B&Q’s new store in Witney is a former branch of DIY operator Focus. After visiting on a bank holiday Monday, John Ryan is convinced that, while its predecessor came unstuck, this one will do the job.
Consult any online route planner and whichever one you choose it’s less than a 20-minute drive from Wantage, in Oxfordshire, to Witney, in the same county. And until recently, one of the things that linked the two market towns, other than a shared initial letter and county, was the fact that both housed a branch of second-league DIY operator Focus.
This particular association disappeared in May, however, when Focus went into administration and Wantage, as far as the DIY chains are concerned, has more or less disappeared off the map (for the time being, at least). Not so Witney, where the former Focus store was snapped up by B&Q in July and a month later was serving the needs of the town’s DIY shoppers – as a B&Q superstore.
Five former Focus stores are now trading as B&Q outlets and given that, apocryphally, the Witney store was one of the more profitable in the chain’s portfolio, it is little surprise that it was on the market leader’s shopping list. Things should at this point be put in context, as according to Retail Week Knowledge Bank the average sales density at Focus was just £65 at the start of April, so the Witney figure may still not have been astral.
Yet on paper, Witney should perform. This is, after all, the Prime Minister’s constituency and is in the eastern approaches to the very well-heeled Cotswolds. Approaching the store from the A4095, it is hard to miss. The familiar bright B&Q orange is, if anything, even louder than normal and means you can’t avoid picking out the retailer’s logo. Turn into the car park and, although the signage looks new, it does feel as if there’s always been a DIY store here. Which, of course, there has.
Is this, therefore, a simple matter of badge engineering, with a new sign and colour scheme hoisted over the door and fascia? First impressions are that this might be the case.
This looks like standard B&Q, not a mammoth store, but certainly a large one, with a high-fenced garden centre attached to it.
In fairness, the bright orange is more welcoming than the curious royal blue and green latterly adopted by Focus, but externally it would appear that little more has been done than to change the signs and put a welcome sign at the entrance.
Step inside and this is mainstream DIY land; except that unusually it’s light and relatively easy to find your way around. In fairness, many of the changes that have been made are cosmetic and if you look down, depending on which bit of the shop you are in, you’ll see well-worn vinyl and carpet, linked by a broad walkway.
The floors are clearly a Focus legacy and B&Q’s store team have decided that they are functional enough and that the expense of replacing them would outweigh any benefits the store environment might gain from this. That said, and in spite of the fact that this is not the largest B&Q you’re ever likely to find yourself in, this is a remarkably easy to read and comprehensive offer. It is also well laid out.
The entrance provides direct ingress to the paint and wallpaper aisles. These are backed by a surprisingly large series of kitchen, bathroom and bedroom displays where, on the day of visiting (bank holiday Monday), rows of B&Q employees were sat behind monitors helping shoppers design their dream domestic interior.
After this, it’s a steady progression of mini-departments: hardware, plumbing, light bulbs, tools, flooring and suchlike, culminating in building materials and timber at the far end of the store. It is also worth mentioning the lighting department, which is tucked away in a return area close to the entrance.
All of this is fairly standard B&Q stuff, but what has been done with this layout is to provide long cross-aisles that allow views across the whole of the interior, as well as from front to back. Finding your way through this can be easily achieved by eye, but if this fails, there’s always the overhead signage, which is simple and does make things straightforward.
There are also a few touches that raise a smile, such as the cardboard cutout man carrying orange plastic shopping baskets with a speech bubble next to him asking: ‘Need a basket?’ There is perhaps a slight sense of overkill about some of the signage with the one stating ‘tills’ above the cash-taking area being the most obvious. But there again, if you’re stuck in the gardening department perhaps this is useful.
B&Q Witney is also big on ramming home the value message with a large banner bearing a picture of ‘Kevin’, who hails from the Sunderland store, assuring us that ‘You won’t find it cheaper…’. This is next to the ‘trade point order & collect’ and another banner offering deals for the over-60s.
Finally, it’s out into the open air where another familiar B&Q experience awaits, the garden centre. This is around a third of the size of the interior space and if you wanted to come away with pot plants and compost then the displays are well stocked.
Throughout, white-on-orange graphics provide handy hints with the ‘choose your bag’ – a ‘bag for life’, a ‘fold away’ or a ‘boot liner’ – being a case in point and the store was busy from the off. The next nearest DIY stores are probably in either downtown Oxford or Abingdon, depending on the route you choose, but in either case, it is something of a puzzle that Focus, with its policy of selecting sites in areas where others were not trading (or at least a good number of them anyway), managed, ultimately, to prove a failure.
According to brand development manager Robbie Peck, this is pretty much a state-of- the-art store for B&Q and, while you perhaps won’t be jumping up and down with excitement at a visit to this one, it will at least save you a trek if you’re a local.
This is a store that does, however, pass the Ronseal test in that you’ll find exactly what you expect of a DIY store and it will be easy to shop (there are in fact multiple Ronseal products on the shelves). A further plus point is the fact that the staff are beaming and happy. They have reason to be: many were Focus employees who have been retained by the new site occupant.
Why did Focus appear to get it all so wrong? That’s another question entirely.
Heritage - Focus
Store status - Superstore
Reason for visiting - Hobson’s choice in the area
Appearance - DIY standard
Outstanding feature - Ease of shopping