Harvey Nichols in Birmingham unveiled a glitzy refurb on Friday, but is it too much to say that a shop dazzles consumers?

‘Shock and awe’ and ‘surprise and delight’ are phrases used by generals and captains of retail respectively without a great deal of thought. The former is taken to mean the bombardment of an enemy, but could be anything from a heavy engagement to the deployment of an H-bomb.

Similarly, the latter might mean an enthusiastic greeting as the shopper enters or a storewide campaign where every member of staff is primed to behave in a particular manner in surroundings that surprise.

But let’s be honest for a moment. When was the last time you were surprised or delighted when you wandered into a shop? A visit to Harvey Nicholsrevamped store in Brum last week was definitely a surprise when what had been there before was considered.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the Brummie shoperati might be delighted by the glam of the enterprise.

Small-scale surprise

Things do not have to be on this scale however. The prior weekend, while wandering around the Marais in Paris on a Sunday morning (returning from holiday – not popping over on a whim) an independent bookshop really did surprise.

Picking up a book and heading to the counter it was hard not to notice the cake. It was a homemade fruitcake that had been sliced, put on a plate and left next to the till. A sign next to it invited shoppers to help themselves because it was Sunday.

“When retailers talk about their stores ‘surprising‘ and ‘delighting’ they are either mildly or grossly overstating the reality”

John Ryan

What better reason and exiting the shop with a slice and a book, there really was a sense that things were better than before you went into the shop.

Both Harvey Nicks and the bookshop are, sadly, the exceptions. The reality is that when retailers talk about their stores ‘surprising‘ and ‘delighting’ they are either mildly or grossly overstating the reality.

Most shoppers go into a shop in search of satisfying a perceived need and a retailer that can do that while providing a pleasant experience will be the one that is likely to see the purse strings being loosened.

As for surprise and delight, perhaps they are in the eye of the beholder, but alongside ‘curation’, ‘heritage’ and, some time ago, ‘theatre’, they are words that are so overused that they have been rendered almost meaningless.

Harvey Nichols in Birmingham is a very good store and it is probably best left at that.