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House of Fraser raises the stakes in Belfast

House of Fraser opened its first premium concept store in Belfast last week, as part of its new upmarket positioning.

House of Fraser’s flagship store in Belfast’s new Victoria Square development opened to a whirlwind of attention last week, as 70,000 people visited the scheme on the first day.

The department store anchors the £40 million centre, which will increase the city’s retail offer by a third. But apart from being the first House of Fraser in Northern Ireland, the 200,000sq ft shop is also the business’s first major opening under the new management and ownership of chief executive John King, a former Matalan boss, and chairman Don McCarthy, who is part of the consortium of investors led by Baugur who bought the department store chain in 2006.

The Belfast store is also a blueprint for the retailer’s strategy to transform itself into the UK’s largest premium department store chain.
The company is under pressure to impress. Having upset brands by introducing increased supplier discounts and levying “taxes” on suppliers as part of a contribution scheme to help fund its £50 million rebranding strategy, HoF has to put its money where its mouth is.

It is hard not to be impressed by the Belfast store, with a modern interior covering five floors, including underground car parking and a top floor restaurant that stays open until 1am, with fantastic views over the city.

The store looks more aspirational than HoF’s other shops, in keeping with the business’s new premium positioning. It has dedicated sections including Handbag Heaven and a reworked footwear area. More prominence is given to womenswear own labels such as Linea and Untold, which stand up well against the branded product. While there are few photo graphics or lifestyle images, the single biggest noticeable characteristic is the strength of the individual brand statements, which are punched out loudly with full-height logos and expensive-looking individual shopfits.

Rejecting the world of value fashion, the store is a confident statement in support of brands. It offers a raft of labels that are making their Northern Ireland debut, plus a dozen or so labels that are new to the department store business. These include womenswear own label Episode, which the company acquired last year, and its Kenneth Cole menswear range, made under licence.

King is understandably proud of the store, but says it is still a work in progress. “We’ve got about 50% of what we’d like in it,” he explains. “This shop will evolve over the next few months and we will have new brands coming in. It has to be what’s right for the market. There will be new brands coming into all the stores throughout the year. We’ve looked at getting everything right, from corporate branding through to products and services.

“This is the kind of shopping experience that we want our stores to deliver. There are 30 to 40 stores which we could give this kind of storefit and we will try to put elements of it into existing stores. The business is now made up of about 50% concessions, which is pretty much where we want it to stay.”

Referring to HoF’s tussle with suppliers last year, King says: “The reason we did what we did was to increase what we can invest into the business. And we didn’t lose any brands from it.”

There were a few key areas that needed to be addressed when he came to the business. King acknowledges that some suppliers were unhappy that much of the portfolio did not look up to scratch.

“As a team we had a very clearly defined view of what we wanted to do,” he says. “First, we wanted to take the branding into the 21st century – we still had the stag logo, which looked a bit old. Second, we wanted to invest in the stores. We’ve already done 1,500 mini updates in our stores.”

King jokes that the management team had a sweepstake on how much the Belfast store would take on its first day. But even before the tills were rung up, King was already surprised at the success of the friends and family evening, which took £33,000, and the special launch event the night before the main opening, which netted £40,000.

King explains that the store will enable HoF to test different ideas and ways of working. “We have an extra level of store management here – floor managers as well as department managers,” he explains. “This is something we can trial here and see if it works. I think it will, and then we can put it into other stores.

“Overall in the business we’ve got more people on the shop floor than we had a year ago.”

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