Drapers takes a trip to Milton Keynes, putting its womenswear stores to the test
The mornings are brighter, the days warmer and the first spring styles are making their way into stores across the nation – and, along with them, the Drapers mystery shoppers have returned to the high streets, to put the new season to the test. In the second in the series of four hit or miss reviews, womenswear retailers were rated by the Drapers mystery shoppers.
For spring, Drapers took a short journey through the Buckinghamshire countryside, to the interconnected Centre:MK and Intu Milton Keynes shopping centres. With a £50m revamp announced in January, the Centre:MK has already completed a £10m renovation of its premium Sunset Walk area, which houses brands such as Hobbs and Jigsaw.
Stores were divided into four categories – value, young fashion, mainstream and premium – and judged on the quality of service, the strength of the new-season collection, value for money and the visual impact of the stores themselves. As the future of shopping centres and bricks-and-mortar stores continues to change, and retailers seek to capture the spending of customers who are increasingly spoilt for choice, creating a successful in-store experience remains just as important as having online appeal.
In general, however, the Milton Keynes stores failed to inspire. Although some retailers had successfully created luxurious shopping settings, with slick fittings and strong brand identities, too many retailers let solid designs down with shabby and neglected stores. In general, customer service was also lacking, although some retailers, such as Karen Millen and Phase 8, shone in this area.
- Topshop: 7/10
- Superdry: 6/10
- River Island: 5/10
- Oasis: 4/10
- Zara: 4/10
- Quiz: 3.5/10
- Miss Selfridge: 3/10
- Next: 8/10
- Coast: 7.5/10
- Fat Face: 7/10
- Phase Eight: 7/10
- Monsoon: 6/10
- Marks & Spencer: 5/10
- Gap: 4/10
- Warehouse: 3/10
Karen Millen: 9/10
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An impressively chic store and sophisticated collection set Karen Millen ahead of its competitors
Karen Millen boasts a fresh and modern collection for spring. The range is anchored by the “white shirt project” collection of white shirts, which are excellent quality, interestingly designs and reasonably prices, from £99 tod £115. The collection is geared towards workwear and, while not overtly trend led, uses modern cuts and details to give fresh sophistication – for example, a pleated, rust-coloured dress with a dropped hem (£180) and an A-line midi-skirt in burnished red (£110). The collection is harmoniously presented in a slick and sophisticated store, with dark, reflective fittings and subtle decor, emphasising Karen Millen’s premium positioning. The fitting rooms are cosy, with carpeted floors, flattering lighting and sofas. I am greeted at the door and offered help in a friendly but unpressured manner. The assistant is able to talk me through the white shirt project with ease, recommending similar and co-ordinating items based on what I have already picked out. She also knows when out-of-stock items would be returning to the store, and offers to hold one aside in the future if needed.
Although the store is very neat and cleverly merchandised, pairs of shoes are placed on the floor under some hanging dresses, looking as if they have been abandoned by accident.
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Luxe touches and windows with real impact make Jigsaw a powerful premium player
With a soft magenta light backing two mannequins in pale pastel tones, the window at Jigsaw is one of the few in Milton Keynes that genuinely catch the eye. Inside, the merchandising and decor are similarly appealing. Minimal glass fittings and a neutral palette give the small store a spacious feel. The products balance spring pastels and warmer basics, ideal for early March. A simple coat in tomato red (£259) is in the foreground as a trans-seasonal basic, and is beautifully soft, warranting the higher price, while a pink pastel dress in tie-dyed silk (£189) offers a sophisticated, spring-like aesthetic. The shop assistants are helpful, with a comprehensive knowledge of the range. I am offered a coffee from the store’s in-house espresso bar, which is an unexpected and distinctly luxurious touch.
Although the fitting rooms are spacious, they are very central in the store and might feel quite exposed on a busier day. As I enter, the assistants are steaming new items, which makes the space feel crowded and would have been best done out of sight of the customers.
A cosy sanctuary of a store, which would have benefited from a more varied offer
I am greeted warmly on entering the Hobbs store, which, with its golden lighting, warm wooden fittings and floral scent, feels welcoming and calm, even featuring a sofa and bookcase tucked away in a corner. Items are placed at eye level, separated from each other in way that feels designed to showcase the product. The use of furniture, bookcases and built-in wardrobes makes the displays feel considered, with details, such as a belt tied round a drawer handle, adding personality. Plush carpets in fitting rooms and the provision of a silk scarf to prevent make-up being transferred on to the items being tried on give the store a personal touch. The offer is geared largely towards occasionwear, with classic shapes presented in bold colours and high quality: a lime green dress in a ditsy floral print (£149) is a good example of Hobbs’s offering of classic with a sophisticated but quirky twist.
