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Ann Harvey, Oxford Street, London

A revamp of its plus-size womenswear business Ann Harvey’s flagship store is the first step in owner Alexon’s bid to turn around its flagging fortunes.

Walk Oxford Street from one end to the other and dedicated plus-size retailers are thin on the ground. There are in fact just two of them. At the thoroughfare’s western extremity sits a two-floor branch of Evans, offering a size range that runs from 14 up to 32.

Walk around this store and one thing hits you squarely between the eyes – this is a retail proposition that is almost entirely concerned with fashion. Now head east towards Oxford Circus and just before you get there, you’ll find a branch of Ann Harvey.

A glance will suffice to tell you that while Ann Harvey may be selling clothing for women of the same size as Evans, it is unlikely the two retailers share a common shopper base. This store may also be about fashion, but its appeal will lie with the more mature shopper. Judgmental perhaps, but spend any length of time in this single-floor with a small mezzanine shop and this will be found to be broadly the case.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. An older demographic requires clothing in the same way as fashion-conscious teens and 20-somethings, and Ann Harvey seeks to satisfy this need with an offer that might be termed “classic”. On Oxford Street it does so with a store that has just emerged from a makeover that it says could form the template for a roll-out.

Much is at stake. Parent company Alexon made an £8.1m loss in the 26 weeks to August 1 and the Ann Harvey Oxford Street refit is part of a broad range of measures that have been implemented by chief executive Jane McNally as she seeks to turn things around.

Key looks and merchandise mix

Beware the isolated offer. The store divides into two parts with the eponymous own label occupying the whole of the ground floor, while on a small mezzanine, at the back of the shop, there is a limited range of branded occasionwear from Chesca, which is shown with a lingerie, nightwear and accessories offer. This would be fine, but the mezzanine is so compact that the different parts of the level allow none of the constituent elements to stamp their authority on the space.

Chesca sizes run from 14 to 26 and prices start at about £65 for a three-colour print blouse, up to £165 for a lightweight wool/viscose coat. The colours are mostly a mix of purples, greys and creams. Were the collection more extensive, this would be a good offer.

Head downstairs and the Ann Harvey range is certainly classic, with partywear at the front and with a seasonal promotion offering £30-off certain items. The partywear is followed by a substantial separates area with a distinctly mid-price feel, occupying the space at the back of the shop, beneath the mezzanine.

The colour palette is broad, with everything from black, red, lime green, royal blue and a vast number of greys. It might almost be too broad, making the range feel like the buyers and merchandisers just couldn’t bring themselves to opt for a tightly controlled series of options. There is far too much dated-looking outerwear too – classic should not mean dull.

Score 5/10

Visual merchandising

There are four white mannequins in this store and they are used to display the merchandise to its relative advantage, but visual merchandising should also help take a customer through a space and make sense of where things are on the shopfloor. This was, frankly, not at all apparent when staring into this shop from the entrance. Yes, there are large perimeter lifestyle graphics on the walls above a mosaic dado rail, but they do little to indicate what is beneath them, serving merely as mood-setters.

In fairness, this is a difficult store to make the best of owing to its narrow footprint, but this makes not crowding the space and helping browsers with clear signage even more important. It would be entirely possible to miss large sections because the general presentation is so dense in the mid-shop areas that you can’t see the mid-length wool-mix coats for the knitwear and fitted jackets.

Score 6/10

Service

Here Ann Harvey scores big time. In spite of the store’s shortcomings, the staff were a beacon of light. When viewed from the mezzanine, it was easy to see all of them were busy talking to shoppers, rather than each other, and customers were responding well. Polite and friendly, but not overbearing – exactly what good store staff should be, and they all seemed to know about the stock.

Score 8/10

Store appeal

This used to be quite a bad store, looking like a little slice of yesteryear in retail terms. After a four-week refit it is certainly better, but use of the word good remains problematical in the store’s current form.

This is a quick canter through a large number of well-worn store design clichés, whether it’s the wood-faced cash desk, the copper pendant lights above it, or the paper lanterns that run in a line from front to back. The lifestyle graphics are good, but you’ve seen their ilk a hundred times before and they do little to convey much about the merchandise on offer – although doubtless they are intended to promote the glamour of shopping in this store.

Then there is the mezzanine that looks like an afterthought. The large wooden staircase that takes you up to it leads to a postage stamp-sized space and you can’t help wondering why it was done at all. A member of staff said originally it was intended to be bigger, but that “planning” and cost both militated against this becoming a reality.

Score 5/10

Would I buy?

Probably not. Were I part of that group of people for whom Ann Harvey might seem a possible option, I would be inclined to venture further along Oxford Street to Evans. The same applies to gift shopping for somebody else. This would not be an obvious choice and it’s quite hard to see, without a major revision of both stock and visual merchandising standards, how this might change in the near future.

Score 5/10

Verdict

The boundless enthusiasm of the staff in this store did not make up for its shortcomings, which is a real pity. Done well, this remains a part of the market with potential, but if this is the solution to some of the problems besetting Alexon, then it looks unlikely there is much light at the end of the tunnel.

Score 29/50

Essentials

Address 266 Oxford Street, London W1C

Size 1,950 sq ft across two floors

Parent company Alexon, whose labels include Eastex and Dash

Chief executive Jane McNally

Best feature The staff

Worst feature The inclusion of a mezzanine

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