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Drapers goes mystery shopping in Meadowhall and rates womenswear stores.

As autumn arrives, the fashion industry heralds the arrival of new season stock in stores and, along with it, the return of Drapers’ annual review of high street retailers. In the first in our series of three hit or miss mystery shopper reviews, we take a look at high street womenswear retailers.

This season we journeyed to the Meadowhall shopping centre on the outskirts of Sheffield, as the centre undergoes a huge renovation project, set to completely overhaul its 1.4m sq ft by the end of 2017. Each store was judged on a variety of factors, including the strength of the collection, quality of service, value for money and visual appeal. And as the lure of online increases, stores must find new ways to draw in customers.

Overall, we found a mixed picture. While some retailers shone on all fronts, strong collections were frequently let down by dated and overcrowded stores, and there was a general sense of “safeness” to new collections.

Social media played a positive part in some – but not all – locations.

Who came out on top when we put the shops to the test and who needs to up their in-store game?

 

Store rankings

Premium

Young fashion

Mainstream

Value

 

Premium

Jigsaw

Jigsaw

Jigsaw

Attentive staff, a curated collection and slick store make Jigsaw a shopping centre gem

Score: 9.5/10

Pros

The most impressive thing about the Jigsaw store is how seamlessly each element fits together. The minimalist design feels almost like an art gallery – racks hang from the ceiling and display tables feature carefully curated products. The collection feels similarly crisp and curated. Heritage separates in muted tones are paired with daring pops of unexpected colours, mossy aquamarine tones and terracottas, which give the offer a feeling of exclusivity that sets it apart, even from other similar premium retailers. The unique designs and tangible quality are well reflected in the pricing (£129 for a pair of wool trousers). I am greeted by staff on entering the store, and immediately told there are more sizes available if needed. The staff know the product range inside out, answering my questions on colour options and similar pieces with ease. The fitting rooms are bright and airy, and there is a dedicated disabled fitting room available. When buying, I also have the option of receiving a fresh item, rather than one that had been on display, which is retrieved extremely quickly.

Cons

The store is almost flawless. However, the lack of music makes the space eerily silent.

Reiss

Reiss

Reiss

Exquisite quality and a chic store combine for a luxurious shopping experience

Score: 9/10

Pros

The quality of the collection at Reiss is impeccable. New season items are subtly trend led, and chic shimmering jumpers (£60) and fuzzy fake-fur jackets (£325) appear alongside more classic, basic items. The exquisite quality of the items, which feel exclusive and luxurious, justifies the premium label and price tag. The store itself is crisp, clean and chic – racks are not crammed with stock and the overall space has few enough items to allow for easy browsing. Staff in the store greet me as I walk in, and offer assistance throughout my time browsing, ensuring I have the sizes I need and offering to place items in the changing room for me. The changing rooms are spacious, and have flattering lighting, plush carpet and seating that add to the premium experience. Staff wait outside to ensure sizes are correct and fetch alternatives in less than a minute, sustaining a friendly air of professionalism throughout.

Cons

The only downside of this Reiss store is the exposed nature of the fitting rooms, which are at the back of the store but not shielded from the rest of the space for privacy.

Allsaints

All Saints

AllSaints

An atmospheric store design highlights AllSaints’ premium credentials

Score: 7.5/10

Pros

Experience is everything in premium stores, and at AllSaints the store experience and product offering are perfectly co-ordinated. Product is carefully arranged around the spacious shop, and different heights of racks and wall displays showcase the range of the collection well. While many shops pump out perfume to lure in shoppers, AllSaints exudes a subtle smell of wood and leather, giving the space a luxurious feel that suits the essence of the brand. The new season collection is true to the rocky aesthetic of the brand – ripped T-shirts, elegant silk shirt-dresses (£188) and leather jackets (from £298) form the core, and are well suited to the coming season.

Cons

While the quality of most items is good, T-shirts seem pricey for a basic, thin item at £58. The darkness of the shop, while atmospheric, makes it difficult to see detailing. This continues in the changing rooms, which are cleverly designed in panelled wood, but too dark. Staff in the store are helpful, but hard to find. No one is manning the changing room or tills, meaning I have to search the store for a staff member before I can try on my items.

French connection

French Connection

French Connection

A nicely designed store and strong key pieces are let down by variable pricing and unkempt fitting rooms

Score: 7/10

Pros

I am greeted on entry in the large, bright French Connection store, and as I pass members of staff, each checks whether I need any help. The collection is fairly trend led, focusing on smarter items such as leather midi-skirts (£175) and coats (in tweed at £195) in high-quality fabrics to anchor the collection. The range is season-appropriate and features some well-designed key items. The high ceilings and modern fittings make the store experience feel relaxed and fresh.

