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Drapers Hit or Miss: autumn 19 footwear

For the third part of Drapers’ autumn 19 Hit or Miss reviews, the team descended upon Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre to put footwear retailers to the test.

With 13 retailers under the microscope, it was footwear specialists that stood out again this season – among them Dune and Skechers – for their strong product, value for money and good customer service.

The big high street retailers such as Primark and New Look fell short of our expectations with shoddy presentation and a lack of customer service. And across the board there was also a noticeable lack of size availability, particularly across women’s ranges.

Key trends were prevalent across stores: trainers – particularly the chunky kind – continue to dominate. Neon colours proved especially popular, notably pink, green and yellow, and there were plenty of styles to choose from throughout the day. Other trends included chunky flat lace-up boots – for men and women  – while punk detailing such as studs, zips and lace featured heavily in women’s footwear collections. Warm autumnal hues, from burgundy to khaki, snake print and tan, sat alongside bright whites.

Men’s shoe styles were typically classic and Bullring customers were spoilt for choice in brogues, loafers, trainers and Chelsea boots. Traditional blacks, browns and navy dominated, but I was pleased to see a nice – if limited – selection of statement designs, such as velvet options in Dune, neon print in Russell & Bromley and floral brocade in Topman.

Each retailer was marked out of five for product, presentation, value for money, customer service and shopping experience, to give a total score out of 25. Stores were visited on 7 October.

Birmingham Bullring and Grand Arcade retailer rankings

 

 

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Dune: 25/25

  • Product: 5
  • Presentation: 5
  • Customer service: 5
  • Value for money: 5
  • Shopping experience: 5

Dune’s open-fronted shop in the Bullring has no window, but the central entrance display was eye-catching enough to lure shoppers in and featured a nice mix of women’s shoes, from glittery heels to pumps and autumnal boots, which were well lit, neat and perfectly presented.

The shop was well organised with women’s footwear on the left, men’s on the right, new styles at the front and Sale items at the back. There were no obtrusive promotional displays and the store was meticulously clean, which made for a very nice shopping environment.

I was immediately drawn to the women’s collection and, in particular, a pair of glittery rainbow strappy court heels. At £120, they were expensive but justifiable for a sturdy evening shoe. Next to them were two pairs of knee-high boots: one biker-style with button detailing all the way up (£180), and the other covered with diamanté (also £180). They both nodded to current trends and were good value for knee-high boots of high quality.

The shop assistant was only too happy help and it was the best service I received all day – albeit that I was one of only two customers at the time. The shoes came out quickly and, even though they did not have my size, I was offered two alternatives. I was given a pop sock for the only time the whole day. The assistant asked how the shoes fitted, suggested other styles, and informed me about the material and sizing specifications.

In men’s, the range of styles was commendable. There were several smart and casual options in a variety of prices and colours, such as a tanned woven-style loafer (£70) and a black lace-up smart shoe (£105). Both were made from leather with solid flat heels, and looked durable and stylish. The quality seemed equal to similar £195 versions in Russell & Bromley. Dune’s Birmingham branch is a credit to the business. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, which surpassed my expectations in every category.

 

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Skechers: 22/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3.5
  • Customer service: 5
  • Value for money: 5
  • Shopping experience: 4.5

Skechers was without a doubt the biggest surprise of the day. It was pleasing to see so many fashion-forward designs sitting alongside the more practical performance shoes for which the brand is known. 

These included its own take on the chunky trainer trend (from £65) and a collaboration with US footwear designer Mark Nason (from £72). Given that they both had technical insoles, and were comfortable and stylish, they offered excellent value for money.

Admittedly, my first thought was that the shop was slightly over-crowded and that there were far too many shoes on display, both in the window and the store. But I quickly became accustomed to the layout, and, in the end, appreciated the range of choice.

From performance to work to fashion, each category was clearly marked and well placed across the store. There were also labels on individual shoes outlining their unique specifications and benefits, such as memory foam insoles and “Comfort Pillar Technology”, which were helpful.

When I asked staff for more information, their knowledge was detailed and their delivery enthusiastic. At one point, I had the help of two assistants, who were attentive, quick to retrieve stock, gave practical and styling advice, and offered other recommendations.

Given that the shop was quite compact, there was plenty of seating and an adequate number of full-length mirrors on both sides of the room. I found this particularly useful when trying on the performance trainers, as I had space to manoeuvre.

I also noticed signs about the retailer’s Breast Cancer Awareness collection for its Skechers Go Walk range, which was a nice way of promoting its charity work and wider ethical practices.

