With little over three weeks to go, Charlotte Hardie and Simon Puryer take at trip to the West End to look at how retailers are faring in the festive countdown.

Marks and Spencer

The pressure is on. Every Christmas is nerve-wracking, but the nail-biting will have begun even earlier than usual for retailers.

How do you improve your chances of a good golden quarter at a time when people don’t want to spend? The list of prerequisites is lengthy, but providing a positive store experience is a good place to start. Exemplary customer service, an enchanting store environment, strong merchandising, clear signposting… it sounds simple on paper. But how difficult is it to achieve in reality?

If this year’s visit to Oxford Street and Regent Street is anything to go by, the answer for several is that it’s very difficult indeed. Hamley’s, with its drab merchandising from the first floor up, was the proud owner of a leaking ceiling. Waterstone’s was strewn with cheap, home-spun decorations that would make any shopper’s heart sink. Gap, meanwhile, didn’t live up to its bizarre ‘Joy it Up’ Christmas slogan with a store crammed full of stock.

It wasn’t all bad news. Disney and Anthropologie provided that elusive feel-good factor. They made you want to stay and browse. John Lewis and Liberty also proved their store operational expertise.

Retail Week enlisted the help of Simon Puryer, retail expert and partner at consultancy I-Realise, for his view on retailers’ performance. He says: “More than ever, it’s about getting the basics right and, in fairness, in terms of stock replenishment, staffing levels and signage, most of the retailers got that right.” But, he adds, there was a stark contrast in how he felt they had approached the Christmas countdown. “It was either full-on or half-hearted,” he says.

But most worrying was the absence of customers. When we visited Boots on Oxford Street, there was not a single shopper in its Christmas shop, which takes up the entire third floor. You can’t read too much into a snapshot view of footfall on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of November. But this is a flagship store on one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. The dearth of shoppers across the board is ominous, says Puryer. “It was scary how quiet it was,” he says. It was the end of November and people hadn’t been paid then, but it doesn’t bode well. “It would seem people are holding out until nearer Christmas for more deals.” In fact, John Lewis was the only store that felt bustling.

Christmas success, he adds, hinges on tempting people through the doors throughout the run-up to Christmas, rather than on the back of short bursts of offers such as Gap’s 30%-off promotion.

Retailers with a strong proposition need not feel deflated, though. “People will be enticed to shop if there is a good overall experience and a good offer,” Puryer points out. But for some, that’s proving alarmingly difficult to achieve.

  • To provide a gauge on their Christmas performance, Retail Week marked each retailer out of five for its Christmas inspiration – whether it tempts consumers to browse and spend – and for the overall customer experience.

Hamley’s, Regent Street

Hamleys

Hamleys

Puryer’s verdict “You have high expectations of Hamley’s at Christmas. After all, it’s one of the most famous toyshops in the world. You expect it to be magical and like walking into a Santa’s Grotto, but this is so disappointing. The ground floor isn’t too bad, and has an element of that warm feeling you’d expect with coloured tiles on the floor, piles of soft toys and so on, but as soon as you go upstairs, everything goes downhill. It’s stuck in the 1990s – it reminds me of Woolworths. There’s even a leaking ceiling with a bucket to catch the drips. The Christmas decorations look like an afterthought, and there’s no evident Christmas grotto. The member of staff we asked suggested we ask someone standing outside in fancy dress. You have to go online for times to book the grotto. And it costs £45.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆

 Customer experience ❆❆

Anthropologie, Regent Street

Anthropologie

Anthropologie

Puryer’s verdict “This is great. There’s a subtle nod to Christmas in the window displays – just enough to make you feel festive. The area devoted to decorations and stocking fillers is very well merchandised with unusual displays. The product itself is also really unusual – you would struggle to find this elsewhere. The key thing for me is how good this store is at encouraging Christmas shoppers to stay and linger.

