Following last week’s online secret shopper report, Drapers takes to the streets to visit the high street’s womenswear offer at Essex’s Intu Lakeside.
The longer nights are drawing in and autumn is definitely here, even if temperatures failed to drop as low as retailers might have liked during this year’s mild October. As new-season product floods into stores, Drapers’ secret shoppers journeyed to Essex’s Intu Lakeside on 16 October, for our annual review of high street retailers. First under the microscope were womenswear retailers, among them Topshop, Quiz, Oasis and Marks & Spencer.
Stores were judged on the strength of the product, customer service, value for money and the overall shopping experience.
Red has emerged as one of autumn 17’s key colour trends, and there was plenty of ruby-hued product for customers to choose from at Lakeside, including some seasonally appropriate cosy knitwear at Next and Dorothy Perkins. Different textures also proved central to many retailer’s new season collections. Vinyl was spotted at New Look, Miss Selfridge and Lipsy; jewel-toned velvet at Zara and M&S.
Unmanned and unloved fitting rooms proved to be a theme, although All Saints, Topshop and Superdry were notable exceptions. No staff on, or at the very least nearby, the fitting rooms is both frustrating for customers and a security risk for retailers. All too often there was no one checking whether customers were coming out of changing rooms with the same number of items they started with. If retailers really want shoppers to buy from them in store rather than online, far more effort needs to be put into making fitting rooms a pleasant place to be. Judging by the experience at Intu Lakeside, most customers would be better off trying product on in the comfort of their own homes.
Read on to find out which retailers excelled in the combination of product, service and store experience, and which fell disappointingly short.
- Superdry 8/10
- Topshop 7/10
- Lipsy 6/10
- Oasis 6/10
- River Island 6/10
- Quiz 5/10
- Miss Selfridge 4/10
- Zara 3/10
Attentive customer service and appealing product make for a great shopping experience
Customer service is excellent without being over the top or pushy. A member of staff spots me browsing and helps me find the zebra-print mini-dress I’ve seen in the windows, offering to put items in the changing room as I look around and also advising me that one of my chosen items runs small. A digital screen and keyboard by the till allows customers to search for products that are not available in store. Comfy seating is available outside the changing rooms. Product is timeless and stylish, while also being recognisably AllSaints. There is some lovely outerwear, including a charcoal grey coat with ruched seams on the arms (£328). AllSaints’ premium positioning on the high street brings with it an expectation of good product and attentive service, but even so, this is impressive.
This is not the biggest or the most exciting branch AllSaints when it comes to store design. Some product is a bit same-y and, although generally the quality is excellent, in places prices feel high.
Needs more staff around the store for top marks
Digital is used nicely throughout this typically large and dark Superdry store. An attention-grabbing screen showing a campaign video of autumn product is positioned near the doors. It feels fresh and dynamic. The store is also easy to navigate, which is no mean feat given the size and the amount of product. Prominent imagery around the impressive wooden cash desk makes it immediately obvious where to pay, even from the front of the store. A pink sign does the same job for the fitting rooms and, bucking the trend, these are lovely. Cream wood is lighter and brighter than the rest of the store, while still tying in to the overall theme. There is also seating and magazines for those waiting outside. Heavily branded logo T-shirts are piled high, but there are some more interesting pieces from the Americana-themed Varsity Collection, including a preppy red and white jumper at £49.99.
I only see staff at the till, not on the shop floor or at the fitting rooms, which is disappointing. Initially I am a bit confused by the “SD-L” branding on an excellent-quality parka with contrasting pink fake fur trim (£144.99), unsure if it is a sub-brand or special collection. Research online reveals it to be just the name of the style.
Impressive store design and trend-driven product helps Topshop shine
The innovative store design at this Topshop stands head and shoulders above most of Lakeside’s other retailers. In the engaging windows, mannequins pose against a backdrop of white, pink and black graffiti. Vivid white and yellow neon strip lighting adds an interesting focal point to the middle of the store, which could have easily been dead space. Topshop needs to be quick off the mark when it comes to trends, and vinyl, velvet, suiting and tie-up details are all present and correct here – a navy velvet midi-dress shines as a nice example of the trend. A metallic finish on the floral print and gold waist tie elevates the style above the sea of other velvet dresses on the high street, justifying the £52 price tag. Seating outside the changing rooms, complete with a selection of magazines, gets a big tick.
