John Ryan reports on Marks and Spencer's new homewares store in Northern Ireland

M&S opened a semi-standalone homewares store inNorthern Irelandlast week, which looks like a blueprint for the future. John Ryan reports

Northern Irelandis not on the map for most retailers when it comes to innovation. Indeed, despite of the vibrancy ofBelfastin particular, there are some significant retail absentees when compared with the central areas of large cities over on the mainland. Yet much is happening inUlsterand it is a sign of the times that last week an M&S Home opened as a, well, almost standalone proposition on the Sprucefield retail park just outside Lisburn, about a 20-minute drive from the centre ofBelfast.

From the outset, a spokeswoman for the company is at pains to emphasise that while this may be a 35,000 sq ft (3,250 sq m) space selling only M&S homewares, this does not mean that it is a discrete format that will exist in splendid isolation from the M&S main store, with which it shares a common entrance. The phrase that best describes M&S Home is "separate, yet joined". And there is a reason for this.

Home head of design Sally Bendelow says that the customer for M&S Home is an M&S customer. While this may sound obvious, it is worth reflecting on the recent history of standalone homeware stores at M&S. Less than five years ago, the retailer opened and, fairly shortly afterwards closed, the Lifestore inGateshead. Many will recall the highly wrought interior where turnover proved to be almost as minimalist as the design of the ill-fated store. Accompanying that moment of corporate hubris was an offer that was not just in a different store from the main M&S branch inGateshead, but was completely different from anything that had gone before.

Fast forward to 2007 and M&S Home may be housed in an adjacent structure, but it is very much an adjunct to the M&S main store. With a few exceptions, in terms of products, what shoppers will see is the same as they will find in the catalogue.

The difference is that while homewares has been an integral part of the M&S offer for some years, there has, to date, never been a space of sufficient magnitude to allow everything that can be found in the catalogue to be shown under one roof.
Commenting on the decision to open the first M&S Home in the
UKinNorthern Ireland, Neil Hyslop, divisional executive for M&S inIreland, says: "We’ve always had strong homewares sales here. So we’ve got great loyalty. That tied in well with the opportunity."

The opportunity referred to is a former Homebase unit. Standing outside, you could be forgiven for not being able to spot the new store’s retail antecedent. In its former life, the shop-front was glazed from the ground up to a height of about 3m. Above this, it was a mixture of standard shed cladding and logo. Today, it is fully glazed with a black glass surround that frames the window and provides a contrast for the lime green and white M&S Home logo.

double doors
For a shopper visiting M&S Home, there are two options to get inside and check the action: via an open doorway, accessed by the entrance to the 95,000 sq ft (8,825 sq m) main store, or by using a dedicated entrance to the extension.
Step through either and there is little sense of a barn – always a danger in spaces of this size. There are about 25 roomsets and the floor has been laid out to capture the notion of a journey through a house, according to Niall Trafford, executive in charge of store design and specification. Almost everywhere you look there are small walls, which are used to lend a domestic scale to the interior.

Glancing from the front, one of the first things to strike you is the colour scheme. The floor has been covered with neutral brown terrazzo tiles and this has been picked up around large areas of the perimeter, which are clad in a slightly lighter brown. Bendelow says: “We’ve chosen a hard-wearing material, which actually reflects a colour that you would use in your home. It works across every roomset, so it is neutral. It’s not too cold and it’s got a bit of variation in the stone as well.”

While the choice of palette may sound downbeat, it provides a highly effective canvas for the graphic navigation package where, for the most part, words are boosted by brightly coloured images. Staring beyond the furnishings that dominate the storescape as you enter, it is child's play to pick out the kids' area, for instance, or the kitchen department, at the far end of the shop, both of which feature bold graphics.

Trafford observes that in previous homeware department incarnations the centre-floor equipment had been described as "too big, too high and too clumpy". He points out that while the equipment wheel has not been reinvented in Lisburn, the height of the equipment is substantially lower. This means that while the notion of distinct roomsets and product areas can be maintained, there is no feeling of enclosure and the sightlines are clear.

It also means that lifestyled segmentation, which has been a personal mission for Nayna McIntosh, director in charge of store presentation, can be more easily effected. “Stuart [Rose] was particularly challenging about why the homewares looked so bulky,” says McIntosh. “His view was that he’d go to the press shows, he’d go to the product reviews and see fantastic products and then he’d go into a store and ask, ‘Why does it never look like that?’.” Stand anywhere in this M&S Home, however, and it is apparent that Rose ought to be pleased.

There are also a number of noteworthy one-off features. At the centre of the shop is an ordering area with a swatch bar allowing customers to choose different fabrics for the furniture that is on display
and to take the swatches home for consideration ahead of any purchase. This zone also contains the red service desks that have become such a feature of the new-look M&S stores. But instead of the squared-off counters that feature in other stores, here they are curved. Trafford says that if these prove successful, they may be used in other branches.

Sitting alongside the roomsets, a number of the walls that divide the areas have been turned into display points by McIntosh and her team. Mention has to be made of the towel wall in the bathroom area at the rear of the store. This space is about colour blocking and brings to the fore the guiding principle in all M&S store redesigns of the “product being hero”. This is something of a cliché in terms of store design mantras, but here M&S does it with aplomb.

When shoppers have had enough, given the pricing and ambience, it seems likely that they will head for the 160-cover restaurant. This is housed in an entirely enclosed part of the store and with graphics taken from the M&S product archive and soft leatherette banquettes it seems almost impolite not to visit.

On opening day last Thursday, there were smiles all round as the
11amtill readings were taken. M&S is always coy when it comes to revealing its figures, but one of the executives went as far as remarking that sales were three times larger than at the best performing homewares store in theUK– in Camberley,Surrey.

A good start then – and one that bodes well for the future of M&S homewares as a separate, yet connected proposition. Five more related homewares offers are due to be unveiled before the year is out.