You could easily spend a lot of time in here. There are plenty of helpful staff but you don’t feel pressurised to buy anything. People are reluctant to indulge at the moment, but the store design, the fact there is space to move, and the way in which the product is displayed makes you want to treat yourself while you buy Christmas presents for family and friends.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆❆❆

Bhs, Oxford Street

Bhs

Puryer’s verdict “Bhs makes life easy for its Christmas shoppers. As soon as you walk in, the right side of the store is devoted to gifts you could buy for the entire family. It’s great for shoppers on a budget, there are plenty of offers, and they could feasibly buy something for everyone in about 15 minutes if they were tight on time. The prices are good, it’s well merchandised and well stocked, and that’s what its shoppers want. There is loud Christmas music playing though. I’d question the use of that in November. People are starting to do their Christmas shopping and retailers want to get people in the mood, but in shoppers’ minds it is still November. Do they want the festive pop classics blaring out just yet? Overall, though, Bhs has done a good job.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆

Waterstone’s, Oxford Street

Waterstones

Waterstones

Puryer’s verdict “This makes me feel so sad. Bookshops are supposed to be relaxing places where you can escape from reality and relax. It’s so disappointing. The decorations genuinely look home-made. You’re greeted at the entrance by a small, lonely snowflake hanging from the ceiling. And when you walk downstairs, another one hits you on the head. Shelf signage looks cheap and the lighting is bright and uninviting. There’s a small selection of cards by the till, placed away from all the other cards – there’s been no thought as to how to capture the festive spend. Even the Strictly Come Dancing window display looks sad and tired, with a sign that’s been hand-glued on to some card. It’s a depressing when not even the crowds of pigeons outside the shop are being disturbed by passing shoppers.”

 Christmas inspiration 0

 Customer experience 0

M&S, Oxford Street flagship

Marks and Spencer

Marks and Spencer

Puryer’s verdict “There’s nothing particularly exciting at Marks & Spencer, but that’s not necessarily what shoppers come here for. It isn’t helped by the low ceilings upstairs at its Christmas shop, though. Although it’s the fault of the building, not the retailer, it does feel quite oppressive and it’s incredibly hot and stuffy. I want to get out as quickly as possible. That said, the Christmas shop itself is good, with the usual array of cards, gift ideas and wrapping paper sensibly laid out. In some parts of the store a sense of festivity gets a bit lost, but I really like the way they’ve continued the festive merchandising from the Christmas shop into surrounding areas. It makes everything blend together seamlessly. It’s not a joyful shopping experience, but it’s safe and functional.

That’s what people want from M&S.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆

Boots, Oxford Street

Boots

Boots

Puryer’s verdict “This is odd. The whole of the front of the store is draped in dramatic lights that look great, but once you’re inside the ground floor it’s a letdown. The store is huge and the ceilings are high, but it has these small red and gold tinsel decorations that look lost. All the way up the escalator there is clear signage advertising its famed three-for-two gifts offer in the Christmas shop on the third floor. Here, the decorations look better because the ceilings are lower, and the shop is well merchandised. It’s incredibly easy to shop – not dissimilar to a supermarket with wide aisles, which will make it easy on busy shopping days. Weirdly, though, it’s scarily quiet. It’s about 2.15pm on a Tuesday afternoon on Oxford Street and there’s not one person in the Christmas shop.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆

House of Fraser, Oxford Street

House of Fraser

House of Fraser

Puryer’s verdict “House of Fraser is one of the best for continuing the festive theme throughout the store, and it’s been tastefully executed. It’s easy to shop, too. Beauty gift sets are near the escalators, as is an array of men’s jumpers – the ever-practical present. The Christmas shop is poor, though. You get the sense that they’ve just tried to part the waves, shift product to the side, and plonk it in the middle of homewares because they had no other place to put it. The resultant feel is incongruous. With a Christmas shop you want to feel like you’re in a cocoon. This feels like it’s just a few items on display. That said, House of Fraser is a great shop and it will successfully draw the shoppers with its overall offer and shopping experience.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆❆

Disney, Oxford Street

Disney

Disney

Puryer’s verdict “Disney has done a brilliant job. It has achieved what you would have expected Hamley’s to do in that it’s got that magical Christmas element. Out of all the stores visited, this one made me feel the most festive. You lose yourself in a Christmas wonderland. There are promotions, but they are cleverly done – there are some 20%-off deals but they feel like they are being given as an added bonus, rather than a desperate measure to drive sales. Several staff have approached us to ask if we need anything – the customer service is attentive but not claustrophobic.

