford’s connectedness – two tube lines, Overground, DLR, national rail and direct links to the Continent, plus an adjacent bus station.  You can reach Westfield directly from any of these, but plenty of people are entering on foot from “old” Stratford.

Old Stratford compares very badly to Westfield and the Olympic Park, reminding the visitor of how deprived parts of our capital can be.  A one-way system encircles the old Stratford shopping centre, so that most foot traffic passes through a dingy mall and across knackered highways to reach Westfield.  Display boards promote upcoming public realm improvements (clouds on sticks!), but it is hard to see how this sort of surface flim-flam can improve the residential and commercial environment.

Stratford’s old mall is big, dating back to 1970s planning models that brought whole town centres under one roof (think Camberley, Eastleigh).  The interior is dark and crowded, stinks of cheap disinfectant, and is full of the crowds you can see on the bridge above, pushing their way through and past the old shopping experience and on to Westfield.

Massive regeneration will surely help the area, creating jobs and housing.  A masterplan was signed off by Newham Council at the end of last year – just five years after the successful Olympic bid.  Serious thought needs to be given to local shopping provision – presumably the duplicate chains in the old scheme will be seeking to exit, leaving market stalls and pound shops behind them.  A decent, modern supermarket would be a good start, but at present, the contrast between Westfield and its immediate surroundings is too stark.  The number of shoppers in Westfield suggests long-term success (though, as I indicated in Part One, the Olympics need to come and go before retailers will have an objective picture of their performance).  To the south, Canary Wharf’s wealth has largely failed to trickle out to its immediate surroundings, beyond the gated apartments and highways.  A scheme like Bluewater – turn left off the M25 and head for the quarry – has little integration with Dartford and Gravesend.  Westfield and Stratford City, on the other hand, are in the heart of the deprived East End, and can – must – do better.

Photos:  Telegraph, Design Week, Mail/Getty


Westfield Ho! Visiting Stratford City, Part One

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……