The staff are friendly and helpful, but seem almost surprised to be asked for assistance. The collection in store is slightly too focused on occasionwear, and a few more daywear options would add variety.
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A strong urban and trend-led collection, with a modern and stylish store set-up
Topshop balances extremely trend-led product with basics, and also stocks ”cult” brands such as Adidas, making it a one-stop destination for all occasions. The store is large, with sweeping windows showing simple, summery denim and shirting, and with more daring looks displayed on other mannequins inside the store, drawing the eye into the shop’s glossy interior. Dark glass, bright lights and high ceilings give the space a modern, vibrant feel, and the shop floor is broken up by movable fittings, which divide the store into more manageable areas. The product is well targeted at a fashion-conscious customer and focuses on athleisure – ranges from Ivy Park and Adidas are highlighted.
Most of the Topshop range seems to focus on basics, which is a shame, given that a lot of its trend-led items are well made and well priced. For example, a quirky gingham jacket (£49) is an interesting take on the trend, but items such as this are overwhelmed by basic T-shirts and hoodies. Additionally, I am unable to find assistance either in store or in the fitting rooms, as all the staff seem to be behind the tills.
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With a Gen-Z target but pricey, premium-quality items, Superdry’s designs and prices seem a little jarring
With dark wooden fittings, moody lighting, displays at every level from floor to ceiling and a huge amount of product in store, shopping in Superdry feels like a treasure hunt a jungle of jersey. I am greeted on entering the store, and the staff point out which area is menswear and which is womenswear. Later, when I enquire about sizing, they are knowledgeable about the range and what is in stock. The quality feels good, with a quilted khaki bomber jacket (£84.99) and a 1980s-inspired range (hoodie £49.99) nodding to the dominant high street trends. The lighting in the fitting rooms is flattering, and there is a small paper “Superdry selfie” frame on the wall, a clever way of luring in the Instagram-hungry Gen-Z.
Most of the collection feels a little dated and juvenile, with slogan T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the brand logo alongside stripes, mismatched patterns and glitter. These items, which seem designed to appeal to a young consumer, are also relatively expensive, with a £44.99 hoodie out of reach for most young shoppers and lacking appeal for those more interested in trends.
River Island: 5/10
Despite nice designs, a shabby store and items of variable quality let River Island down
This shop has a nicely trend-led, and appropriately spring-like, collection that focuses on occasionwear and workwear, rather than the more urban aesthetic favoured by Topshop. Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and a bright white space are pleasant features of the store. Staff are busy but attentive, and are able to offer advice on fit, and happy to get alternative sizes when asked.
The plain store windows are not very engaging. The mannequins wear youthful and trendy outfits, but there are bizarre details, such as a plastic crow and a pot plant that look as though they have been placed there by accident. Inside, some of the store is in need of attention, with the ceiling lights hanging down bare, looking unfinished. The floor is cracked and mucky throughout, and there is dust in the changing rooms and scratched paint on walls and fittings. Some of the clothes also appear to be of poor quality; one pink shirt is extremely crumpled and very thin, despite a £28 price tag.
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Spring florals are a highlight of Oasis’s designs, but are overwhelmed by a huge Sale and a shabby store
Key trends such as floral embroidery and ruffled shirting play well with Oasis’s signature floral aesthetic, and the collection is very clearly targeted at this already established feminine consumer. Florals are key, appearing both as prints and as embroidery. The embroidered items are particularly strong, with elegant designs and crisp finishing on jumpers (£45) and shift dresses (£60) outclassing most retailers in terms of quality.
As spring approaches and Oasis’s design signature becomes increasingly on trend, this should be a good time to visit an Oasis store. However, the new-season stock is dominated by a vast and messy Sale, and the windows are overtaken by large Sale signs. The store itself feels old and tired, with plain walls, dirty tiled floors and generic shiny metal fittings, all of which cheapen the clothing, and the experience. Additionally, there is only one member of staff on the shop floor, who is serving at the busy till, and is therefore unable to help me when asked.