Cons

While some items seem priced fairly, the pricing lacks continuity and items vary in quality. A basic cotton shirt-dress is priced the same as a pair of metallic coated black jeans (both £80). Equally, while the coats seem good quality, some shirts feel flimsy and are too sheer to be wearable. While the staff at the changing rooms are helpful, the actual fitting rooms let down the store’s high-end feel. Rooms are dusty, with chipped paint, dark lighting and scratched, broken doors.

Ted baker

Ted Baker

Ted Baker

A visual merchandising masterpiece, but a collection lacking in newness

Score: 6/10

Pros

Ted Baker excels at creating a space to inspire its shoppers. The windows were by far the most engaging of the premium brands in Meadowhall, referencing the brand’s “Mission Impeccable” shoppable video campaign with an air of silver-screen glamour. Mannequins are presented in front of a plush gold curtain as if showcasing the costumes of a cinema blockbuster. Inside the store, chandelier lighting and brightly coloured baroque fittings make the space feel like a treasure trove. As I enter, I am immediately greeted by staff who ably answer my questions over sizing, fit and pricing, and are happy to offer styling advice as I browse.

Cons

With extreme detailing and a large amount of stock, the store feels a little too busy in places, and there are too many rails to allow for easy viewing of the product. The collection feels quite safe, capitalising on classic Ted Baker motifs a little too heavily, meaning it lacks a sense of newness. Prices are high – dresses cost up to £400 – and although the detailing and fabric justify the cost to some extent, higher-priced items, such as a checked roll-neck for £119, do not quite feel worthy of the expense.

Karen millen

Karen Millen

Karen Millen

There is a strong collection and personal service, but store design desperately needs modernising

Score: 5/10

Pros

Looking at the Karen Millen collection, there is a clear divide between a trend-led collection, featuring 1960s styling and sports-luxe pieces, and a more classic, premium occasionwear offering of floral print dresses and blouses perfectly geared to appeal to a core Karen Millen customer. The items are well made, feeling luxurious on the hanger and when worn, justifying the premium price tag. A plaid dress (£180) and tweed skirt (£125) are highlights. Staff in the store are extremely attentive and helpful, and while I am not greeted on entering the shop, the changing room staff gently assist with styling and sizing advice. They offer to bring other clothing items and shoes to create a full look within the changing room – it feels as though the staff genuinely enjoy assisting me with my shopping.

Cons

Despite excellent service and strong product, the store itself feels old and tired. The window display of three mannequins in matching beige outerwear does not do justice to the array of product inside. In store, there is a noticeable smell of damp, and too many products are crammed into a small space. This makes it difficult to pick out items and see the range on offer. The changing rooms are extremely small, and spotlights also make the space feel hot, cramped and a little claustrophobic.

 

Young fashion

 

River island

River Island

River Island

Trend-led glitz in product and store design mean River Island is primed for the cameras of generation Snapchat

Score: 9/10

Pros

River Island has clearly been watching the social media evolution of young shoppers very closely, and its Meadowhall store is adorned with Snapchat- and Instagram-ready details – both in clothing and design – to attract its target market. The collection is incredibly trend led, focusing on glamorous evening staples and standout, bold daywear that features lurex, velvet, lace and sports-luxe in equal measure. The store windows show its campaign with Instagram-generation model Lindsey Wixson, and advertise a Snapchat competition. In store, the mannequins are posed taking selfies, adorning the shop in bold outfits. The fitting of the shop itself features chandeliers, mirroring and other details – including candy-coloured doors on the changing rooms – that make the store feel youthful, exciting and perfect for the next Instagrammer through the doors. Staff are chirpy and helpful, fetching different sizes from the stock room to be tried on and giving honest advice about garments in the collection.

Cons

For a shopper outside the youthful River Island demographic, the bright lights and excessive glitz may be a little overwhelming. Additionally, while the prices are relatively low (dresses start at £20) the quality of some of the items seems lacking. A print shirt (£18) is both misshapen and insubstantial, and many pieces feel flimsy.

Urban outfitters

Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters

Store and product deliver on urban cool, but aloof staff give a coldness to the shopping experience

Score: 7/10

Pros

Making a shopping centre unit feel “street” and chic is quite an ask, but Urban Outfitters manages to capture a sense of undone, industrial cool within its store. The windows do not feature mannequins or clothes, but are set out like a jigsaw of smaller wood-framed windows giving a glimpse into the shop within, which has a similarly industrial, warehouse feel. The store makes good use of both tables and racks to display product, so the items are easy to browse. Overall, the collection is eclectic and street led, focusing on vintage labels and some strong, unique pieces that will appeal to its demographic.

