The third Forever 21 to open in the UK is enormous and is one of the anchors at Westfield Stratford, but is it in a position to capitalise on Peacocks’ troubles?
Amid the furore surrounding the demise of Peacocks and the rise and rise of Primark, there is a value fashion merchant that seems to be keeping a relatively low profile in spite of the substantial footprint of each of its stores. The retailer is Forever 21 and over the past year it has trebled its UK store count … to three.
The point, however, is not that it has a very modest store count, but that this is the value fashion success story in the US. Its arrival on these shores, initially in Birmingham at the tail end of 2010, and then on Oxford Street and most recently at Westfield Stratford, has been the subject of much discussion about structural changes in the value market. Yet of late things have been pretty quiet.
This may have much to do with the recent focus on Peacocks, but it is equally possible that having opened two enormous stores and a two-floor branch on Oxford Street, Forever 21 is taking a bit of a breather and assessing the market. And to judge by a visit to the Westfield Stratford store last week, it could be a while before we see another rise from the drawing board. It might have been a cold and wet Tuesday at the end of January, but this was a store that was, for the most part, devoid of shoppers. Others in the centre were also suffering, but this was a true tumbleweed moment.
Key looks and merchandise mix
If you have to ask the price … Well, in Forever 21 you won’t have to because the price message is all-pervasive. Wherever you look, the yellow railcards with black font shout either low price or ‘SALE’, or a mix of both. It’s worth observing that most shops in Westfield have markdowns as part of their offers, but few can match this one.
There are markdowns everywhere, on every floor. This may be something to do with the fact that there are departments, and rather than creating a clearance area Forever 21 has opted to go with markdown areas in each merchandise department. No problem with this, perhaps, except that the sheer amount of Sale stock ultimately overwhelms and speaks loud of an autumn range that didn’t shift as anticipated. It also makes you almost overlook the new-season stock.
In the in-mall window, banners announce ‘FRESH COLOUR NOW’, accompanied by the message ‘STRIPED TEES STARTING AT £4.75’, ‘DRESSES STARTING AT £10.50’. You get the idea this is a store where the lowest price wins. Unfortunate, therefore, that it is just a few doors from Primark, where the quality seemed generally better and the place was full of new season.
The other feature that is immediately apparent is that while this looks like a fashion interior, the merchandise is very middle of the road, and there are so many colours and variations on the single jersey T-shirt theme that pinning down a look is tricky. Finally, why bother with menswear if you’re going to hide it?
The thing about Forever 21 when it arrived in Birmingham was the preponderance of VM set pieces. Stratford is no exception to this, so the retro bicycles, mid-shop plinths with multiple mannequins and white, faux-antique tables are all in evidence and look reasonable.
The problem once more, however, is the markdowns. It’s almost as if efforts have been made to ensure that every part of the floor gets a smattering of Sale stock. When you finally manage to locate the men’s department (on the second level, concealed from view in a secondary space) things get much worse. Here the stock has been side-hung on long single-height, mid-shop rails that create lanes along which you walk to check things out – it’s almost as if TK Maxx had paid a visit.
In fairness, with the exception of the footwear department, the accessories floor at the top of the shop was good and care had been taken to create the signature ‘fairytale princess’s boudoir meets the Mad Hatter’ ambience. But overall things were not looking good.
There were plenty of staff and few shoppers, so you might imagine at least some form of acknowledgment you were in the store would have been forthcoming. It was not, and potential customers were left to their own devices. The service would no doubt have been fine, but given the lack of interest evinced across each of the three huge floors, there seemed little point in trying to find out.
From the outside, as you approach via the bridge that crosses the railway line, this is an impressive store with each floor having massive windows that display the brightly coloured interior for all to admire. Couple this with the vast digital Forever 21 logo adjacent to this, which is forever changing colour, and expectations are inevitably high.
Inside, the store has high ambient light levels, which seems to marry up with the mostly primary-coloured garments. Accent lighting is provided by black plastic or silver chandeliers. The latter work well on the accessories floor but the black versions dominate elsewhere and look cheap. The same is true of much of the mid-floor equipment, where the order of the day seems to be density merchandising at the expense of any sense of the aesthetic.
Does it work?
Forever 21 now has close to half a year of trading under its belt in this location and, looking at the stock that’s in the store, you have to wonder if this is a winning formula. The problem with having just three stores in a market is that if ranges fail to ignite, there is no way of distributing the problem and it has the potential to build and build.
The way forward for Forever 21 at Stratford must be to clear, clear, clear or things may get out of hand. The store may have a future, but on this reckoning there are few guarantees.
Forever 21 in Stratford is not a patch on the smaller, more carefully thought through branch on Oxford Street. This is a store about wide-open space, poor navigation and the feeling that a deal was done and then the matter of how to fill the space was tackled. It could be much better.
Address 244-246 The Arcade, Montfichet Road, Olympic Park, Stratford, London E20
Number of floors Three
Exterior Impressive, with a semi-cantilevered box that juts out from the rest of the mall
Interior Massive and undifferentiated
Forever 21 head office Los Angeles