Topshop’s version of a millennial pink fuzzy coat is £85, the same price as a similar style at Next, but feels lower quality. There are a few stray tops falling off their hangers and items out of place across the store, although broadly it is tidy. Some more staff dotted around the shop floor wouldn’t go amiss.
Pretty fittings elevate the store design, but there are not enough staff on the shop floor
Clever finishes, such as twisty gold fittings, glitter-finish walls and scattered birdcages, create a feminine feeling at Lipsy. This ties in nicely with the product, which is a mix of elaborate partywear and some more casual pieces. A deep plum wrap coat (£120) feels thick and cosy, the chunky gold finishes going some way to explain the relatively high price tag. It is easy to create outfits – a red blouse (£38) hangs directly above some coated skinny jeans (£46) and they could clearly be worn together. There is no one at the fitting rooms, but I m acknowledged by a staff member on the shop floor before I go in and again on the way out. She asks how the products were and also checks on me while I am browsing to see if I need help.
Battered hazard tape on the floor on the way into the store jars with the atmosphere created inside and is disappointing. I can only see one member of staff and although she is doing a good job, one person does not feel enough for the size of the store. Some product feels a bit expensive when compared with other retailers, such as some vinyl trousers at £48.
Shabby changing rooms let down great customer service
Staff are very helpful at this mammoth store, making a real effort to find the metallic tie-cuff cardigan (£42) I spot on a mannequin. Even though I say I am happy to have a browse and try and find it myself, the staff member checks with a colleague and makes sure I have located the right item. A heavily embellished black mesh top, which is in the windows, has been positioned front and centre of the store, making it easy to find. There is a lot of detail on the top for the £45 price tag and it looks set to be a popular for the approaching party season. Logo T-shirts are another key trend and there are some nice examples at River Island for around £20 – they are also being worn by staff on the shop floor.
Although there are staff at River Island’s changing rooms, the space itself feels dark and the fittings are battered. It is not a particularly nice place to try clothes on and the cubicles are small. The Sale area looks chaotic and, in places, the rest of the store is also disorganised.
Loses points for patchy quality, despite a strong selection of party pieces
Quiz’s windows are split into body-con party dresses on one side, skinny jeans and outerwear on the other. The store follows the same format inside, making it easy to navigate. There is a clear division between the retailer’s occasionwear and casualwear offers, which makes sense. A collection with Love Island star Gabby Allen dominates the front of the store and the glitzy, glamorous product will appeal to young shoppers heading on a night out. A black-and-gold applique crop top is pretty and the level of detail feels like good value for £19.99.
Quality is patchy in places. I am left with a handful of glitter after touching a black jumpsuit (£34.99) and although a full-length cream sequinned maxi-dress (£89.99) is reasonably priced, threads are hanging out. The changing rooms are uninspiring. A bulky fan and air-conditioning unit take up precious space at the entrance and there are no staff. Although the front of the store is spick and span, the back is a different story – the floor is covered with dust, labels and stickers. A long, forest green velvet wrap dress at £44.99 is more expensive than Zara’s very similar £39.99 version.
A few standout styles in a sea of mostly safe product and a tired store
Overall, the front of the store is well presented. There is some nice imagery from the retailer’s quirky Extraordinarium Bookshop autumn 17 campaign and a good selection of mannequins modelling different outfits. Inside, the store feels spacious. Pastel outerwear emerges as another key trend during our time at Lakeside and Oasis’s powder blue double-breasted coat (£95) is good quality. Wider trends have been re-interpreted for the target customer: a pleather mini-skirt with a scalloped edge (£36) in light blue or grey feels like a softer, more feminine take than I have seen elsewhere. The fitting rooms are nicely done, found behind a deep purple curtain with a bright “dress-up” sign. Inside, the cubicles are roomy and decorated with panels of floral material in purple and pink.