 

4

Schuh: 21.5/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3.5
  • Customer service: 5
  • Value for money: 4.5
  • Shopping experience: 4.5

The number of shoes in Schuh’s Bullring shop front and store was impressive, if a bit crowded. In store, there were a vast number of options, from well-known brands to own label, performance to fashion, and at various price points, all of which were in line with competitors Office and Footasylum. This made it a convenient place to shop, especially for families, as it catered for everyone.

The store was well laid out: brands at the front and own label towards the back. Schuh knows what its brand-driven customers want. Big labels such as Nike and Timberland featured up front, followed by more expensive brands, including Calvin Klein, Ugg and Lacoste, and there were plenty of designs and colourways across both areas. A pair of Converse averaged at £55 and Ugg boots at £150, representing good value for such big-name brands and similar to other retailers visited.

Schuh’s solid offer was complemented by outstanding service: the alert staff welcomed everyone into the store. I purposely asked the busiest-looking assistant for help, and was impressed that he was unfazed and did not direct me to another colleague. 

He checked for my size on the digital stock system, which was quick and easy, and offered alternative sizes and colours when it was not in stock. He was just as efficient at bringing out the shoe, and I appreciated his product knowledge and light-hearted conversation.

There were sufficient mirrors and seats, which made it easy to try shoes on. The shop was impressively tidy, especially considering the number of shoes on display. Products were in the right place, laces were tucked in and prices were clearly visible – something I came to appreciate more throughout the day, when I often had to ask assistants for this information.

Schuh could benefit from taking some of its less popular styles off its displays to declutter the store but, other than that, it outshone many of the other footwear retailers at the Bullring with its cohesive product offering, excellent service and value for money.

 

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Foot Locker: 20/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Customer service: 4
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 4

I enjoyed the design and presentation of Foot Locker’s Bullring store. The shop was well organised and laid out, neat and brightly lit. All shoes were categorised by style and men’s took up most of the store followed by kids’, and then women’s at the back. My only complaint was a sign that read “approved for her”, which I found derogatory and inappropriate.

The women’s area itself was fun, bright and bubbly, thanks to the girlie design and pink colour scheme. Foot Locker offered activities for waiting customers, such as an experiential “selfie” mirror, and a breakfast bar with stools and a selection of magazines.

There were a solid number of brands and styles offered across men’s and women’s. These included Nike, Puma, Adidas and Converse, which were reasonably priced,

and in line with competitors Office and Footasylum. Foot Locker also offered exclusive styles, such as a women’s Puma X Maybelline trainer for £89.99 and a Nike Air Max style (£144.99). Branded trainers are generally quite expensive, but the latter was a bit steep.

The men’s area was much bigger and there was a vast selection of Nike trainers, which was fitting for its customer base. The displays were uncluttered and sat against a simple black backdrop, which put the spotlight entirely on the shoes. There were a few nondescript Sale signs that were noticeable but not in your face, and so did not cheapen the shoes in any way.

When it came to customer service, the sales assistants’ attentiveness and attention to detail were welcome. They were alert and greeted me as I entered the store, and made themselves known to all customers.

They were also quick and efficient at checking for sizes – despite having to use a walkie-talkie to communicate with the stockroom, which I found a little old fashioned – and retrieving stock. When they did not have my size, I was offered half a size bigger and half a size smaller. The assistant offered good advice on both style and practicality. 

 

Office, all together burgundy patent, £95, 29th july

Office: 20/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3.5
  • Customer service: 4
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 4

Office’s shop front sported a nice mix of styles and tempted shoppers in with its trendy selection of autumnal shoes. Women’s boots had a whole window to themselves, and included leather, suede and ankle options. 

The store itself was neat and easy to shop. Women’s shoes took up the entire left side of the shop and trainers the right. Men’s were assigned to a much smaller corner at the rear, while Sale items were on racks in the centre. This was a little tacky – markdowns would have been better placed at the back of the store.

Although Office had lots of styles, there was plenty of display space, so it did not feel cluttered. Shoes were in the right place, with laces tucked in and spotlights showing them off to their best advantage. Where appropriate, they also had helpful labels such as “vegan leather” and “Office loves”.

Shoes were organised by category, so it was easy to find what I was looking for. Fashion-led own-brand styles such as ankle boots (£105), snake print (£92) and open-toe heels (£65) took a more prominent position at the entrance. They were all well made from real leather. Quality was not compromised for style, so they were good value.

I tried on a dressy peep-toe heel boot

(£75) and a chunky multi-coloured Adidas zip trainer (£100). For popular designs that looked durable, they were well priced, and on par with Topshop and Dune.