Despite the overall shopping experience being chaotic and unpleasant, Zara wins on trends
Zara hits the catwalk trends in a manner unmatched by any other retailer tested, and does so in a way that is more experimental and daring than other young-fashion retailers. Shirting, gingham and ruffles all feature prominently in the store, but trends are taken to extremes, with oversized statement shoulders featuring on sweatshirts (£45), and blouses decorated with supersized ruffles. The quality is generally high for the price, with a 100% cotton maxi-dress priced at £39.99.
Despite its strong product, Zara is not a pleasant place to shop. The store is messy and confused, with items seemingly shoved on shelves in a haphazard manner. Accessories are on shelves that are out of reach, and, invariably, there is only one item available in each design. The changing rooms are a mess, with curtains that neither close properly nor conceal you below the knee, with the result that I feel extremely exposed. Product is abandoned on the floors in the changing rooms, which are reluctantly staffed by a single attendant; when I ask for an alternative size, she disappears, but never returns with the item I have asked for.
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Quiz knows its party girl target well, but faulty products and a poor store let it down
Overflowing with lace, sequins, bodycon and glitter, Quiz sets itself up well as a pre-party store. The collection is cheap, and you get a lot for your money, with a sequined gown just £79.99. Fast-fashion trends appear in abundance, with off-the-shoulder, sheer fabric and floral embroidery all incorporated into party dresses and gowns, which are specifically and impressively targeted at the glamour-loving Quiz customer.
The product at Quiz may be well targeted, but it is of dubious quality. On one £30 jumpsuit, a large lace panel on the front has been torn off, while some longer gowns are dirty at the bottom, as if they have been stood on. The store feels as if items have been stuffed on to racks to maximise space, and it is hard to walk past racks without knocking into items. The fitting rooms are unpleasant: ill-fitting curtains and dirty walls in impossibly small cubicles. The staff are largely absent from the experience, being more interested in their own conversation than in assisting me.
Miss Selfridge: 3/10
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With issues in the store and a generic product, Miss Selfridge falls behind in a competitive sector
As a new store, Miss Selfridge has nicely designed fittings, with a boudoir aesthetic that matches the feminine lilt of its designs.
The whole Miss Selfridge store feels like an afterthought. Hidden away above Topshop with only two mannequins in the main window even signalling its presence, the store feels abandoned and neglected, crammed in next to Topman. Product is very generic: some items, notably blue shirts and off-the-shoulder blouses, are available in almost identical designs at most other similar retailers, and probably at lower prices. A gingham shirt costs £28 here, compared with £12.99 in H&M, and is nowhere near such good quality. With strong competition from retailers such as Missguided, Boohoo and New Look, Miss Selfridge needs to find a point of difference for its items or risks being overlooked. Any effort that has gone into the design of the store is undermined by a dramatic leak on the ceiling, which is creeping along one side of the store and slowly dripping on to the mirrors, which are clearly stained and have not been cleaned. It is disgusting and, while the leak might have required time to fix, the stained mirror suggests an apathetic approach to the problem.
Well-targeted and well-priced collection, in a pleasantly relaxed store
Next’s windows have an appealingly summery feel to them, with pale colours and denim featuring heavily, and mannequins arranged at different levels to create more of a scene-like effect than at other retailers. The collection is subtly trend led, and has different ranges to target different trends, but all retain a sense of safety suitable for the Next customer. Embroidery features heavily on the casual items, with a red cotton blouse embroidered with bohemian detailing (£40) standing out. The store feels open and spacious, and easy to wander around. It is arranged in clearly defined sections, with sports-inspired pieces, casual basics and occasionwear all easy to find. Placing mannequins around the shop breaks up the space successfully, making it a pleasant place to explore. The staff in the changing rooms are helpful and knowledgeable: they advise on tall and petite ranges with ease and from personal experience, which is genuinely helpful.
While most of the Next range seems perfectly geared to its target, there are a few questionable items, such as a lace and Aertex bomber jacket (£50) and a white holographic sequined dress (£55), which jar with the rest of the store.
