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Clarks, Exeter

Don’t be fooled by the standard exterior. Clarks’ new-format store looks good, shows the product well and emphasises its family friendly ethos.

Clarks is a part of almost every (probably middle-class) family in the land. This is where shoppers in search of shoes that fit go when selecting footwear for their offspring’s incredibly sensitive feet. That, or a version of it, was for years a major part of the marketing push that Clarks used to persuade us that its stores may have been a mite dull, but they were certainly worthy. All of that changed in the middle of the last decade when a sleek new white-box format was unveiled that rapidly became the standard Clarks store format in the UK.

The problem is, Clarks is a truly international outfit and it is a measure of the feeling surrounding this particular store design interior leap that it was never really taken overseas. Now a new look has been tested in this country, in a city centre branch, Exeter, and an edge-of-town retail park, Glasgow Fort. And significantly the format, by London interior design consultancy Four IV, has also been trialled in Hamburg, Washington DC and Amsterdam, among others.

Now Clarks has taken the decision that this is a format it wants to run with worldwide. It’s a fair bet, therefore, that during this year many shoppers will see the new look arriving in their local Clarks as plans to fit out existing stores, as well as putting the design into new branches, begin to bear fruit.

Key looks and merchandise mix

The thing about Clarks is that it may try to appeal beyond its core family audience, but it remains, at heart, the default position for the British middle class and everybody knows what it stands for, or at least they think they do. Perhaps for this reason, there are two floors in the Exeter store and if it’s kids’ footwear that is the purpose of the shopping mission, then the whole of the basement is set aside for that.

And the ranges are split into three - First Shoes aimed at babies and toddlers, and then boys’ and girls’ shoes, strictly demarcated by age group. There is a base style that is used across all

age groups and both genders - the Velcro-strapped trainer - but beyond this, it’s pink or black for girls and, in general, blue, brown or grey for boys. For boys, the Velcro-fastening shoe is the overwhelming favourite, even when boots are being considered. For girls, stylings are considerably more varied, but as in other retailers, calf-length boots are key.

Head upstairs to the ground floor and for men there are also Velcro-fastening styles, but formal laced Oxford styles are also available. Chelsea and desert boots, as well as more contemporary stylings - most of which are walking boot influenced - are also on offer. For women, there is everything from courts to knee-high boots, which look good value at a little more than £100.

The use of the words trendy and Clarks might at one point have been almost anathema, but this is a good showing, albeit close examination is required to find the best of what’s on offer. It still probably won’t do it for fashionistas, but they can always decamp to Kurt Geiger or some such.

Score 6/10

Visual merchandising

This is the heart of the mid-market and, starting once more in the basement, the standout feature in the children’s department is the circle that is filled with shelves and which forms part of the perimeter. This makes showcasing the more brightly coloured stock straightforward and the fact that it is white serves to direct the gaze as the rest of the perimeter is somewhere between lime and pea soup green.

The other point about the perimeter is that all of the shelves on this floor are more brightly lit than surrounding areas, demanding again that the shopper looks at what’s on offer.

There are also perimeter panels with shelves that seem to drop from one level to another and that carry coloured translucent acrylic cubes, aimed at highlighting specific styles. The mid-shop on this floor is rather more shoe shop standard, although a large plus is that the space is not overcrowded.

It’s a similar story upstairs on the adult floor with brightly lit shelves around the perimeter giving the stock its best chance. The perimeter shelving is also arranged like a 2D pyramid at various points, with a graphic being used to form the apex. It’s a simple trick, but one that works to focus attention on the mood shots.

It is a pity that from the outside this is such a relatively standard-looking store, when much of what is within is laudable.

Score 6/10

Service

Clarks is posited upon good service - it’s part of what you expect from this retailer, particularly when shopping for children’s shoes. This store is no exception and the modern-looking measuring gizmo in the basement, to aid accurate fitting, is just what you’d expect of Clarks. All of the staff were friendly and approachable - just there to do their job of helping shoppers find the most appropriate footwear.

Score 8/10

Store appeal

This is the alpha and omega of this store - if the warm colours and redesigned interior don’t find favour with shoppers, then Clarks will have made a poor decision. Fortunately, the work done by the in-house team with Four IV looks good and the mix of dark wood flooring, lime walls and white mid-shop tables does the trick on the adult floor of feeling contemporary without being off-putting, which is where you’d hope Clarks would be.

Without doubt, however, the store’s tour de force is the children’s department in the basement, where everything from the lime carpets and lighter lime walls, to the decision not to raise the levels of ambient light too high and to concentrate instead on the stock, looks on the money.

This is a long way from what you’ll encounter in other UK Clarks stores and looks somehow more appropriate. It will appeal to its core customer and it looks as if Clarks is back in touch with itself once more.

Score 8/10

Would I buy?

Why not? This is a store that combines a warm interior with at least something for almost everybody at prices that are unlikely to deter. The footwear retailing business is a fiercely contested arena and every change will be monitored by the competition… which will probably be dismayed by this latest development from Clarks. If you were to use a word to describe the store it would be simple: welcoming.

7/10

Verdict 35/50

Clarks unveils an interior that restores its place as a modern, family focused footwear retailer. This looks better than what went before and it will be interesting to see how quickly it is rolled out across the estate.

Essentials

Address 233 High Street, Exeter

Size 880 sq ft in the basement, 1,380 sq ft on the ground floor

Design Four IV

Other trial stores Glasgow Fort, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Washington DC

Overall ambience Welcoming

Standout feature Perimeter circle in the basement

Mild disappointment Store exterior

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