It is everything a child could want from a toyshop, and as a parent it makes you think ‘what the hell’ and buy more than you probably intended to. I am really pleasantly surprised.”

 Christmas inspiration ❆❆❆❆❆

 Customer experience ❆❆❆❆❆

Gap, Regent Street

Gap

Gap

Puryer’s verdict “Its current 30% off everything Christmas promotion couldn’t be more obvious, being plastered all over the window and with signs throughout the store. This is bound to tempt people through the door, but as soon as we walked in we were collared by a member of staff again telling us about the 30% discount offer. This smacks of desperation. What’s more, Gap’s Christmas store operations won’t help it shift product – it’s so crammed full of product you can’t even see most of it. And the positioning of a mannequin and a bike half way up the stairs just gets in the way. The ‘Joy it Up’ Christmas message is awful, but apart from anything else Gap has to deliver on that message in its stores. There’s no joy at all here.”

 Christmas inspiration 0

 Customer experience

  • Extra content for Retail-Week.com users - our verdict on Selfridges, Liberty and John Lewis.

Selfridges

Selfridges

Selfridges

In some ways, it’s difficult for Selfridges to create a strong sense of Christmas throughout the store because of its sheer size and the fact there are so many concessions. It’s at an advantage because the store by its very nature is exciting and enticing, but the central Christmas lighting lifts the store and makes it feel magical. It’s good that you don’t have to trek too far to find its Christmas shop, which is well signposted to the lower ground floor. I like the fact that they signpost it even on the front door. You can’t miss it. I would argue though that the Christmas shop itself doesn’t feel as special as Liberty’s. There’s nothing wrong with it, and product is well displayed on tables with overhead giant snowflakes that add to its appeal, but at the very back the decorations peter out, almost as if they’ve run out but are hoping that no one will notice. Overall though, Selfridges’ store operations are of a very high standard. I’d expect nothing less.

Christmas inspiration: ❆❆❆❆❆

Customer experience: ❆❆❆

Liberty

Liberty

Liberty

The nature of this very old building means it can be hard to navigate, but you accept that, because it’s Liberty and it’s a beautiful shop. The Christmas shop itself could have been better signposted – I struggled to find anything that mentioned it before I saw a very stylish sign pointing me to the fourth floor. But once you’re there, it’s got everything you’d expect from a luxury retailer. The canopy of lights has a very upmarket Aladdin’s cave feel to it, and it has several rooms devoted to beautiful Christmas cards, baubles, stocking fillers, and so on. If I were to be particularly picky, it’s tight on space – it might feel a bit hectic on a busy Saturday. But on the other hand, it’s big in terms of square footage. You go through what seems like several rooms all devoted to similar product. This could prove a godsend when the crowds descend on a Saturday. Throughout the store, Liberty doesn’t overdo the Christmas decorations, but what it does, it does with the utmost taste.

Christmas inspiration: ❄❄❄❄

Customer experience: ❄❄❄❄

John Lewis

John Lewis

John Lewis

The store is noticeably far busier than any of the others. Basically it’s everything you’d expect from John Lewis. Its trustworthy, reliable, people know what they’ll be able to get here, and that’s why it’s so busy. You could come in here and get everything off your list in a couple of hours, and it wouldn’t be too stressful even on the busiest of Christmas shopping days. There’s a great Christmas feel throughout, but which isn’t in your face. The Christmas shop is well-signposted, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been fitted in around lots of other product. They’ve given thought to how they can make it look like a designated, enclosed pop-up shop. Some people reading this might wish that, for once, some faults could be found with John Lewis. There aren’t any. Yes it’s perhaps predictable, and yes it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but that’s not what its shoppers want. It does the job and it does it very well, and that’s reflected in its exceptional levels of customer loyalty during the fight for Christmas spend.

Christmas inspiration: ❄❄❄❄

Customer experience: ❆❆❆❆❆