Look around the high streets today and it sometimes seems as if they have been designed for the sole purpose of shifting mobile phones and associated services. There are, however, a few select enclaves where these types of retailers are very much a minority and one of the more exclusive must be Regent Street.
Consider the facts. This is a thoroughfare that boasts some of the UK’s most high-profile retail operations, including the Apple flagship store, Burberry and Hamleys. Next month, the first branch of Gap sister brand Banana Republic to make it across the Atlantic will open here.
Thanks to the Crown Estate’s enlightened views on the retail mix and diversity, many of the stores that you see on Regent Street are one-offs. So, for a mobile phone retailer to make the grade, it has to be pretty special and offer something different from the average Carphone, Orange, Vodafone et al.
And the Nokia flagship store that has opened in one of the units formerly occupied by department store Dickens & Jones certainly isn’t a run-of-the-mill format. For a start, it is that rare beast: a phone manufacturer’s store instead of the normal network offer. The only real equivalent to this in central London is the Sony Ericsson store that opened on Kensington High Street in November 2006. This might sound unimportant, but it means that the two-floor, 8,290 sq ft (770 sq m) Regent Street store has to show what the Finnish mobile giant is made of.
The shop is intended to provide an alternative to the usual set-up; filled with handsets and eager salesmen waiting to pounce. Nokia retail concepts director Jeremy Wright says: “The basic design concept was to reflect Nokia as a brand and as a Finnish company.” And from the moment you encounter the Nokia store on this grandest of London streets, it is obvious why this mobile phone retailer merits inclusion as part of the Regent Street retail panorama – in terms of store design, at least.
The windows are modest in size, but aside from a small amount of printed cardboard occupying part of the space, the views into the interior are almost unobstructed. In view of the fact that Wright says this shop has cost£4 million to put together and most of that money has been spent on the interior, this design seems a sound visual merchandising policy.
Step through the doors and the view is dazzling. The visitor is confronted at every turn by mirrors, illuminated walls that change colour and vertical planes that take the eye deeper into the store. The overriding impression is that this is a home of technology and that, if you want to see novelty, this is a good place to start.
The actual mobile phone handsets almost take second place to the store environment. It is refreshing to come across a retailer that has not taken the view that the product is hero (although there is an awful lot of it in this shop) and has concentrated instead on turning the interior into the experience. And yet, essentially, this is a simple design. As Wright says: “The basic principle is to have this wooden box with technology inserted into it.”
Wood is pretty much the last thing that you notice in this store, but if you do happen to glance downwards, you see that the floor at the front of the shop has been covered in Canadian maple. Wright is at pains to emphasise that the wood comes from sustainable forests and that, in the best of all possible worlds, silver birch from Finland would have been used. In the event, it was deemed to be insufficiently durable to function as a floor covering.
The store is divided into four areas. Wright explains that the ground floor comprises two zones, with a handset and essentials area at the front, followed by a business area at the back, where there is also a semi-standalone Vertu shop. Vertu is a Nokia sub-brand and, if you have about£3,000 to spare – the range’s entry price point – this might be the place for you. Unlike the rest of the store, whose blueprint was created by San Francisco design consultancy 8-Inc, the Vertu interior is an in-house job, created by the Vertu team. With its shiny black surfaces, white marble floor and high emphasis on dedicated service, it is perhaps small wonder that this brand is very popular in Moscow, where Nokia opened the first of its global flagships at the end of December 2005.
However, most shoppers are likely to spend their time elsewhere on this level and, for those wandering the wood or granite floors that form this area, the dominant view is blue. The translucent back-lit walls, operated by a system from Lutron, can be programmed to be almost any colour but, on the day of visiting, Nokia contented itself with various shades of its blue brand signature.
Most of the walls have chest-level shelving, with small black panels against which handsets are displayed. When any of these handsets is removed from its anchorage, a screen directly above it jumps into life, displaying the benefits of the model in question.
The temptation could have been to crowd this area with phones, but each panel has one handset less than in other flagships. Nokia has worked out that more space equates to a generally better environment.
A series of mirrored square plinths stands in the central area, creating a jewellery-box effect for the display of particular models. Among these is a bling bling, Swarovski-encrusted display that will capture the attention of every shopper entering the shop.
The first floor is accessed either by stairs or a hi-tech chromed steel and glass lift. If shoppers choose to use the latter, they will find themselves entering Wright’s nemesis. The lift is totally bespoke and Wright jokes that its construction has put a considerable strain on him, as well as his wife and family.
Upstairs, there are two more zones: Discovery and Explore. Both are demarcated by discreet signage, which is more about finding your way around than being preached to.
In essence, Discovery is a trendy lounge filled with Italian furniture and a good line in kitsch 1960s space age-style lighting, which is a first for Nokia. Branded retail formats director Richard Waldron says: “This is very much about us tailoring things to accommodate the consumer’s needs.” He adds that, as well as using the series of terminals where the handsets are displayed, shoppers buying a new handset downstairs can get their phone customised on this floor – “so they don’t go home with a box and have to do it themselves”.
At the far end of the first floor is a room separated by a square arch that makes up the Explore area. As well as a 102-inch TV playing Nokia material, it features a back-lit square table with a thick glass top surrounded by stools. This is intended to be used for seminars on how to use the technology on offer, which will take place three times a day, five times a week. The area has something of nearby Apple’s “knowledge bar” about it and is another of the Nokia store’s features designed to increase dwell time.
The opening of this flagship adds to the hi-tech axis that seems increasingly to be an aspect of Regent Street shopping. As well as Nokia and Apple, there is the Bose outlet that boasts an in-house theatre and, in all three, the emphasis is on learning as much as showing.
Nokia Regent Street is the biggest of the nine outlets that have been opened so far and the plan is that a mere 18 will launch worldwide. It seems unlikely, given construction costs and the price of property, that any of them will be money-makers, but these are embodiments of the brand rather than commercial propositions. A cut-down version of what can be seen in Regent Street will open in Manchester at the end of next month. For the moment then, this is as good as it gets in mobile phone retailing.