Young fashion retailer Forever 21 has opened its first London store, but how will this American import fare against the local value-led competition?
Time was when Oxford Street used to be famous for being a mid-market retail haven, in sharp contrast to the luxury enclave of Bond Street and the more upscale environs of Regent Street.
Today you are as likely to encounter value shoppers as those frequenting the mid-price stores and the arrival last week of Forever 21, the US value fashion outfit, is likely to reinforce this.
This is the second store Forever 21 has opened in the UK – the first was in Birmingham and welcomed shoppers at the end of last year. And it is different from the Brummie behemoth because at 30,000 sq ft it is around 20,000 sq ft smaller.
Spread over three floors, this is a narrow shop and in terms of look and feel there are many of the elements that will be familiar to those shopping the Birmingham store.
That said, 30,000 sq ft equates to a more restricted space in which to operate and for this reason, menswear has been left out of the equation and there is a singular focus on bringing “a little piece of LA” (the home of Forever 21) to London, as Linda Chang, senior marketing manager, puts it.
It will also put pressure on the existing value retailers along Oxford Street with its canny mix of trend-led fashion and an environment that features a series of visual merchandising installations.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Brights and florals feature strongly and the majority of the season’s key mass-market trends seem to be covered.
Executive vice-president Larry Meyer says that if a price comparison were to be drawn, “we’re at the same level as H&M, or better”. Certainly, when you look at highly styled short shorts for less than a tenner and jeans at under £15, you know that while you may not quite be in Primark territory, you are in a value environment.
And this is considerably more fashionable than Primark, principally owing to the fact that the bulk of the offer is aimed at pocket money-priced style for teenagers.
Translated, this means a lot of accessories on the top floor, all housed in a princess’s tea party environment, complete with chandeliers and chequerboard black and white floor.
As the store has three floors, there is room for an expansive offer and a certain number of themed areas have been created. Some of these work, although the black, white, navy and red ‘Mod’ area looks a bit of a stretch for anyone familiar with the spirit of that era. However, this will hardly matter to the teenage crowd that is likely to find much of what’s on view just what the (fashion) doctor ordered. If there is a shortcoming, it is in the footwear department that, while superficially attractive, has very strong competition from both Primark and New Look when it comes to depth of range.
Just ahead of the opening, Forever 21 was adding the visual merchandising finishing touches to the store. There are mannequins everywhere and while the grouping of them on mid-shop plinths looks a little old-fashioned, the ploy has impact.
The retailer has also employed a graffiti artist to pep up a number of areas, helping to foster the sense that you have wandered into a set for a suitably trashy LA garage band, or something of the kind. The most arresting VM is actually on the top floor, where the high-gloss white MDF tables achieve the kind of glamour that is vital if accessories are going to be made to work.
The major point about the store however is that wherever you happen to look there are VM installations –there’s even a catering van on the top floor. The store windows were still being finished on the evening of visiting, although the Los Angeles Times vending machine, positioned just inside the front door, is a nice touch.
Even if you hadn’t liked what was on offer at the launch day, it was hard to resist the US-style enquiries about what you thought of the shop and stock. Forever 21 has clearly opted for a meet and greet approach to service in this store, and in doing so it is very much at odds with its Oxford Street competitors.
Indeed, given the depth of the competition along the street, for young fashion retailers service is one of the elements that really can be a differentiator.
Forever 21 executive vice-president Larry Meyer defends the decision not to incorporate large amounts of technology in the store, saying there are other things on which monies can be more usefully spent. And in spite of this doggedly low-tech strategy, this is a store that has considerable appeal purely by dint of the way in which the space has been carved up into bite-sized departmental chunks.
This has been helped by the fact that owing to the narrow configuration of each floor, creating discrete areas is more straightforward than it would be if this were a wide-open prairie – a trait that typifies so many US formats.
The other feature worth noting is the fact that Forever 21 has not crammed every available space with stock, choosing instead to give sufficient room for an unhurried meander.
Would I buy?
Oh go on, twist my arm. At these prices and given the relatively alluring store interior there is little reason to suppose a purchase would not be made. The offer is sufficiently different from the other value retailers along the street to make this worthy of repeat behaviour.
Forever 21 arrives in London with a splash. There is an argument that another young fashion chain is the last thing the UK high street needs, but Forever 21 looks set to emerge from any commercial fray intact, while it would be child’s play to predict who the major casualty might be. It will be interesting to see how the larger Westfield Stratford store shapes up when it opens in September.
Location 360 Oxford Street, London WC1
Area 30,000 sq ft across three floors
Store design JT Nakaoka Associates Architects
Next store Westfield Stratford, 70,000 sq ft
Headquarters Los Angeles
Forever 21 founded 1984
Executive vice- president Larry Meyer