There is a bit of mismatch between the fashion-forward all-red suit I see in the campaign images on the windows and the considerably safer, more mainstream product found instore. Fitting rooms are left unattended and although they are pleasant, serious wear and tear is starting to show.
Some eye-catching product lifts a boring store and poor fitting rooms
As with many of its competitors, Miss Selfridge is on Sale during our visit. But unlike some others, the Sale area is neat, tidy and arranged clearly by item, rather than descending into a jumbled mess. Some pieces catch my eye in this deceptively large store, including a black vinyl mini-dress (£32) – nicely styled in the windows with a striped T-shirt – and burgundy trousers (£36). There is plenty of choice in the petite and denim sections, and part of the store is dedicated to a collaboration with dance studio Pineapple, referencing consumers’ ongoing interest in sportswear and all things athleisure. Staff are friendly when approached and are happy to reserve an item for me.
Although polite, staff stay clustered around the till and leave the changing rooms unmanned during my visit. Granted, it is early in the morning and few other shoppers are looking to try items on, but having no staff around the changing rooms is both poor customer service and a security risk. The changing rooms themselves are in need of a refresh – peeling wallpaper and missing handles in my cubicle make for a dispiriting experience. Visual merchandising here feels basic and boring, particularly compared with the impressive nearby Topshop.
Lack of service and an unclean, messy store makes for an unpleasant experience
Zara leads the pack when it comes to constantly delivering new trends and fresh product. The current collection hits most of autumn’s key trends. A fair baby blue textured coat (£89.99) is appealing and a forest green jumpsuit (£69.99) is elegant without being fussy.
Clothes have fallen on the floor, a table of jeans is in complete disarray and the store is chaotic throughout. The floor is dirty and the fitting rooms in particular are in need of a good sweep. There are staff present at the fitting room, but service is distracted at best. Shop assistants around the entrance are chatting loudly about what time it is and when they can go home. As a result, I do not feel comfortable asking for help or additional sizes. A smart camel coat (£95.99) feels thinner than other outerwear I have seen on the high street. Following this experience, Zara shoppers would be better off going online.
H&M wins on detailed product that stands out from the crowd
The windows to H&M’s Lakeside store are simple, but effective. My eye is immediately drawn to a candy pink sweatshirt with green writing (£29.99) and a heavily embroidered mesh midi-dress (£69.99). Pleasingly, both are easy to find right at the front of the store. The dress, although towards the top end of H&M’s pricing, is intricate and feels well-priced. The same is true of a cord jacket with detailed moon and stars decoration (also £69.99). H&M has done a nice job with the beauty offer at this store, where a Hollywood-esque mirror sits among rows of product with bright graphic packaging. The retailer’s sportswear offer is consistently good and some burgundy sports tights with contrasting red patches (£19.99) are excellent value.
There is a lot of product to wade through, and the sheer volume makes the store feel cramped. Once again, the fittings rooms are unmanned and a messy returns rack in the middle of the floor takes up valuable space. Staff are hard to find, and are mostly concentrated around the till area.
This messy store needs some attention
Some key autumn trends are well represented here, particularly velvet. A floral wrap top, frill-trim mini-dress and gold kimono jacket, all in velvet and all £19.99, catch my eye and are excellent value. Vinyl mini-skirts in black and dark red, also £19.99, are a good way for New Look’s young target customers to buy into the trend without breaking the bank. I am impressed by the gift and homeware section by the till. There is a lot of fun product, such as patterned water bottles and novelty lights, which will make good gifts while also driving customer spend.
New Look is in need of a good tidy. A muddled Sale section and jumpers that have slipped off their hangers on to the floor are the first things that I see as I walk in. The mess continues throughout. In the changing rooms, a chaise longue with a big chunk missing from the upholstery is too scruffy to be in front of customers. Large sections of the store are dedicated to everyday staples such as tracksuit bottoms, vests and T-shirts: although a good basics offer is important, overall the product feels less trend-driven than New Look’s competitors, particularly Topshop. I struggle to find the product shown in the visual merchandising on the shop floor.
