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Shopfits on a shoestring

It’s worth freshening up stores to maintain footfall, but retailers often balk at the expense. However, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

David Blakeney, House of Fraser’s director of store development, is conducting a tour of the new women’s footwear department in the basement of its Oxford Street flagship. It’s a big space, 25,000 sq ft, and is in the heart of one of the UK’s most expensive areas in which to run a shop.

Yet refurbishing this whole space, which included inserting a feature escalator well that measures roughly 33ft by 24ft, cost a mere £2.5m. This may sound a lot, but at £100 per square foot, this is a low-cost makeover for one of the titans of Oxford Street. And yet the interior is undeniably department store glam and if you wanted to spend time looking for a pair of shoes in a space that makes you feel special, then this would be among the top two destinations on the street – the other, clearly, being The Shoe Galleries in Selfridges.

Normally a refurb on this scale, with its evident level of detail, would be expensive. However, Blakeney and his team have not only controlled costs but kept them at a level where the whole enterprise looks relatively good value. Blakeney says that in part this is due to keeping an eye on materials.

Head down to the fine jewellery room in Harrods and you’ll notice the counters, designed by architect Eva Jiricna, have been created using backlit translucent onyx, which shows the natural striations in the material. Something similar is also on show at HoF, where a cluster of mid-floor plinths have been internally lit.

Except that what’s on view is much cheaper, owing to the fact that instead of using onyx, it’s a man-made material. It’s a design strategy that more retailers are using and involves working closely not just with a store designer, but also ensuring that the right contractor, Vinci Construction in this instance, is employed.

In the current climate, retailers know they need show-stopping interiors to maintain footfall but that spending massive amounts to do this is not realistic. And it matters little whether it’s a massive project like the HoF women’s footwear department or an owner-occupier indie, the principle is broadly the same.

Brinkworth Design director Kevin Brennan, who works with high-end fashion indies and major chains, says the key to saving money on shopfits is to be pragmatic about the materials used. “It’s about trying to minimise the handling,” he says. This means the more materials are used and the more manufacturing that is involved, the higher the cost becomes.

Brennan cites All Saints, a long-standing client. “We really only used wood and metal for an All Saints store. If we used glass and marble as well, then costs would increase,” he says.

He adds that it’s become a case of “being more resourceful and less ambitious [in terms of materials]. You need to see what you can do with what you’ve got.”

Brennan also makes the point that retailers can let the stock do the talking. “There’s a greater reliance on the garments to do the work now and to let the shopfit sit back a bit,” he says.

Creating in-store drama need not cost a fortune. The recently opened pop-up store by footwear retailer United Nude in Knightsbridge shows what is possible. Despite its Brompton Road location, this is a relatively inexpensive shopfit, owing to the fact that it majors on just one feature, its curving rear wall, which consists of a series of backlit pigeonholes where the lighting constantly changes colour.

This may sound pricey, but all that is required is to link a simple lighting system to a computer to change the colours. As most United Nude shoes are brightly coloured, the effect is eyebrow raising. But the point is that the eye focuses on the back wall and the rest of the shop is minimalist to the point of costing almost nothing.

Stirling-based menswear and womenswear indie Number Eight is another good example of how to achieve a simple, low-cost shopfit, with an appealing, relaxed ambience in-store. Co-owner Keith Ewing says he always looks for fixtures and fittings online, and advises getting as much free information on what an interior designer envisages before enlisting their services, because this will reduce planning stages and allow work to start faster, which saves time and money.

He adds: “Then we’ll use a quality builder to do the structural work, rather than a shopfitter, because you can save a lot of money that way. There are things you definitely need a shopfitter for, but a quality builder can do much of it.”

This shows not just the power of a well-executed store design, but also how VM should be a key tool in a retailer’s armoury. “Retailers that are successful are not necessarily those spending the most money, but those spending the most time on their VM,” says Paul Brooks, owner and joint managing director of visual merchandising firm SFD. “The tighter the budget, the more creative you’ve got to be.”

He cites the Christmas windows at Marks & Spencer where a finish was printed on foam that “looked just like wood”. Again, it’s about considering the options and using one that will deliver the best effect for the money, although this may not always be the cheapest.

So where does all of this take a retailer that has to cut its cloth according to its means? There is an element of make, do and mend about much of what is taking place on UK high streets at the moment. Alasdair Lennox, creative director at design consultancy Fitch, says: “Pre-recession, the return-on-investment on a shopfit tended to be four to five years and this was speeding up and was becoming closer to two to three years. As the recession has kicked in, the store interior life is going back up again. The biggest capital investment a retailer will ever make is in a store.”

He adds that “over-designing” can also limit the capacity of a shopfit to enjoy a healthy lifespan. He advises, therefore, to keep things simple to enable some measure of “future proofing” to form part of the design process.

As always a good idea will always trump throwing money at a problem. It’s just that that particular aphorism resonates with more retailers at the moment than at any point in the past two or three decades.


Cheaper, better, more effective

● Restrict the palette of materials you are using

● Look at the ‘handling’ involved in creating your store interior or VM scheme – the more there is, the greater the cost

● Consider how technology can be put to use and substitute cheaper materials and finishes

● Allow thinking time, don’t rush the project. This may be frustrating, but will pay dividends in the long run

● Be prepared to let the stock do much of the talking

● Keep things simple. Over-complex shopfits or VM schemes can date quickly

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