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Memo from Musgrave: Harvey Nichols goes back to basics with new store

Twelve years ago I jumped on a train to Birmingham to witness the opening of the Selfridges store in the Bullring. This Wednesday I jumped on a train to Birmingham to see the new and enlarged Harvey Nichols store in The Mailbox. And in September I hope to travel up to examine the latest John Lewis in Grand Central. How did Brum get so lucky with innovative department stores?

This week’s journey was certainly worth it. Even though The Mailbox refurb is not yet complete, Harvey Nicks has created an exciting and surprising space that, despite its luxury positioning, emphasises the good old-fashioned rules of fashion retailing. Store owners of any size might want to consider what they have done and see what lessons can be learned, even though not everyone has HN’s budget.

Interesting product presented in interesting settings backed by knowledgeable and motivated staff is the formula chief executive  Stacey Cartwright has brought to the business. What has been unveiled in the West Midlands this week (the store opens to the public this Friday, July 31) is a pointer to what the Knightsbridge flagship might look like when the five-year plan to overhaul all its seven trading floors is completed. That work has just started.

Although the decision to double the size of The Mailbox presence (HN has been there since 2001) was taken long before Cartwright joined the company 14 months ago, the new 45,000 sq ft concept is her baby. The store’s long-term designers, Four IV, lost the pitch to London-based Virgile + Partners, which has realised her vision of modern luxury retailing. The overall idea is to provide an individualistic environment for the 200 or so brands rather than a series of predictable shop-in-shops.

There is a fascinating mixture of textures, finishes and surfaces rather than a bland (and cheaper) option of making the whole thing white box. The marble floor is variegated, as is the choice of furniture and mannequins, all of which have been designed for the store.  

Running stores from Bristol to Edinburgh, HN is used to refining the buy to suit the locale, but for the new Birmingham experience head of fashion Anita Barr (hired by Cartwright when she had been at HN for just three days) has elevated the brand mix, bringing in more brands and more that are exclusive in the city. Having worked for eight years at Harrods and then 14 at Selfridges, Barr is fully aware that HN cannot outgun those huge stores with its smaller units, so it has to be more clever, more creative. 

Cartwright has brought in plenty of digital and technical experiences to the new unit, but it is going to succeed because it is an exciting 3D retailing space, just like a good store of any size should be. 

Still on the subject of department stores, I was intrigued to learn that Selfridges has already decided its Christmas theme for 2016. That’s 18 months away, but this week I had a preview of 2015 and it is centred on stars, the zodiac and other astronomical matter. It was impressive to see how many brands have produced special lines for the campaign, a timely reminder of how important those mad few weeks are to retailers.

Finally, this week the PM made his announcement on new regulations to try and eradicate human trafficking and slave labour (see page 2). Inevitably, the fashion supply chain will be under the microscope again and you can bet no retailer, supplier or brand wants to be the one caught out by this annual survey.  

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