TDC&Co recently sent two of our top senior designers to scope out the retail design scene in London. The West End’s Regent and Oxford Streets alone boast some of the biggest brands in retail – from luxury brands and retailers like Burberry, Liberty, and Selfridges to more accessible stores like, H&M, Zara and Mango. And in select pockets around Stratford – which saw a great urban renewal prior to the London Olympics in 2012 – King’s Cross, Marylebone and White City, the store designs are simply jaw-dropping.
We couldn’t wait to find out what their experiences were and how South African stores compare to those in London Town.
What were some of the biggest highlights of the trip?
Claudia: I know we went on a trip to look at London’s retail scene, but high tea at the Ritz is the first thing that comes to mind.
Mia: (laughs) Yes, absolutely!
Claudia: From the porter at the door as you enter to the moment you sit down to the tea itself – everything was painstakingly thought out and executed. It’s an incredible example of customer service.
Mia: It’s what you want every customer to feel like – like they belong – and then to leave with a glow. As far as shops go, United Colors of Benetton in Oxford Street stood out to me. It was so well put together, they had an area for everything, the shop was just beautiful. There were these LED arches in the shopfront that changed colour – it was incredible.
Claudia: Jigsaw in King’s Cross was also incredible. The height of it was amazing and they really thought differently about materials – like five-meter-high fitting room divider curtains – it felt so luxurious. But it was actually a difficult time to do this trip, because they had their end-of-summer sales on, so it was chaotic at times…
Mia: Which was reassuring, because we just realised no one does sales well – not even overseas (laughs). In South Africa, we’re always going, “Ah, we’re not doing it well, it looks terrible,” but retail is retail, no matter where you go.
Which stores did you visit and why?
Claudia: We wanted to look at a lot of women’s apparel stores and department stores for retail. We went to Zara, H&M, Reserved, UniQlo, Missguided, River Island. Mainstream brands.
Mia: But we also went into every store in Regent Street, like smaller, boutiquey stores – just to get ideas from everywhere possible. There were quite a few memorable experiences.
How does SA store design differ from that of UK stores?
Mia: If you look at the second-tier stores in the UK, we’re definitely on par or better. The truth is, we can’t compete with the first-tier stores in London – we just don’t have their budgets – so our top stores are somewhere between their second tier and flagship stores. So, I would say we’re doing quite well design wise. It made me feel really proud of South African retail design.
Claudia: In places like Oxford Street and White City, money really is no object. They put everything into those stores. But obviously, not all stores in the UK are flagship stores. In Oxford Street and those places, you just see tourists, so it was good to see the less touristy places too, because they’re a much more accurate reflection of what it’s generally like in the UK.
How does the retail experience, in general, differ in the UK from the South African retail experience?
Claudia: Customer service is a lot better in the UK, especially in the smaller stores.
Mia: Even in stores like John Lewis, people walk up to you, greet you, and ask if they can help when you step off the escalator. They really make you feel like you’re part of their store and not like an intruder. But with the flagship stores in general, though, I don’t know how else to describe it, but your eyes just open wider.
Claudia: That’s a great way of putting it…
Mia: You want to go in. Your heart beats a little bit faster, and you’re just like, “I want to buy!” Sometimes I looked at clothes I wouldn’t normally buy, but the store design is so exciting that you just want to buy. Their clothes are just so perfectly curated, the looks are perfectly put together – the whole experience guides you to shop better. They excite you to buy. Also, for every one shop assistant we have in a typical South African store, they’d have two or three, so you are really looked after.
Claudia: But also, things you don’t think about – like transactions – go so much quicker there. And the technology is great. Like, when you order online and go into the store to pick it up, they have these beautiful collection areas where it goes so quick. Zara in Stratford, for instance, had this amazing space with curated looks and a lounge area where you go and collect your stuff. I loved Zara’s self-service option as well. When I finished trying something on and I chose the items I wanted to buy, I could just step out to the self-service area, tap my card, de-tag and off I went! It makes you want to go back and do it all over again. Shop assistants in general are also able to access information on their phones to check if they have stock, or if there’s more stock at another branch. Super efficient.
Mia: What also stood out to me is how they put their looks together – from top to toe it lets you think about your outfit and how to put it together. It’s very inspiring.
Claudia: I think the environment also makes a big difference. Their malls, for instance, are very nice to hang out in. They have a lot of sitting areas and these amazing, light food courts where you can actually get a variety of nice food and not just McDonald’s. And despite the weather, they have covered outside areas, so you can get out a bit and see a bit of greenery. But personally, I much prefer shopping in a high street to shopping in a mall, which is something they do brilliantly, of course.
What was the most impressive store you visited?
Mia: Mango in Westfield, White City. It was so light and airy and simple – just perfect.
Claudia: And interestingly enough, there was no gimmicky stuff in there, like Instagram booths, it was all just back to basics. You’re not bombarded with anything.
Mia: The Zara in Westfield, Stratford – their new concept – they had Corian stone from floor to ceiling, Just beautiful. They had the click-and-collect points at the back, but at the front, everything was just perfectly curated. I think both of these stores appealed to a very particular woman. She wants to look hip and Instagram-able, but she doesn’t want all these trendy, creative gimmicks everywhere. It’s more about guiding her to shop.
Claudia: Missguided was also really cool. It started as an online shop and they just perfectly captured the attitude of the girl they represent – her tone of voice was very apparent – cheeky and sassy. And they had these mannequins on flamingos and everything was covered in glitter.
Mia: It was a carnival, slash fairy tale, slash candy land on steroids! It’s over the top, but just unbelievable. Very unexpected. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
What was your biggest takeout?
Claudia: I think our biggest lesson we got from all of this was to work with what works. We saw a lot of digital mirrors and all sorts of stuff like that, but if we’re not at the point yet where we can make it work 100%, then we should look at that later. Because nothing is more disappointing to a customer than having it, but it’s not working right.
Mia: My biggest takeout from the whole trip was that store design was important, but displaying products correctly in that space so that they sell themselves even more so.
Taking all your experiences of UK stores into consideration, what’s next? If you were to walk into those same stores five years from now, what would they look and feel like?
Claudia: I think even more people are going to shop online. Retailers are really going to have to up their game to stay relevant and concentrate on building that brand loyalty in a different way. How, I don’t know. It would be nice if I did. But people don’t have time for shopping anymore, so when they do go out to shop, they want to be excited.
Based on the way you’re designing right now, what’s next for South African retail?
Claudia: As online retail grows abroad it will certainly affect the way we shop in South Africa. But the challenge of such a large portion of our population still living in inaccessible areas will not be resolved in the next five years. Also, a lot of people don’t have bank accounts, so they can’t buy online. So, there’s a greater need for bricks and mortar in South Africa.
Mia: Also, in South Africa, people go to the mall for an experience. Even on sunny days, the malls are packed. And sometimes the malls struggle with that, because it doesn’t always mean people buy – they just hang out. I just don’t see us going online in quite the same way as the UK, Europe and the US, for instance, but I do see our in-store experiences stepping up. And we’re very excited to be a part of that.