Cons

While the items offered are unique and interesting, they are priced quite highly for their quality – a mesh cropped top costs £28. The service in the store is unremarkable. Staff are pleasant but unwilling to assist when asked about sizing or styling and disappear quickly in the large store. While the space is nicely designed, the sparsely arranged display sections make the store feel a little too large at times, and when combined with the aloof staff members, this creates an impersonal feel that does not encourage easy browsing.

Miss selfridge

Miss Selfridge

Miss Selfridge

A classy store design let down by a lack of originality in the collection

Score: 6/10

Pros

Walking into Miss Selfridge feels like entering a relaxed, quaint boudoir. The lighting is low – but still bright enough to see the stock detailing – walls are adorned with sweetly patterned wallpapers, and mannequins are positioned as if draped through the store, sitting on tables or leaning against walls. The visual merchandising features interesting props, such as a giant white picture frame resting against a varnished table – which gives the store a point of difference from other, similar retailers. The changing rooms are similarly well designed – booths have sturdy doors, seating and bright, flattering lighting. The clothes themselves are well priced. Basic dresses starts at £22 and coats at £45, and are reasonably good quality, hitting trends in almost every piece.

Cons

While the collection may be trend led, there is no sense of originality in the offering – with each item seen in countless iterations in other young fashion shops, there are no distinguishing features on the Miss Selfridge versions that make them stand out. The windows of the store are fairly bland as well, simply showing three mannequins in nondescript outfits. Compared with the impact of the River Island windows, Miss Selfridge’s appear dull.

Topshop

Topshop

Topshop

Despite a well-targeted, trend-led range, Topshop must up its game to lure the Instagram generation offline

Score: 6/10

Pros

For the Instagram generation, trends are everything and this is something Topshop knows how to execute exactly. The windows of the store feature models decked in highly styled, immensely trend-led pieces. The collection capitalises on several key street-style trends and has numerous items overtly influenced by the catwalks: 1990s styling, velvet and Gucci-inspired extravagance are central. In an extremely large one-floor store, there are also seasonal areas of coats and knitwear, as well as an area for the store’s Ivy Park sports range with Beyoncé. The space benefits from strong in-store visual merchandising and styling: carefully placed mirrors and tables break up the space, and mannequins mark out different areas in the store.

Cons

Despite the clever merchandising and a tidy feel, the amount of stock on the shop floor makes the space feel sprawling and overwhelming. The staff are also hard to find, and when I want to ask for a different size in the fitting rooms, the attending member of staff is nowhere to be seen. When the store experience is neither seamless nor special, I struggle to understand why a younger generation would shop in store rather than online.

Oasis

Oasis

Oasis

A half-renovated store is let down by too much product and a lack of daring

Score: 5/10

Pros

The Meadowhall Oasis seems to be midway through a renovation when I enter. The back section of the store and fitting rooms are decorated in a feminine and sophisticated manner, bold florals complementing the typical Oasis prints. The fitting rooms are pleasant, and feature sweeping curtain entrances and velvet upholstered seating, as well as flattering lighting. As I enter the store, the staff are busy but are helpful and efficient, offering styling advice and alternative sizes when I am in the fitting rooms.

Cons

The renovated back section of the store is very nice, but the front section feels dated, dingy and run-down, and, as I enter, new shelves are being loudly hammered into the walls. The product is very cramped in the store and, with the amount of print on Oasis clothing, this makes the space feel overcrowded and oppressive. While there are trend-led aspects of the collection – numerous references to Tommy Hilfiger, such as a crewneck striped jumper (£35), are apparent – much of the collection reworks what Oasis does best, which may please some customers, but looks unlikely to draw in new ones.

Zara

Zara

Zara

A chaotic shop floor and neglected merchandise make for a highly unpleasant in-store experience

Score: 2/10

Pros

Zara’s success stems from its well-priced, trend-influenced ranges, and the current collection hits most key trends. Each item features twists on floral embroidery or lace detailing, which differentiates items from other high-street brands.

Cons

Zara is a mess. Even in the morning, the store is incredibly unkempt. Many rails are half-empty or have other items thrown over them in disarray. Clothes are falling off hangers and left abandoned on the floor, and the tables are covered in mountains of clothes so muddled it is unclear if there is a display underneath. Balls of dust are mixed in with the shoe racks, and the handbag and accessory displays are either empty or have mismatched products falling over each other. Staff rails with tried-on clothing are abandoned throughout the store, and there seems to be no one trying to tidy the chaotic shop floor. While the changing rooms are manned, staff are unable to go and fetch different sizes and there are numerous abandoned items in each cubicle, making them just as untidy as the shop floor itself. Considering Zara’s trend-led reputation and phenomenal success, the scene in this shop is unacceptable.