There were plenty of staff across the store to help. However, the assistant wandered off as soon as he handed me the shoes without checking whether they fitted. Two staff who took over made up for this oversight.

The men’s offering was more limited, but still covered smart boots, trainers and branded options. A tanned Office leather brogue (£69) was good value compared with Dune and Schuh. The assistant checked for the size I wanted on his iPad but they were out of stock, so I was offered free next-day home delivery, which was a nice touch.

 

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Clarks: 19.5/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Customer service: 3.5
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 4

Clarks could make better use of its shop front, rather than a staid display with a simple balloon design, to lure shoppers in and show off some of the more fashion-led product on offer.

Nevertheless, the range was impressive. There was a nice mix of practical shoes and trendier, fashion-focused designs that boasted the same level of quality. Among my favourites were a tall, suede, slouched tan boot (£149) and leather riding-style ankle boot (£69) – both of which were fair value for the material and craftsmanship.

Women’s footwear ranged from £60 and £160 for a pair of boots, and £35 to £100 for more casual styles, such as trainers or pumps. This was similar to other footwear retailers, such as Dune and Office. On the day I visited, a shop assistant told me there was 20% off everything, but there were no signs to promote this, which would have benefited Clarks.

The shop itself was vast and bright, and there was lots of open space, which worked in its favour. In contrast to many of the other retailers I visited, there were no fancy tech or experiential features, but it was easy to shop: styles were clearly categorised, and displays well organised and clutter free.

Men’s footwear had a smaller, dedicated area upstairs, which was equally tidy and pleasant to shop. There was a good variety of shoes, albeit very classic and “Clarks”, spanning smart and casual. My favourites were a beige suede desert boot (£100) and a dark brown, leather lace-up boot (£109) that looked hard-wearing, and so was reasonably priced.

The two shop assistants ignored me at first, but were efficient and knowledgeable when I got their attention. They showed solid product expertise and offered home delivery when they did not have my size in stock, which they checked for using an iPad. This meant that the service was smooth and immediate.

 

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Topshop/Topman: 18/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3
  • Customer service: 3
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 4

Topshop and Topman are underselling their footwear offering: both male and female mannequins in the window wore simple white trainers with no reference to the price or style.

In store was better, and footwear was incorporated into visual merchandising. Mannequins around the store sported the latest trends – in particular, chunky trainers, grungy lace-up platform boots and, for women, suede boots of all heights.

In the women’s footwear section upstairs, Sale items were clearly still the focus and took up shelf after shelf of display space. Although there was a good range of sizes, it would have been much nicer if this season’s shoes had been given more prominence, and for the spotlight to have been on some of the trend-led styles.

My favourite were a pair of snake print ankle boots, which were very of the moment and fantastic value for money at £89 for leather. They ran true to size and it took all my willpower to resist the helpful, if slightly nonchalant, sales assistant’s efforts to sell me a pair.

Although some of her knowledge of other product was a bit hazy – in her defence I do not imagine many staff are well trained yet

in vegan leather – she brought my size out quickly, and was on hand to offer styling advice and see how the shoe fitted.

Service in the menswear department triumphed though, and I was impressed by the assistant’s encyclopaedic knowledge, from size availability to materials to price. He was more than happy to help me find a “wedding-appropriate leather shoe for my brother”.

He did not push the most expensive pair, which at £65 were well priced for the quality, but made a few suggestions, including a shoe reduced from £49 to £15 in the Sale and a style from each of its concessions – Hudson and House of Hounds – both of which offered a solid selection of fashion-led shoes that did not look out of place next to the Topman brand.

Overall, Topshop/Topman’s offering was well suited to its young, fashion-focused customer. Its window displays were a little unexciting, but all in all, there was not too much at fault here.

 

Footasylum: 17/25

  • Product: 3.5
  • Presentation: 3
  • Customer service: 3
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 3.5

Footasylum’s store front in the Bullring was on brand, and it was clear from the outset that I was going to be spoilt for choice when it came to trainers. There were several Nike styles in the window, and I was pleased to note a mix of classic and on-trend options, including an Air Max and Air Force 1.

My first thought inside was that the shop was very dark and loud, although this probably suits its young customer, as does the R&B music.

The shoe area took up the first half of the store, and was almost blocked off from the rest of the shop by clothing racks. This made it feel quite cramped and claustrophobic. I also had trouble distinguishing the men’s shoes from the women’s, as there were no signs and they all looked unisex.

