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River Island, Reading

The young fashion retailer drew on in-house talent to design its new store concept, which looks good but lacks sparkle.

You will almost be beyond the demographic that River Island targets if you can remember the day when Chelsea Girl held sway over a large part of the UK’s high streets. Almost overnight Chelsea Girl became River Island and since that time it’s been subject to a number of remodellings, revamps and format updates that have kept the retailer in tune with the mid-market fashion zeitgeist.

And for much of that time, external consultancy Dalziel & Pow was used. Now the matter of creating a new interior has been taken in-house and the first store to receive a makeover is the Reading branch, in the heart of the town that is frequently cited as representing the average for almost everything you might care to mention.

River Island has good reason to look at its current format, which is contemporary in feel but has seen a few seasons’ wear, and in the interim many rivals have been working on their appearance and potentially stealing a march on this retailer. The arrival of US chain Forever 21 in this country will have provided an additional impetus for River Island to keep examining what it does and the environment it provides for its shoppers.

Key looks and merchandise

River Island ticks most of the major trend boxes at the moment. Stand outside the store and the womenswear window is filled with fake fur, aviator jackets and camel coats. The men’s and kids’ window features parkas, a reefer jacket and duffle-style coats.

The windows do what windows should do - grab attention and set the tone for what lies within where checks, chunky knits and a heavy reliance on military coat and jacket stylings form the more obviously fashionable elements of the ranges. A men’s pea coat, for instance, will set the shopper back £84.99, which wouldn’t be too bad were it not for the fact the fabric is a little on the insubstantial side. If keeping warm and being stylish is the objective, this may not fit the bill. A roughly equivalent coat for women is £69.99, although a higher volume of sales probably helps push the price down.

There’s a broad range of fashionable basics, from print T-shirts at just shy of a tenner, to polo shirts from £14.99. And at the heart of this predominantly casual offer is denim, where five leg shapes are offered in a range of washes.

For party gals, River Island 2010 is about being monochrome (unless you choose to buy from the small House of Holland range that features red tops) with sequins for glitz. All in all, a solidly constructed and reasonably priced range, if a little unexciting.

Score 6/10

Visual merchandising

For a mid-market retailer, the visual merchandising in this store does turn heads. The star of the show in the window is the mannequin sporting mirrored shades and a crash helmet and looking not unlike one of the Village People circa 1978. This retro hint continues in-store where almost the first thing you see is a large banner rising above a mid-floor fixture bearing the legend Chelsea Girl. River Island has clearly decided that visual merchandising reminders of yesteryear are the order of the day for this store, with a mini Barbara Hepworth sculpture and graphics depicting River Island train tickets plastered across the menswear department at the back of the shop.

As far as the stock is concerned, for menswear it’s scaffolding bars linked to form display fixtures, while for women things are rather more refined with antique wardrobes and sleek metal fixtures forming the majority of the visual merchandising equipment.

The footwear department, always a strength for a River Island store, does not disappoint, with pink blocks with a white, twisted wire chandelier overhead, being used to show off the stock.

Score 7/10


Maybe it was because it was a Monday morning, perhaps it was because restocking was taking place, but the staff didn’t seem interested in the few shoppers who had ventured in. Had you been interested, it would have been easy to find out how this store was performing as one member of staff was giving a blow-by-blow financial account of the performance of each department to a (presumably) more junior person (menswear, for example, did not appear to be performing well).

Shoppers meanwhile might just as well not have existed. Self-selection is what this form of retailing is about, but customers remain customers and deserve some form of recognition.

Score 3/10

Store appeal

This may be anew look as far as River Island is concerned, but there is an awful lot about it that is familiar territory and springs from the Dalziel & Pow blueprint that was first trialled a few years ago. The logo above the door is in the normal font used in other stores, although picking out the individual letters in LED lights is a nice touch.

Internally, it’s about wooden and concrete floors, pressed tin walls and exposed and whitewashed brick around the perimeter. At the checkout, there is a wall decorated with ceiling roses.

All of which is perfectly pleasant, but if you’re in search of real novelty, this may be a little hard to find. Nonetheless, in terms of execution, this is a well put together interior with no obvious flaws.

This is not an edgy fit-out, but in the context of Reading’s shopping, it is better than the great majority of stores.

Score 7/10

Would I buy?

Perhaps, but probably because Reading’s other offers are not all that, rather than that this is an inspirational interior with must-have merchandise. River Island in Reading will do well over Christmas and there is little to take issue with, but it really doesn’t sparkle in the way that might be desired.

Score 6/10

Verdict 29/50

The interior update is very much a matter of evolution rather than revolution. This is a retailer that seems to have lost the will to renew and is content to play with what’s already there. Given that innovation is at the heart of fashion, then perhaps there is still more work to be done.


Address Broad Street, Reading Store opened October 2

Departments Men’s, women’s, kids’

Ambience Industrial loft dweller

Reason for visiting Most of the key looks are covered

Best design feature Pressed tin wall at the back of the shop

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