Mainstream

Next

Next

Next

Excellent visual merchandising but a collection verging on too trend led for Next’s typical customer

Score: 8/10

Pros

In the battle for shop-window appeal, Next performs excellently. With the store situated at the far end of a long row of shops, the need for an eye-catching window is obvious and Next executes it well. Bright strip lights against a black background and a strong mix of glamorous, interestingly styled mannequins and homeware mean the windows have impact even from a distance. This is reflected within the store – it is very full with product, but the overall neatness, higher racks, seating areas and mannequins successfully break up the space. Collections are coherently arranged, and the products are good value and good quality – there are blazers from £50 and a velvet dress at £48. Staff within the store are hard to find, but in the fitting rooms, which are brightly lit and spacious, I have the option to call for assistance with a buzzer, and am attended to almost instantly.

Cons

Despite a clear focus on trends such as velvet and sports-luxe, some of the more trend-focused pieces – the graffiti-scribble jeans and ripped denim pieces – feel a little too junior for the Next customer. While I am in the store, I notice a pair of women examining the jeans in bemusement.

Warehouse

Warehouse

Warehouse

Warehouse’s bold new design direction is undermined by a bland, dated store.

Score: 5.5/10

Pros

As the first season of designs from Warehouse’s new design director, Emma Cook, enters stores, it seems to be refreshing the tired high street design mandates. The collection is daring and sophisticated, following trends but creating bold outlines and shapes that set it apart from similar brands. The quality of the items appears to be very good and the prices are generally reasonable – a striped shirt-dress costs £49. Staff are friendly, if a touch hands-off in their approach. They do not offer help but are willing when asked, and I am offered the opportunity to order in different sizes or items if needed.

Cons

Unfortunately, the strong designs are let down by the rest of the store. The space is very small, and the product is crammed in to the point where it becomes difficult to walk between rails. The garish lighting and bland, cheap-looking shop fittings jar with the quality of the product, and the space is in desperate need of renovation to showcase its new direction. The windows of the store are equally off-putting, featuring a lone model displayed in old season items that do not appear to be on sale in the store.

 

 

Coast

Coast

Coast

With too much product on display, Coast’s elegant collection loses its shine

Score: 5/10

Pros

For those seeking occasionwear, Coast is a must-visit. The store has a phenomenal range of seasonal occasionwear that combines high-end trends with classic cuts and more traditional patterns. There is a good and large variety of styles – dresses, separates, jumpsuits and layering items. The windows feature the brand’s campaign with Olivia Palermo, as well as some of the standout dresses from the collection. While the prices are relatively high – £195 for a midi-dress and £89 for grey culottes – the feel of the garments is worth the price, and items invariably feel both luxurious and well made. The staff in the store are incredibly helpful and friendly, enquiring as to whether I am shopping for a specific event and offering dress suggestions accordingly.

Cons

The quality of the items is let down by a lack of attention to detail and the huge amount of items on display. Rails are so tightly packed it is hard to look at individual items, and there are so many pieces out that the quality of the garments is completely lost. Cheap flooring, unflattering lighting and broken curtains in the fitting room detract from what should be a glamorous occasionwear store.

Dorothy perkins

Dorothy Perkins

Dorothy Perkins

An unremarkable collection and basic store mean Dorothy Perkins is falling behind other retailers

Score: 4/10

Pros

The collection from Dorothy Perkins delivers a more grown-up take on some of the high street trends this season. Preppy casuals and party dresses are core in the collection, but appear in less-bold incarnations than some of the younger-focused brands. Prices are relatively low and generally seem good value. A lace midi-dress is £40 and a fake leather pencil skirt is £24, and clothing comes across as practical and sensible. As I try on items, staff are helpful, and I am able to order online from the store if my size is not available.

Cons

Everything about the store feels basic and budget. The lighting is harsh and overly bright, making the clothes look cheap and unappealing, and the bright white walls and tiled ceilings give the whole store a shabby atmosphere. The changing rooms are also unpleasant: they have broken curtains, scratched paint and giant balls of dust, which makes me very unwilling to change there at all. While some clothes are nice, they were a repetition of items seen elsewhere, meaning customers have a lack of options. Dorothy Perkins needs to do something a little more interesting and less basic to appeal to customers who increasingly know they will get a more pleasant experience with other retailers.

