Homebase has been working hard to improve the interior of its stores. John Ryan visits Basingstoke to see the latest stage in its design journey

There are very few players of any consequence in the DIY and home improvement market and therefore attention tends to be keenly focused on changes that any of them care to make. Thinking large-scale, B&Q and Homebase will usually be the names uttered if a trip to a store of this kind is proposed and the expectation is that you will find yourself in a shed.

While it is likely that this expectation will be fulfilled in almost every instance, there is also the suspicion that you may well not entirely enjoy the process of visiting one of these emporia. Indeed, these may well be the kind of places you visit wanting to leave as soon as you can. Perhaps with this in mind, Homebase, has been working on renewing its estate.

It is fair to say that times have been tough for this Home Retail Group-owned chain. While there was like-for-like sales growth of 1.6% during the 13 weeks to August 29, ING Research analyst Peter Brockwell wrote in a note last week of a “gross margin meltdown”.

Whatever your view of the financials, however, it is a fact that the retailer’s store development team has been working on new ways of merchandising and laying out its branches for 18 months, led by head of store development Roger Hubbard.

The process kicked off at Colchester in Essex and since then it has been a matter of finessing what has been done and “taking out costs”, as Hubbard puts it.

The process is ongoing and if you want to witness things at first hand, a trip to Basingstoke in Hampshire might be worthwhile. This is a 56,000 sq ft store that came to the end of a six-week makeover a fortnight ago.

Hubbard says that the Basingstoke branch is no newcomer to the Homebase portfolio. “There’s been a store here for 27 years. Ten years ago we did a deal with a developer, flattened it and what you see, as far as the shell is concerned, is what was rebuilt,” he says.

Externally, the Basingstoke store is a perfectly decent exposition of what shed retailing is all about, with a curving glass and metal frontage and a very large sign leaving you in no doubt about which retailer’s offer you are about to inspect. Step inside, and the initial impression is of space. Hubbard remarks that this outlet is considerably bigger than Homebase would open if it were a new branch today and the white metal arches supporting the roof stretch away into the distance.

The first thing that the shopper is confronted by is a gondola of pot plants directly in front of the main door, and a large area with fully visually merchandised sofas, chairs, tables and suchlike to the left.

Hubbard brandishes a store plan showing how the layout of the store has changed. The furniture, kitchens and bathroom area is known in Homebase speak as the “showroom” and prior to the makeover it appears to have been fragmented, fitted in around other parts of the offer.

There are curtained, free-standing dividers that separate the various domestic vignettes that have been put together in the new-look showroom, allowing the sense, given the limitations of this cavernous interior, of roomsets to be fostered. And each of these has been given the visual merchandising treatment – a few wine glasses and placemats here, a vase with dried foliage there.

Hubbard is cautious about this side of things. “It’s a bit of a trial for us. In recent times we’ve been very focused on density – lots of product in little space. Here we’ve got more room, so we’re trying this,” he says. However, he adds that visual merchandising is difficult to maintain in a shed. “It can be quite a challenge,” he says.

Nevertheless, it is hard to see how domestic interior displays of the kind on offer here, which are extensive, could be presented meaningfully without some measure of visual merchandising.

The pot-plant gondola, by contrast, seems to be standard fare. Hubbard says: “This is something that you always put at the front of the store, so that people can just pick them up on their way to the till.” It also serves to soften what can be quite a hard-edged offer.

Making sense of space

Then there is the rest of the store. And the obvious question is how do you go about dividing up a single floor on this scale without leaving shoppers feeling somewhat swamped? Once more,
Hubbard refers to the before and after store plans. What is apparent is that the new store represents a consolidation of the various departments that were scattered around the space previously.

Directly behind the “showroom”, which used to be in about six locations around the store, there is DIY – still a key department for Homebase, according to Hubbard. Beyond this lies the entrance to gardening. Hubbard makes the point that if a space is symmetrical, to an extent the departments fall into place almost of their own accord. “You need to set out the parameters. Your front door will be fixed and your garden centre will be fixed. Your core DIY needs to be around the warehouse, so by the time you set out these things, you start to know where the other things should be,” he says.

However, this is still a very big store, and one where the term “wayfinding” really does come into its own. Hubbard and his team have worked on a navigational package that is incredibly simple and remarkably unobtrusive. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but all that has been done in the Basingstoke store is to take light green overhead signs and apply single words, in white, to them. These are visible across the whole store and with two large aisles running from front to back, the routes to specific departments are
also clear.

Hubbard says this has been an exercise in avoiding visual pollution. Indeed, look up and it is obvious that stringent guidelines have been enforced. Unlike in the great majority of retail sheds there is no feeling of visual pollution, with the wayfinding signage left to do the job it is intended to do.

Elsewhere, other noteworthy features include the clinically merchandised paint department and the flooring and tiling area. Hubbard points to a number of new fixtures in the latter department, including “spinners”, which provide the curtain raiser to the area. These are a bit like an old-style revolving magazine rack but used instead to display mosaic tiles. Mosaic tiles are expensive items – which is why they have been given dedicated pieces of equipment and located at the front of the department. But it does add interest to what can be quite a mundane category.

The point perhaps about all of this is that there is nothing terribly remarkable about any of the changes that have been effected but, on the other hand, this does look much better than most other Homebase outlets. Hubbard and his team have taken the store revitalisation programme in-house and emerged through a process of gradual “evolution” with an interior that is as good as anything you will see in this part of the retail panorama.

The question has to be whether funds are available to take the good work that is evident in Basingstoke to the other stores across the Homebase estate.

Even allowing for elements of the makeover process having been value-engineered it is quite hard, in the current climate, and given this retailer’s performance, to see how this might
be done quickly.

Homebase, Basingstoke

Location edge of town

Size 56,000 sq ft

Design gradual evolution and done in-house

Key features visually merchandised furnishing department, simple wayfinding system