However, the assistant pointed me in the right direction and was happy to recommend some of the latest styles from the well-known brands that Footasylum stocks, including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Converse.

They were appropriately priced at an average of £90, which, although quite expensive, is normal for these bigger-name labels, and comparable with competitors Schuh and Foot Locker.

The assistant checked for stock using a walkie-talkie, and I felt quite uncomfortable as she chatted with her colleague, ignoring me. Although the shoes arrived quickly, they were the wrong size. Footasylum would benefit from investing in a digital stock management system.

The next issue was that there were no full-length mirrors – the nearest was at the back of the shop in the clothes area, and this was very inconvenient and frustrating.

The only mirrors in the footwear area were tiny and placed at the bottom of the shoe displays, which only provided a micro-view of the shoes and was not nearly sufficient to make me buy them.

Overall, I had a mediocre experience at Footasylum and would not rush back. By far my biggest issue was the mirror situation – or lack thereof – and somewhat jarring service.

 

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River Island: 15.5/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Customer service: 0
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 3.5

For a shop of its size, River Island’s display window was small and the footwear on show was not the best reflection of its offering. All male mannequins wore a white plimsoll and there was no indication of the style or price.

Its saving grace, however, was its dedicated women’s footwear area. Occupying a massive space at the back of the store, there was plenty of room to present all of its styles, from knee-high boots to stilettos to ankle boots – laid out in a neat and organised fashion.

Divided into categories, it was easy to find what I was after and there was a good mix of on-trend options, such as embossed mules (£40) and western-style ankle boots (£65). These were slightly cheaper than the average shoe at Topshop and, given the attention to detail, were good value.

Although the quality was evident – real leather featured predominantly in River Island’s autumn 19 range – and it catered for a range of price points, sizes and styles, its Bullring store was severely lacking in customer service. Not once did a sales assistant approach me, despite my attempts to make eye contact and track someone down. After 10 minutes of waiting, I headed upstairs to the men’s department, which was equally disappointing.

Unlike most of the stores I visited, River Island has no dedicated footwear staff. When I finally caught someone’s attention and asked for a shoe, it was a long time before he returned to tell me my size was not in stock. He did not suggest another size or style, or going online.

However, product was strong. Men’s styles included smart leather brogues (£35), suede loafers (£35) and classic Chelsea boots (£55), as well as more fashion-led options, such as tan lace-up boots (£45) and sock trainers (£40). They were all good quality, but the designs lacked originality compared with Topman and Clarks, so they were reasonable value. Unlike in the women’s area, displays were unkempt: shoes were in the wrong place, laces untucked and stands half-replenished.

 

Loafer

Russell & Bromley: 15/25

  • Product: 2.5
  • Presentation: 3.5
  • Customer service: 3
  • Value for money: 3
  • Shopping experience: 3

In keeping with Russell & Bromley stores’ clean-cut, minimalist look, there was a very limited selection of shoes on offer, none of which were particularly appealing. Some of the retailer’s “classic” core collection, comprising brogues, loafers and Chelsea boots, were a bit dated, while flashier styles featuring diamanté badges and big bows seemed unlikely to appeal to the core Russell & Bromley shopper.

Women’s options included smart and casual variations of boots, loafers, pumps and heels. A pair of black combat boots (£225) fitted well and the leather was as soft as butter, but the design was not distinct enough to warrant the price tag.

Although the quality of its shoes was excellent – they were well made from premium materials, such as calf leather and had fake fur linings, and boasted serious attention to detail – designs need a refresh.

Men’s footwear was much better, however. Traditional designs were entirely fitting for a smart, well-dressed customer base. Standouts included a smart, patent lace-up (£195), and there was a good selection of trainers priced at £175 to £195. These were more expensive than other retailers, but were good value for impeccably made shoes that are likely to last.

What let Russell & Bromley down was customer service. The shop was otherwise empty, but the three sales assistants were too busy joking with one another to notice me. They ignored me, even when I had three shoes in my hand. When I asked for help, I was met with a hostile reaction, which made me feel guilty for bothering them.

Although the assistant was slow to fetch stock – thankfully there was plenty of comfortable seating – she gave me her undivided attention as I tried the shoes on, which marginally made up for it. There was vast amount of space to try the footwear on, as well as huge mirrors throughout the store.

 

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Primark: 15/25

  • Product: 3
  • Presentation: 3
  • Customer service: 2
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 3

Given the size of Primark’s Birmingham store, the men’s footwear area was very small and not much thought had gone into it. The women’s area was, by contrast, very generously proportioned and offered an equally generous choice of shoes.