 

 

M and s

Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer

With a bizarre clash of trend-led and classic, M&S must decide who it is targeting

Score: 4/10

Pros

Good quality and good value are at the core of the M&S ethos, and the range on offer is large and varied. Clothing is invariably well made and fairly priced – a pure wool polo neck is £32.50 and a pair of trend-led cropped jeans are £35. The staff are extremely helpful, and there are enough on the shop floor to make finding them easy. Even in a large store, staff are able to locate alternative sizes and specific items quickly and easily.

Cons

Unfortunately, this M&S store has not progressed with the times. While some collections are modern and trend led, the overall store is stuck in the 1990s. There is an overwhelming amount of product on the shop floor, meaning that trend pieces are lost in a sea of “classic collection” items and basics for its core, older consumer. It seems highly unlikely that any of the younger target market for some of these lines would even make it into the store, let alone find the trend-led products. Velour slip dresses are placed next to classic skirts with elasticated waists, making the whole store feel jarring and incoherent. The window displays were similarly confused – mannequins are dressed in basics, rather than the headline products in store. Overall, this feels like a store being very reluctantly dragged into the modern day.

 

Value

 

New look

New Look

New Look

A winning formula of well-priced, trend-led basics with a superior store set-up

Score: 8/10

Pros

With a huge offering of trend-led basics, it would have been easy for New Look to feel overcrowded. However, thanks to a large store space with a high ceiling, varied visual merchandising and an impressive neatness, the large collection is manageable and appealing. Key young, casual trends are placed at the front of the store, and a substantial collection of basics, outerwear, activewear and accessories set up this New Look as a one-stop shop for the entire wardrobe. While the quality is slightly lower than other high street shops, it is good for its price and seems better than at similarly priced shops. A long winter coat (£44.99) feels structured and warm. The changing rooms are pleasant – there is quirky detailing and a space in the middle for friends to wait, while staff are efficient at finding other items and are very friendly. Considering the budget price of the product, the experience was excellent.

Cons

Despite the clean design of much of the store, the walls are painted a dark grey, which is not particularly appealing and gives the entrance a cold tone. The windows by the entrance, which simply have mannequins standing in various looks, feel a little pointless. With their dark-coloured, basic outfits, they fail to draw the eye from the glossy exterior of H&M next door.

H and m

H&M

H&M

Glossy merchandising and products let down by a lack of personal service

Score: 5/10

Pros

Even from a distance, the golden glowing windows of H&M draw the eye. The store front itself is warmly white, featuring quirky, modern-styled mannequins that showcase key looks from the collection – a group on a platform in the doorway draws the eye naturally into the centre of the store. Compared with the dark shop front of New Look next door, H&M seems incredibly fresh, modern and enticing. The overall focus of the visual merchandising seems designed to showcase the sheer volume on offer, and products are hung in racks stretching to the ceiling. Sections are clearly divided – there is a trend collection at the front and a good range of workwear, activewear and young fashion dotted through the store. Those hunting trends will be well placed in H&M, which offers good value and an array of trend pieces.

Cons

While the front of the store is neat, sections towards the back are become increasingly messy, as abandoned items are flung over racks. The changing rooms are dirty and scruffy. No staff are present and numerous cubicles are unusable. In fact, other than at the tills, there are no staff to be seen in the store, which is disappointing and makes finding assistance impossible.

Primark

Primark

Primark

A frantic, messy store and poor-quality items cannot be excused by Primark’s low prices

Score: 3/10

Pros

With no transactional website, Primark is entirely reliant on in-store sales, and so it stocks a frankly astounding array of items. Pieces are very cheap – tops start at £3 – and there is a strong focus on basics. Some of the more trend-influenced pieces are nice, however, and a £15 floral midi-dress in the Atmosphere collection could pass as much more expensive. Slogan T-shirts featuring cult young movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars are a smart move to target a youthful audience.

Cons

Primark is known for its manic shops, and even at 11am on a Tuesday, the Meadowhall store is heaving. Displays are ransacked, and some products seem to have been damaged and then discarded. In a value retailer, you wouldn’t expect a personal service, but the staff seem frantic – running around the store dragging baskets of extra stock and unable to stop to answer questions. The quality of some garments is also very poor. Cardigans are missing buttons and knitwear is thin and bristling with static. While such low prices will never result in impeccable quality, it is inexcusable for items to have missing buttons or snags while they are still on the shelves.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Always great to see comparisons, even if somewhat subjective.

    Next time, perhaps Drapers could assess two shopping centres in different regions and see if there is correlation?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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