Debenhams’ new store at Liverpool One is built on a slope, but that is only one of many striking differences about the topsy-turvy shop. John Ryan goes to see what all the hype is about

Jump in your car outside Liverpool’s Lime Street station en route for Manchester Piccadilly and, according to the RAC’s Route Planner, the journey should take you 35 minutes “if you’re lucky” or 43 minutes “if you’re unlucky”. Do the same journey by train and the best option is a trip that takes 48 minutes.

By any stretch, none of these are long journey times and, for many Liverpudlians, they represent little more than the price to be paid for some decent shopping. At least, that is the historic view of the retail relationship between these two urban titans of England’s Northwest. Last week, however, another step towards rectifying this imbalance was taken with the opening of the first phase of Liverpool One and, more specifically, the first branch of Debenhams to open in the city.

If you bear in mind that almost every major retailer has an outpost in Liverpool, it is a little surprising that the department store operator has waited until it has 149 other branches before dipping its toes into Merseyside. But the retailer has put its best foot forward to make up for the wait and has introduced some elements that cannot be seen anywhere else in Debenhams’ empire.

If you walk through the middle of the city along Church Street, which becomes Lord Street, suddenly the four-floor, 130,000 sq ft (12,075 sq m) – the store’s net selling area – Debenhams is in front of you. It is built on a slope, which may explain the distinctly odd manner in which the floors inside the store have been labelled. The easy option would perhaps have been to go for Ground, One, Two and Three, but, depending on where you are standing around the building, the level that is perceived to be Ground may vary.

Externally, this is a glittering piece of steel and shiny stone, with a glass carapace wrapped around its three upper levels. Visual and creative director Mark Woods (aurally, it is very clear he’s a native of this city) and his team have done their best to meld shop with location. This has been achieved with a series of rough-and-ready agitprop-style graphics, bearing reminders of Liverpool’s architecture and history, applied to the windows.

This is an impressive, if monolithic, building and it is clear why developer Grosvenor has billed it as one of the anchors of the £950 million Liverpool One development, of which it forms one corner.

It is inside the store that the scale of difference between this and other Debenhams shops becomes apparent. Pausing to admire the eye-catching orange-and-pink resin chandelier imported from Milan, which fills the space at the main entrance, many shoppers will stop to take stock of their surroundings.

For those seeking Debenhams-style novelty, there is one obvious in-store destination: homewares. This department occupies most of what can be termed the third level and can be accessed via one of the glass lifts that take centre stage in the middle of the store, alongside the banks of escalators.

Debenhams has worked on the homewares area with London design consultancy 20/20 and, stepping out of the lift, it feels very different from other branches. The overriding impression is space – Debenhams’ home departments have had a tendency to include everything (excluding kitchen sanitary ware) in a relatively small space.

Space to roam

In Liverpool, the retailer has made the decision to thin things down, lower some of the equipment heights and carve broad avenues through the space to afford shoppers the chance to enter the area without feeling swamped. 20/20 creative director Bernard Dooling, who worked on the project, says: “This is about clarity and a conversational tone of voice. If a store could feel like a magazine, then this would be Valhalla.” Well, maybe so, although what the Norse gods might have to say about such an arrangement is open to discussion.

What is certain, though, is that the third level of Debenhams Liverpool is a gleaming white entity with black, centre-floor goalposts that frame merchandise stories and lime-coloured pillars. Much has also been made of the Designers at Debenhams homewares, which pulls collections from designers such as John Rocha and Julien Macdonald together to create branded mini-departments.

The tone of voice referred to by Dooling comes into its own in this respect, with a picture of each designer and black high-gloss panels providing a contrast to the white font in which their names are spelt out. Woods says that the new-look department gives exposure to product that is in other stores, but that may be overlooked owing to layouts.

There is also considerable variation in lighting on this level, with areas of greater and lesser intensity. This plays on the present vogue for highlighting product rather than having high levels of ambient light across a space – all part of what Dooling calls “bringing home to life”.

Woods says that the homewares floor is about choice. “If you want a bedsheet, you can get it and get out. If you want to meander – which we very much hope people will – then you can do that as well.”

The obvious question is whether homewares shoppers in other parts of the UK are going to see something similar in the near future. Woods says that it will be a matter of “assessing what the customers say to us and then we’ll take the best bits and roll them out”.

Then there is the rest of the store to consider. Broadly, this consists of three and a half floors of fashion and a beauty hall. Curiously, the latter is not on the lowest level, accessed via the main doors. This is a conspicuous break with department store retailing best practice. The beauty department is, in fact, on what might be termed the first floor, or level two depending on the nomenclature that you adopt.

Woods says there were long debates about where to locate this area and it arrived in its present destination because it remains uncertain where the customer flows are going to come from and which entrance will prove, in practice, to be most used. He adds that Debenhams has chosen not to impose a design straitjacket on the brands that have taken space within the beauty department, because “they are probably better at promoting themselves than we are”.

As on the homewares floor, the beauty section is predominantly white, striking the appropriately quasi-medical note without looking overly clinical. It is worth noting the St Tropez brand located on the perimeter. Here, everything is black and there are tables where customers can sit and be made up in various shades of fake tan, from brown to bright orange, in preparation for a big night out in this year’s European City of Culture.

The remainder of the floor is devoted to womenswear, as is half of the one above it, which also contains homewares. On both levels, Debenhams has avoided the fate of many department stores, where there are so many undifferentiated brands that they all merge into one. It has done this by ensuring that each of the branded areas has a distinct personality.

For instance, the John Rocha section, in the Designers at Debenhams area, has its own red carpet that guides shoppers towards the merchandise and is backed by a grey wall with a cut-out on which shoes are displayed. This is new for Debenhams, as is the Julien Macdonald-branded space, which was tested at Ashford in Kent, with Liverpool being the first post-trial store to receive the look that will feature in a chain-wide roll-out taking place this year.

Finally, at the top of the shop is childrenswear and a restaurant. For the children’s department, the story is one of visual merchandising props, acquired and installed by creative divisional manager for childrenswear Jan Ladd. The mid-shop on this level is dominated by a Ted Baker concession that pulls all of the categories – boys, girls and small children – together to create a destination – a first for Debenhams. “We went black and white on the graphics, because we thought there was enough colour with the product,” says Ladd. The restaurant also affords views of the new park that is at the heart of the Grosvenor development.

Debenhams has created something different for Woods’ home town. You have to hope that, for the sake of those who have been making the shopping trek to Manchester for years, more retailers will follow its example and sign on the dotted leasing line. Although the Liverpool One line-up is impressive, there are still a few units going begging.