Men’s shoes were displayed on racks with lots of styles in the wrong place and shoelaces untucked. Nonetheless, as there was no dedicated sales assistant, presentation could have been much worse.

I particularly liked a pair of tan desert boots and black military lace-up boots, which, at £18, were both good value. The retailer also had some of the most on-trend men’s shoes of the day, ranging from chunky trainers to patent brogues, to suedette desert boots. They did not look as though they would last, but at £16, this was not to be expected.

Although there was a vast number of women’s styles to choose from, including wellingtons, heels and knee-high boots, the offering was underwhelming and the shoes were not particularly appealing or of great quality. A lilac platform heel for £12 was a prime example: the cheap material did not look as though it would wear well.

A pair of grungy, burgundy lace-up platform ankle boots (£18) I tried on were reasonably comfortable and the price reflected the quality. A snake print, high-heel ankle boot (£12) impressed with design and value for money.

Unlike men’s, there were two sales assistants in the women’s footwear area, and this was much needed. However, it was frustrating that Primark puts all its stock on display and has no additional sizes in the stockroom.

Overall, Primark ranked better than some of the fashion retailers visited but, like others, it could have made better use of the space and product that it had. Customer service was scant – but this was unsurprising given the size of the store and nature of the business. It would benefit from a more concise footwear offering in the women’s and men’s departments,  but the low prices were incomparable for both.

 

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Next: 14.5/25

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3
  • Customer service: 0
  • Value for money: 4
  • Shopping experience: 3.5

Although Next’s men’s and women’s shoe areas were easy to find and had ample space, they were both a jumbled mess. Displays were disorganised, with shoes thrown all over the place, and there were no signs to indicate where they should have been. This made it difficult and unpleasant to shop. The carpets were in need of a good vacuuming.

The women’s section was markedly worse, which only made it more disappointing given that it had the potential to be one of the best spaces of the day. It was a huge area and the layout had been well designed to separate footwear from the rest of the store. This created intimacy and there were plenty of shoes to warrant the square footage.

Designs ranged from smart to casual to dressy, and included heels, boots, flats and trainers. Among my favourites were a tanned leather ankle boot (£72) and a patent red court heel (£35), which were fitting for its customer base and of good value.

Men had a similarly expansive offering, but styles were more traditional and less trend driven. Standouts included a suede desert boot (£48) and tan Chelsea boot (£62), which sat alongside trainers, boots and loafers. They were good quality and real leather featured heavily, representing reasonable value.

Like the women’s, men’s shoes were affordable and on brand. Product certainly was not an issue at Next, and choice, quality and value for money were impressive across both genders.

Customer service, however, was a big problem. There was not one shop assistant in men’s or women’s footwear. Women’s would have benefited from having a dedicated sales person, given the size and prominence of the space. Next was by far the biggest disappointment of the day because of the potential that it had to impress.

 

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New Look: 9/25

  • Product: 3
  • Presentation: 1.5
  • Customer service: 0
  • Value for money: 2.5
  • Shopping experience: 2

Shopping in New Look’s Bullring branch evoked conflicting emotions: I was disappointed by its window display and in-store visual merchandising, and impressed by its dedicated footwear area, but annoyed at the mess and lack of customer service. This resulted in a frustrating overall experience.

Although New Look did have some nice styles, you would never get that impression from its shop front or in-store displays, both of which featured a nondescript white trainer or simple black boot. They were reasonably priced, however, at £14.99 and £27.99 respectively.

That said, there was a good-sized area dedicated to its women’s shoes on the lower mezzanine, with plenty of seating and mirrors. There was also a huge selection of footwear spanning a range of styles, fit and price points, which was much appreciated and catered to New Look’s expansive customer base.

As most of the shoes were on hanging stands and there were plenty of sizes available, there was less need for sales staff, but the whole area was extremely messy. It also made it harder to find a size when customers had put shoes back in the wrong place. Not only was this very inconvenient, but it also cheapened the jumbled-up product.

Some of its more expensive and seasonal shoes, including high heels (well priced at £25.99) and boots (good value at £32.99), were displayed on individual white wooden units, requiring an assistant to fetch stock. I waited 10 minutes for someone to appear before moving on.

Prices were comparatively low – the most expensive pair of heels was £27.99 and boots £32.99 – but there was a noticeable lack of quality. I saw none made from real leather, which made me doubt their durability.

New Look’s footwear offer was appropriate for its target customer in terms of quality and quantity, but the Bullring store was a let-down: presentation was poor, customer service non-existent and value for money questionable.

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