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Strong product and a clear attempt to elevate an old store give Coast the edge in occasionwear
With balletic inspirations, sculptural silhouettes and an impressive range of styles, Coast’s approach to occasionwear gives it the edge over other formalwear retailers. Designs appeal to a wide variety of tastes, from pleated, pastel-pink dresses (£175) to dramatic, flounced maxi-skirts (£129. The offer stands apart from the ubiquitous pencil dresses and 1950s shapes elsewhere. Staff are friendly and approachable, available to provide advice and swiftly fetching alternative sizes. Although the store is in need of a refit, it is clear that some effort has been made to improve the space – pared-back merchandising allows the product to shine without relying on an elaborate store design.
The store is very dark, making the detail on the dresses hard to see. The fitting rooms are brighter, but there is only a single mirror in each changing room – for occasionwear it would be useful to be able to see outfits from every angle. Once again, the windows are filled with Sale signs, rather than showcasing the new-season product.
Fat Face: 7/10
An impressive store design and well-targeted stock, let down slightly by distracted staff
The tiny Fat Face store is an impressive example of how to inject brand personality and identity into a generic space. The grown-up boho, beachy cool of the brand comes through in distressed wooden fittings and quirky installations: for example, a vintage camper-van door leads to the changing rooms and a corrugated iron roof is suspended over the womenswear section. The fitting rooms are clean and spacious, with a quirky seat in the form of a re-purposed oil drum. The collection is not trend led, but features basics and simple separates in good quality, at reasonable prices. A long-sleeved cotton top costs £25, and a loose-knit crochet jumper, at £55, is typical of the store’s aesthetic and well suited to the target market.
Although the staff are helpful when approached directly, I am not greeted on entering the store, and – thanks to a recently arrived delivery – the staff are busy running around, rearranging the shop. A small pile of unused shelving left in the middle of the floor would be easy to trip over, and there are several pieces of chewing gum stuck to the back of the changing room curtain.
Phase Eight: 7/10
Excellent service and a solid range make shopping at Phase Eight enjoyable and easy
The service in Phase Eight is impeccable, striking the balance between helpful and friendly, without being forceful. As I enter the changing room, the assistant is able to advise me on the fit and sizing of the specific item that I have picked up, and suggests alternatives in a similar style and at a similar price. I am also brought a pair of heels with which to try the dress on, and the assistant waits outside the fitting room while I try on the jumpsuit, in case I need help – Phase Eight is the only store to do this. The range itself features numerous classic designs alongside more experimental formalwear options, all of which are well priced and feel good quality – for example, a navy jumpsuit with silk lining is priced at £120.
There is far too much stock in the Phase 8 store. This, combined with the dark lighting makes the space feel cluttered and the dresses hard to see. Sale signs pasted across the windows also detract from an otherwise pretty and appealing design. There is a sense of safety in much of the collection: most of the dresses stocked have the same pencil shape, and the standout styles are invariably the more unusual cuts or patterns, which it would be nice to see in greater numbers.
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Fresh and high-quality designs shine, but look out of place in a throwback shop environment
Monsoon takes a fresh approach to trends in its collection, successfully nodding to themes of embroidery, shirting and boho chic, but with a distinctively Monsoon edge. A strapless camisole top in blue striped cotton fabric (£39) features delicate eyelet embroidery, and a pair of white linen culottes (£79) reference trends in a slightly bohemian manner. A lace blouse, (£59) available in black, pink and white, feels luxurious and modern, and its solid construction warrants its slightly elevated price tag. I am not greeted when I enter, but staff are helpful when approached, and find items in alternative colours very quickly.
Some products miss the mark a little: for example, a basic floral wrap dress (£55) does not deliver the same boho chic as much of the collection. The window display is uninspiring and generic, headless golden mannequins look shabby, and the shopfront itself seems faded and dated. The interior suffers a similar problem: dim lighting saps much of the colour from items, and a cluttered floorspace prevens products from being seen clearly.
Marks & Spencer: 5/10
Despite excellent service, M&S’s score has dropped, because of an uninspiring store and messy atmosphere
M&S built a reputation on its quality of service, and the staff in the Milton Keynes store certainly meet expectations. Helpful and friendly, they are quick to respond to queries, and even fetch alternative sizes from the stockroom, also offering to order online. The Autograph and Limited Collection ranges are generally strong: a crisp tied-cuff shirt (£39.50), a thick fisherman-style mac (£119) and a pink fake leather jacket (£59) all feel trend led and high in quality.
