Some of the more successful formats on our high streets work because they look un-designed, but will this last?

Some of the more successful formats on our high streets work because they look un-designed, but will this last?

Remember back in the day when Ryanair and Easyjet were in their relative infancy? We were told that the reason the fares were so relatively inexpensive, relative to the “legacy airlines”, was that what was being offered was a “no-frills” experience. No frills in this instance meant no pre-assigned seating, no food or drink unless paid for and in the case of Ryanair a barrage of on-board selling that involved everything from scratch cards to cuddly toys.

The expectation that all of this generated was that it would be possible to go places without breaking the bank and for a time we all accepted it. The same, broadly, could be said of discount retailers. Visit Aldi, Lidl or Card Factory, all of which appear to have eschewed the blandishments of consciously designed store environments in favour of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach.

Conditional dealing in Card Factory shares began last week ahead of unconditional trading in the stock, which starts tomorrow. So what are investors buying? They are acquiring a portion of a retailer where visiting a store means that every signal you are given implies that the merchandise will be cheap, or at least cheaper than mid-market rivals. This is a retailer where the in-store experience is almost anti-design, generating a specific expectation.  

And yet take a look at what’s happened in the low-cost airlines. On Easyjet seats are now pre-assigned and Ryanair is, apparently, making stringent efforts to make flying its routes “nicer”. Maybe so, and this is perhaps a response by these operators to the legacy airlines reaching down towards them in terms of service and price.

In a retail context, it’s hard not to wonder whether something of the kind will happen as the big supermarkets begin a price war and shoppers perhaps realise that ‘value’ can be attained by shopping them as much as the discounters. The same may be true of Card Factory. Its no-frills stores are actually not that far from the likes of old-style Clintons and others of its ilk and it’s not that hard to see a point being reached when it heads mildly upmarket in selected stores to hoover up the less price-sensitive shopper.

Sticking to one’s guns is something that retail, taken as a whole, is not that good at and it’s a fair bet that among the discounting fraternity we are going to see change as much as anywhere else. Card Factory targeting the Paperchase shopper? A stretch, but not impossible to imagine.