M&S’s latest Home store, in Cardiff, has moved the format on and even added food to help drive precious footfall.

Marks & Spencer, along with most of the high street’s largest players, has been having a tough time over the past year and cost containment has probably featured as much in the thoughts of its management as driving sales.

With this in mind, it is something of a surprise to see that not only does it continue to open new stores, but also to look at the way in which they are designed and merchandised, seeking new and better ways of doing things.

The latest major addition to the portfolio is to be found on Cardiff’s Capital Retail Park and it opened last week. This is a Home store. It has no clothing, the exterior bearing a logo with the words “Home M&S Food”, and it shares the park with rivals such as Next Home, Asda and HobbyCraft.

The point about the M&S store, however, is that within roughly two miles there are three other M&S outlets, with both the large Culverhouse Cross branch on the Cardiff periphery and the city centre outlet having benefited from a makeover during the past 12 months. This perhaps explains why the store focuses on food and home, rather than clothing.

M&S director of store marketing and design Nayna McIntosh says that this store is a first for the retailer. There are two other Home stores in the UK. The first opened more than 18 months ago in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and that was followed by a branch in the Barton Square extension to Manchester’s Trafford Centre in March last year.

While these Cardiff forerunners feel similar, neither of them had a food element and with 6,000 sq ft of the store’s 34,500 sq ft of selling space reserved for this part of the business, it is clearly a move on. McIntosh says: “We feel that including food will help drive footfall in the store and make it a destination.”

And perhaps in keeping with the times, she says that furniture, which featured at the front of the Cardiff park’s Home store predecessors, has been assigned a more supporting role, further back in the shop.

McIntosh says that this latest store needed to be an improvement on Lisburn and Barton Square. And for the visitor pausing for breath at the threshold, there are several elements that mark this branch out as different. Foremost among these is what McIntosh refers to as a “home event” fixture.

M&S worked with design consultancy Household to create what, from above, is a large frame in the shape of a gothic cross. This is intended to house seasonal offers from the homewares range and is, in effect, a large visual merchandising prop. It dominates the space in front of it and provides impact for shoppers entering the store.

In front of it are affordable kitchenwares – more likely to trigger impulse purchases in these straitened times, but which also serve to introduce shoppers to the semi-discrete food shop, linked to the rest of the shop by an arch. And for those heading towards the grub there is, of course, a “food event”. In practice this means a series of tables and perimeter shelves stacked with food that is, once more, appropriate to the season. The closing weeks of March mean Easter looms large for food retailers, and the food event area is stacked with a variety of takes on a chocolate egg and chicken theme.

M&S head of store design Teresa Clark points to the light-coloured wood panelling and wood-veneered fixtures in this area as evidence of a “domestic” feel.

For those heading left instead of right when entering the shop, the store front is filled with upscale outdoor dining displays, followed by internal living roomsets. The level of attention to detail in the Autograph part of this area, in particular, is to M&S’s credit, given that the whole shop was merchandised in five days.

Much of the rest of this floor will be familiar to anyone who has visited either of the other Home stores or, most recently, the huge branch in Westfield London. McIntosh says that the perimeter graphics and much of the shop’s ambience have been taken from Westfield and that these elements will form a blueprint for the retailer’s 2009/10 store opening programme.

Upstairs is technology, now a standard fit-out, bedroom-sets (if M&S is correct, bling(ish) places to rest your head are de rigueur in Cardiff and surrounding areas), towels and bathroom equipment and a lighting department. All of these merchandise areas have, as in Lisburn, been sectioned off by merchandise displays and shelves, in order to make a relatively large space feel manageable.

There is also a cafe, which follows the model seen in Westfield. McIntosh says that with the level of competition on the park this was considered an essential element to increase dwell time and enhance the interior of this area.

Large parts of the lower floor are visible from the cafe owing to the balustraded escalator well – allowing time for reflection on whether to make a substantial purchase or not.

But of all the areas, perhaps the most eye-catching is the children’s beds and accessories space. This has been merchandised with toys to make it a department in its own right, rather than just a smaller version of adult bedding.

This being a publicly quoted company, McIntosh is guarded about how much all of this has cost, but does say that the price has been substantially reduced from Lisburn and Barton Square, thanks to judicious value engineering. Translated, this means that there is an environmentally friendly rubber floor, instead of the ceramic tiles used elsewhere, the lighting has changed and the cost of the fixturing, manufactured by Vizona, has been given the once over.

So will there be more like this? McIntosh says that will depend on finding the right locations. Another is due to open in Cheltenham in the autumn, but beyond this nothing has been decided. What does seem assured is that a format that two years ago looked a little like a side branch of the main M&S event now seems firmly part of the family.

These may be difficult days, but format development still needs to take place if retailers are to emerge intact. M&S has been at the receiving end of mixed press about its performance, but it continues to do the right thing to safeguard its in-store future.

Store basics

  • Location: Capital Retail Park, Cardiff

  • Size: 34,500 sq ft

  • Design: In-house team working with design consultancy Household

  • Fixturing: Vizona

  • New features: In-store event areas

  • Next step: a Home store is due to open in Cheltenham in autumn

Tailor-made for parks

It will be two years in August since M&S unveiled its new Home format in Lisburn, a short drive down the road from Belfast. Back then, it was viewed as something of a departure and certainly as an experiment. With three such stores now under its belt, it seems safe to forecast that a good number of the UK’s major towns and cities will get something of the kind over the next few years, largely depending on how quickly Gordon Brown, or whoever, manages to bring us out of the present sticky patch.

But, interestingly, the Cardiff branch has something about it that any format worth its salt should have: a feeling of being established and of category authority. Setting up a new format is always something of a gamble and while opening day in Lisburn was certainly busy, at the time there was no feeling that this was something that was likely to be repeated elsewhere.

Now that it has and the value-engineering donkey work has been done, what is on view in Cardiff looks highly portable, while also appearing to have been almost tailor-made for retail parks. The Lisburn store is on a retail park and while the Barton Square outlet forms part of the Trafford Centre overspill it is, effectively, in a similar location. Owing to the width of the offer and the size of many of the individual pieces that comprise the Home range, it is hard to see this changing or that there will be a concerted move to take the format into town.

The other point is that a space-hungry format needs cost-effective square footage if it is to succeed – something that is in conspicuously short supply in city centres (although this might yet change). For the moment at least, M&S has created a new standalone store type with its own feel and layout that may be separate from what it does elsewhere, but which obviously comes from the same stable.