John Ryan revisits high-profile former flagships

A state-of-the-art shop might look stunning when it opens, but how will it fare a couple of years down the line? John Ryan revisits some high-profile former flagships in Birmingham and London

Opening a gleaming new shop is always a cause for celebration. It’s the culmination of months, sometimes years, of hard work for an exotic mix of developers, retailers, store designers, shopfitters and many more.

When you step into a new store on its first day of trading, the air is charged with hope and expectation. This is the location that will make a difference, the one that will tempt more shoppers to buy more goods and services, leading to bigger profits.

Enter the same shop a month later and the staff will probably still be fairly chipper – proud of their state-of-the-art retail destination. Who knows, it may even have caught the attention of a fickle public and be mobbed on a daily basis, Primark-style.

But what happens two, three or even five years after a shop has opened? Has the initial momentum been maintained because the store interior has kept pace with the changing retail landscape? Are customers still beating a path to its door, or is it the sort of place that shoppers visit because they have to, rather than because they want to?

With these questions in mind, it made sense to revisit some of the country’s higher-profile store openings of the past few years to assess how they have fared and what changes have taken place.

A variety of store types were visited on a mid-week day in London and Birmingham. The latter was chosen because it is home to the Bullring, which promised a retail renaissance for the city when it opened. As the Midlands centre fast approaches its fifth birthday, a period of reassessment seemed appropriate.


The opening of Birmingham’s Bullring, midway through 2003, prompted a city-wide revolution, as almost every retailer not included in the new centre decided that a store redesign was required by way of a response.

Selfridges’ hubcap-studded extravaganza was at the heart of the new Brum and became the focus for much press attention. Journalists declared that Birmingham was destined to beat London at its own flagship game.

At the same time, two other department store operators decided to put out more flags. House of Fraser, long known as Rackhams, underwent a multimillion-pound makeover, while Debenhams opened a multi-level store on the Bullring’s periphery, opposite the city’s covered market complex.

Within the Bullring, the concept store opened by phone network operator Orange also set the tone for other mobile phone retailers.

It is worth noting that, on the day of visiting, the busiest retailers by far were the recently revamped Marks & Spencer and the small stallholders in the covered market.


This store is still the main reason to alight from the train at Birmingham New Street. Approached from within the Bullring shopping centre, its different floors appear bright, inviting and absolutely worth exploring.

However, much has changed since September 2003 and, as in all good department stores, there have been many relocations as new brands have taken space in the shop.

The most obvious of these is Pret A Manger on the lower level, which has made no concessions to its surroundings. There is nothing hugely wrong with this, providing you are content to feel that you are in the departures lounge of Gatwick’s South Terminal, rather than a glamorous department store.

With the internal remodelling and repositioning that has taken place in this store have come equipment relocations. The problem for Selfridges is that it shows.

On the young-fashion level, for instance, there are screw-holes in the floor where layouts have been altered and little attempt has been made to prevent the poured vinyl floor from appearing heavily used.

This is still a good store, but parts of the building’s fabric will need a modest overhaul if it wants to maintain its pre-eminent position.

House of Fraser

Birmingham was the first recipient of House of Fraser’s World of Food format and, four years on, it is still here – in the basement. Unlike the Croydon store in south London – where World of Food looks increasingly underused – in Birmingham it remains a commercial proposition, as shoppers and diners circulate and spend.

In spite of the large amount of money lavished on the store’s refurbishment, which began in 2001, it was always tricky to tell where the cash had been spent. And today’s House of Fraser Birmingham looks little different now from when the revamp was completed in 2003 – which is not necessarily a good thing, given the changes made by other retailers in the area.


When it opened, the problem for Debenhams was knowing which of its many floors should function as the main entrance. The shop was built on a slope, so it had many levels. At the base of its central atrium was a small café with an internet station, where shoppers could check out rivals’ prices while sipping a latte.

But that was then. Today, the café and internet terminals are gone and in their place are chunky sofas – part of the store’s homewares department. The changes are symptomatic of a shop that once appeared to offer wide open spaces and broad walkways, but is now crammed to capacity. It is nothing less than off-putting – although it does serve as a good short cut from New Street station into the Bullring.