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John Lewis, Welwyn Garden City

After a successful trial in Cardiff, the retailer’s fashion floor is rolling out to sites such as the Hertfordshire town

At the tail end of last year, John Lewis unveiled a new store in Cardiff. It is a thing of rare beauty, with an entrance formed of two sides that come together at a sharp angle, creating the look and feel of the prow of an ocean liner. This was celebrated as the most impressive store to have opened in the Welsh capital for years. And for those who have ventured inside, it is not traditional John Lewis territory either, particularly the first floor, which hosts the store’s fashion offer.

The Cardiff store is big, so carving up the space was always going to be an issue, if there was to be any sense of departmental segmentation. However, it was managed and now the evidence of a roll-out of the Cardiff fashion floor is on view in locations such as Cheadle in Greater Manchester and Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire.

And there could hardly be a greater difference between two retail locations than what is on view in Welwyn and the spanking new Cardiff emporium. In Welwyn, shoppers are offered a store that, externally, is a little piece of the 1930s.

This is a building that represents what many people might traditionally think of when they hear the words department store. Several of its windows are filled with the message: “Our new fashion floors are now open”. To be brutal, the displays used to convey this message are not a triumph of the visual merchandiser’s art, and if they were being relied upon to garner shoppers, the new floors might struggle.

That said, this is John Lewis, a proposition that inspires huge levels of loyalty, and perhaps this can be overlooked as the faithful will come anyway. And if they happen to have visited the flashy Cardiff store, they may actually prefer this one, which has many rooms, making the creation of departments on a semi-domestic scale more straightforward.

Key looks and merchandise

The “fashion floors”, as they are labelled in the store windows, are actually the first floor and a portion of the ground floor where the accessories are housed. The jewellery and watches area on the ground floor follows the Cardiff model very closely, with a string of teardrop diamanté blobs overhead, forming the setting for medium-priced jewellery, with amber featuring heavily and Rotary watches also on offer. As in Cardiff, there is a premium area with names such as Paul & Joe Sister, Jesiré and Nicole Farhi, ensuring that shoppers have something posh to go out in.

The rest of the floor is a litany of well-known brands, ranging from Fat Face to White Stuff, Jaeger to East, and Ted Baker. A lingerie and nightwear department offers Freya, Cyberjammies and John Lewis’s own brand, among others.

This is doggedly mid-market with a few higher-priced items thrown in. But John Lewis has been around long enough to understand its core customer, and this is an attempt to cater for a broad range of tastes. Still, it is a tad on the dull side.

Score 6/10

Visual merchandising

One of the things that marks out the Cardiff store is the use of ‘spectaculars’ - catwalk-style mid-shop displays, where groups of mannequins are arranged to show off the stock. While this may not sound revolutionary, it is still a great leap forward for John Lewis, bringing it into line with its rivals. In Welwyn, the feature has been retained and a fair amount of the mid-shop displays rely upon tabled stock. The space is broken up and there is visual interest in the way in which an interior landscape is created using the merchandise.

The handbag and footwear departments are also noteworthy, if only for the use of see-through departmental dividers. These create glamour and make the store considerably better than anything else in Welwyn. As an exercise in taking the best of a visual merchandising format first trialled somewhere else, this is true to the spirit of the original, and shoppers seem happy to spend time browsing the main floor.

Score 7/10

Service

One thing about John Lewis is that good service will be on hand whatever the occasion. In this respect, the Welwyn store conforms to the norm with well-mannered staff intent on making life easier for the shopper. There is also a pride in the store that is evident. This may be one of the retailer’s more mature branches, but that doesn’t mean it is any less worth pulling out the stops for. At least that’s the impression received from the staff.

Score 9/10

Store appeal

The fashion floors are appealing, and this comes from the store’s geography. The main fashion level on the first floor could be seen as compact and even a little crowded, but both of these have been avoided by way of careful layout. Kim Morris, head of store design at John Lewis and a former general manager of the Welwyn branch, says the piecemeal nature of the many

floors on this level has helped and also points to the lingerie department as being an improvement on the Cardiff original. The lingerie area is located at the top of the escalator and feels altogether softer. It is less block-like, in terms of layout, with each of the brands having a more obvious identity within the space.

Pride of place should, perhaps, go to the gold-coloured premium room, if only because it is a room. From a shopper’s perspective, if you’re going to spend a lot of money, then giving the area an air of exclusivity is an obvious winning strategy. Work still needs to be done on making the denim shop feel like it is more about denim than vinyl wood, which dominates the shopfit.

Score 7/10

Would I buy?

On balance and given the context in which this branch of John Lewis operates, there is a lot to make customers consider reaching for their purses and wallets. Pricing and store environment work well together to make this a

destination in the town and one that is likely to have shoppers hot-footing it from the attractions of the nearby, dated, shopping centre.

Score 7/10

Verdict 36/50

An effective makeover of a store that might be in danger of forming part of the rearguard of department store retailing. It is also proof that you don’t need to be swish, architecturally, to function well as a vehicle for selling fashion.

Essentials

Address Bridge Road, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire

Design Based on a prototype created by consultancy Dalziel & Pow

Number of floors Two

Age of store Indeterminate, but 1930s

Best feature The gold-coloured premium room

Least appealing feature The denim shop

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