A messy, jumbled store and little atmosphere detracts from fun product
Primark is very good at combining fashion and pop culture, offering fun product that holds a particular appeal for younger consumers. That is in evidence at the Lakeside store, where I find some cute Beauty and the Beast-themed pastel sweatshirts for just £10. There is also Harry Potter merchandise towards the back of the womenswear section. Primark is another fashion retailer upping its game when it comes to beauty, and there is an extensive range of competitively priced brushes, sponges and make-up. Prices are still some of the most competitive on the high street – some vibrant knitwear and a statement sleeve shirt are each just £10. Customers have plenty to choose from, whether they are looking for fashion, beauty or homeware.
I enter the store to a sea of mess and unfolded jumpers. Keeping a store with this much product in tidy is no easy task, but little effort seems to have been made here. The atmosphere in store is flat, not helped by the lack of music and a strange buzzing sound that permeates the entire store. The layout is confusing – dresses and tops merge abruptly into Christmas trees and decorations. I also expected to see more fashion-forward product here.
Next shows the high street how it’s done
This is the first store (and one of very few all day) where I am asked by staff if I need help without prompting them, which is a nice surprise. The store environment itself is excellent – winter wonderland-themed windows lead into a modern, bright store. A display of on-trend red product, including an eye-catching cable-knit jumper (well priced at £34), greets customers as they enter. Most items from the display are easily shoppable nearby. A millennial pink teddy bear coat feels thick and luxurious, but comes with a reasonable £85 price tag. Close to the till there are tables laden with sleepwear, eye masks, socks and make-up bags, which will make good gifts and stocking fillers when customers start Christmas shopping in earnest. The experience at Next is all the more impressive given that this is a mid-price, high street store, rather than a premium or luxury offering where a better experience often comes hand-in-hand with a higher price tag.
In places, there is lots of similar product that does not stand out from the rest of the high street, such as racks of bland sweatshirts.
Marks & Spencer
Good use of space and a pleasant place to shop
This is another monster store, so there is a lot of space to fill in the cavernous womenswear section. I pass an attractive display of black and midnight blue partywear as I enter, which makes me stop and browse. A navy velvet pleated midi-skirt catches my eye – it is a good statement piece for a very reasonable £35, and I also spot it in ruby and black. There is a lot of nice product here. A waterproof trench coat (£79) available in olive, navy and camel is a stylish classic that should appeal to different demographics, and there is a good cashmere selection at fair prices – a coral jumper with a bow back is £119. Despite the size, the womenswear section is laid out sensibly and is easy to navigate.
There are very few staff around on the shop floor, making it difficult for customers who are looking for items in a different size or simply want to ask for help. A diamond-print navy pyjama blouse, which is shown on mannequins at the front of the store, is difficult to find – it is tucked around a corner instead of near the display. Some effort has been made with the changing rooms, but peeling paint creates a shabby atmosphere and there are no staff present as I enter.
Average visual merchandising means Dorothy Perkins fails to shine
A 50% off sign is the first thing I notice in the Dorothy Perkins windows, but there is also a simple but attractive display of mannequins clutching silver balloons. The trend for red is reresented here, in pieces such as a statement sleeve jumper for a budget-friendly £25. Glitter-coated skinny jeans (£28) feel like good value, grown-up take on the leather and vinyl bottoms on offer elsewhere on the high street. Staff are happy to help when approached.
Although the store is clean and tidy, visual merchandising here is basic. A few campaign images are scattered throughout the store and behind the till. It would be nice to see something more interesting from Dorothy Perkins, which would help give the retailer a clearer identity on today’s crowded high street. A temporary barrier has been placed between the windows and the rest of the shop, which does not elevate the environment. Once again, the fittings rooms are tired and could do with a refresh – the walls are bashed and scuffed. Although they are polite, staff are clustered around the till chatting loudly.