With dull pink pyjamas and Sale signs on show, M&S’s windows are far from inspiring. Once in store, things don’t improve. The ground floor is dominated by the Sale, which is extremely messy, with items strewn across the floor, even at 11am on a Monday, making the idea of venturing further into the store unappealing. The whole store is unnervingly silent, with no music, just the whirring of escalators and bleeping of tills. Some items are strongly on trend, but others seem very bizarre, with a rigid, pleated, silver-foil skirt (£49.50) feeling tacky and not suited to the M&S customer. In a store ranging over three floors, there are very few signs, and it takes me 10 minutes to find the fitting rooms.
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A dull and dated offer fails to create a draw for Gap
Gap is warm and brightly lit, and its basic range feels well made. Jeans, in particular, seem to be high in quality and good value, with most styles costing £44.99. The denim section has a huge number of sizes and styles on display, with plenty of long and petite lengths. The changing rooms feature a call bell to summon assistance, though, unfortunately, the one in my cubicle was broken. It is easy to call for assistance, however, and alternative items are fetched quickly.
The amount of product creates a strangely muffled atmosphere in the store. The stock feels very dated. It’s a basics retailer, but there is nothing in the offer to make anything stand out. This is reflected in the window display, which has khaki as its centrepiece, and does not catch the eye. Despite its prime position, directly opposite the food court, it’s easy to look past Gap. Additionally, the store is plagued by a piercing whistle from the speaker system, which continues for the whole time I was in the store, and is quite irritating.
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The product may be nice, but, when stores remain shabby, the brand undermines its attempted regeneration
The Warehouse spring collection is generally very strong, with several directional summer pieces – for example, an off-the-shoulder gingham midi-dress (£45) – set alongside more generic styles, such as a striped shirt with floral embroidery (£35), seen in different incarnations across the high street. There was a distinctly summery feel to the collection, with bright colours giving a pleasant vibrancy to the new-season stock.
Shopping in this Warehouse is quite a sad experience. It’s clearly an old store, and no effort has been put into freshening the interior for a long time; grubby walls and scuffed floors make the space feel forlorn. The changing rooms are unpleasant, with dusty floors, no seating and cheap curtains, leaving me reluctant to change. Most of the store is in Sale, and the new product is tucked away at the back of the shop, feeling very crammed in. Since its relaunch, the Warehouse product has been strong, but the store space lets the product down woefully, negating any positive impact and making the clothes look tired and uninteresting.
New Look: 7.5
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A pleasant, well-organised store and good trend-led product earn good marks for New Look
New Look’s fashion offering feels extremely comprehensive, with high ceilings, bright lights and a cleverly organised shop floor giving the store a pleasant atmosphere that allows for easy browsing. Mannequins in the windows are styled in interesting but realistic ways, presenting wearable styling advice to customers. Trend-led items sit at the front and centre of the store, with gingham, pastel colours and florals giving a spring-like feel. The clothes are generally well priced and good value: a tulle skirt featuring detailed floral embroidery costs £24.99, while a rubber rain mac, at £39.99, feels just as high quality as other, more expensive versions elsewhere. The store is clean and very neat, and even the Sale racks are organised and tidy.
There are very few staff on the shop floor, and I cannot find assistance until I enter the changing rooms. Half the booths in the fitting rooms are closed, as staff are unpacking new stock on to the floor of the changing rooms. Seeing items strewn across the floor is a little off-putting and, had the store been busier, it would have caused a problem.
H & M: 4/10
A large, well-stocked store, with a good edit of trends, but a very messy and untidy space
The range of products offered in the store is fairly comprehensive, ranging across two floors. The shop is bright and spacious, so the huge volume of product doesn’t feel overwhelming. The young-fashion section ticks the urban trend boxes with sheer fabrics, gingham and band T-shirts giving the collection a 1990s grunge aesthetic at good-value prices: a gingham shirt from the Conscious Collection for £12.99 feels soft and cosy.
With the amount of stock on the shop floor, it is unsurprising that some stands are a little unkempt, and some areas towards the back of the store feel slightly abandoned. The changing rooms are overflowing with abandoned items of clothing from previous shoppers, despite the attendant waiting at the door. Staff are difficult to find on the shop floor, and are not terribly willing to help, directing me to different members of staff twice before I manage to locate an alternative size. The trend section of the store is also surprisingly small, especially given the window display’s focus on more youthful styles.