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Shopwatch: River Island, Birmingham Bullring

River Island chief executive Ben Lewis takes Drapers on a tour of its new flagship in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre

Fashion is all about embracing change, says River Island chief executive Ben Lewis as he walks Drapers around its new 23,000 sq ft flagship in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. That was the thinking behind the shopfit, he explains; it is flexible, designed to shapeshift to suit new trends, both in clothing and store design. The window displays and fittings are easily changed, while boards highlighting product categories are propped against the wall rather than fixed to it.

The most striking aspect of the store is the double-height open entrance. The windows, featuring kidswear on the left and menswear on the right, are kept slim, while the space between entices you in. It feels like you’re not so much entering a store as walking into an extension of the Bullring. It dwarfs the single-storey entrances of its neighbours, which include Victoria’s Secret and Topshop.

Lewis explains the concept for the store, which opened on March 28.

Why did you create the open front?

There is a lot of glass in the Bullring, so we didn’t want a lot of it across the front of the store because there would be too much reflection. Plus it would have been a barrier to the customer. This is more modern and flexible. It is a flexible space – we don’t have fixed window boards. We might keep the central installation for three months or six. The joy of it is we can make changes quite quickly.

It also allows customers to engage with the brand before entering the store. We’re using the space like an exhibition or gallery [trends such as ‘the bomber’ are highlighted with images and text on the wall, while some of the mannequins and products are arranged together like art installations]. We call the concept ‘The Event’, because it is an event for customers.

Talk us through the rest of the shopfit.

Some of the fixtures will be familiar [to existing customers], but we’ve taken shapes we know work well and engineered them so they are more modern. For example, the spindles [on the rails] are thinner and everything [from the light fixtures to the ceiling panels] is at an angle. It creates pace and energy, taking people on a journey of discovery. And it shows off the merchandise in a new and interesting way. We’ve also mixed textures, combining the rough with the smooth.

Why have you given men’s formalwear a dedicated section?

We have a great formalwear offer but haven’t been able to show it off in the right environment until now. It has playful elements, such as the engines [in glass boxes], but it also reflects Bond Street. Formalwear is on trend and we’re in a great position to push it.

To what extent will you roll the concept out to other stores?

Reaction to the new concept so far has been tremendous. However, we have 300 stores and pay attention to all of them, but we can’t just take what’s here and put it into a 4,000 sq ft store. It’s early days, but we’re considering how to take it forward [River Island will assess which elements to roll out].

You have an in-house store design team. Why did you choose to work with retail design agency Dalziel & Pow on this store?

I’ve known David Dalziel, creative director of Dalziel & Pow for years. We felt the time was right to engage some new ideas. It was very much a collaboration; we understand our customer and product and they understand how to push it forward.

What is your approach to using digital technology in stores?

Five years ago plasma screens were only seen in Hugo Boss. Now they’re in Primark. Digital technology is becoming ubiquitous – the question is, how to use it going forward? You have to work out how to integrate it into your brand, to personalise the experience in stores and through good use of data. We’re looking at beacon technology, but we’ve got to use it in a way that’s appropriate for the customer. Technology isn’t a solution, it’s a tool.

Going forward, our stores will be based on a combination of three pillars: visuals, service [including the new personal shopping Style Studios in the Bullring and Oxford Street stores] and in-store technology. And of course they will be customer-focused [with customers able to browse on the River Island app in store and staff armed with tablets]. We’re always looking for ways to improve what we do for customers.

How is trading at River Island right now?

The weather hasn’t been great. We’re cautious with the overall outlook, particularly with the election coming up – we’re being given a stark choice between austerity and investment; it’s bound to have some trickle-down effect – but we remain confident in what we’re doing.

River Island’s prices

  • Womenswear: from £3 for accessories to £130 for a leather jacket
  • Menswear: from £4 for accessories to £180 for a suit
  • Within that, men’s formalwear is £25 to £55 for trousers, £65 to £125 for blazers and £90 to £180 for suits
  • Kidswear: from £4 for a two-pack of socks to £60 for a parka coat
  • Women’s footwear: from £15 for jelly shoes to £110 for embellished leather biker boots
  • Men’s footwear: from £7 for flip-flops to £100 for CAT boots
  • Accessories: £3 for ankle socks to £45 for a boxy cape


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