Sutton is a fairly typical place on London’s southern fringes. If you didn’t know where you were, you probably wouldn’t bother to ask because it looks pretty much like Worcester Park, New Malden, North Cheam or almost any other of the faceless suburbs in this part of the world. Indeed, in many cases the only thing marking out one area from another is that it happens to have a different name.
One local feature, however, might capture the eye in Sutton: the local branch of B&Q. Driving past one of this retailer’s outposts would not normally be the cause of particular comment, but this is not a standard example of the UK’s largest DIY outfit. The store is, in fact, one of only a handful of two-floor B&Q branches and its 120,000 sq ft (11,150 sq m) selling area is divided equally between the store’s two levels.
It has also just come out of a 12-week,£4 million refurbishment – the store is the 38th of 150 B&Qs dotted around the country to receive a makeover as part of the retailer’s five-year plan to update its store portfolio. There is nothing very remarkable about being 38th but, as divisional project manager Grant Brody points out, it represents the latest thinking for B&Q and although the revamp programme has been going for a couple of years, format evolution has been ongoing throughout the period.
Brody says: “Somebody asked me the other day ‘Who’s your competitor – is it Homebase or is it Wickes?’ The truth is, it is Homebase and it is Wickes, but it’s also MFI, it’s Ikea. There’s 17 shops in this store now, not one big store.”
Translated, this means that the first floor is devoted to what those in the business call “home enhancement” or soft(er)-end DIY and the lower level is home to hard-end stock and building materials. Riding the travelator that connects the two floors, therefore, is almost like exiting one store and entering another.
Downstairs, although there is evidence of improved visual merchandising and beefed-up displays, the vista will be familiar to almost anyone who has visited a B&Q Warehouse over the years. High racking, aisles full of electrical switches, power tools or just plain timber, for instance, contribute to the sense that you have arrived in a large shed where all the elements needed to complete a pretty major building task will be on hand.
There are, of course, differences. Subtler signage using a white, no-nonsense font set against a light grey background, a wall of power tools that acts as a brightly coloured ad for the category and a wooden door shop all stand as examples of the B&Q store design department at work. But, to all intents and purposes, this still looks like traditional B&Q land.
Head upstairs and things are different. Brody, dressed in the uniform B&Q orange apron with his Christian name on the front (he had just arrived from Edinburgh to conduct the store tour and was adamant that he had not worn it on the flight) kicks things off by pointing out the range of hothouse plants that are placed just inside the upper level entrance from the car park.
“We are getting more sales out of less space, just by putting the plants in the right place,” he says. He compares what has been done here with the darker environs of the nearby Croydon store, where the plants are kept in a separate hothouse area nowhere near the entrance.
Move beyond this and the first department encountered is lighting. This generates about 8 per cent of the store’s turnover and is given an equivalent amount of floorspace, according to store manager Ian Leontiou. What makes it different is that it has been placed next to the large road-facing store windows, providing an illuminated panorama for passing motorists in the early evening.
Brody says that every light that is stocked is on display and where previously each of the racks on which they are shown had a neutral backdrop, this has been changed to black to provide dramatic contrast. At the end of each run of racking a display has been installed that faces outwards, meaning that the only people who are likely to look at them are motorists, because of the store’s orientation. If nothing else, this provides a contrast from the normal slab-sided approach that characterises most shed-style retail stores.
B&Q has also done the obvious and located the lightbulbs next to the lights. Brody says that while this may sound like common sense, there was a fair degree of separation between the two product types before the refurbishment .
The racking itself is also new. In place of the utilitarian gunmetal grey found in old-style B&Qs, the racking is cream. Brody says this is part of the retailer’s aim to soften the look of the store and that the equipment is new. While this may sound a trifle wasteful, it emerges that much of the existing grey equipment has been moved downstairs into the harder-end environment.
However, the main focus on this floor is likely to be the various shops that act almost as standalone bathroom, kitchen or tile showrooms, among others. Brody is bullish about what has been done. “You see this?” he asks in the kitchen shop. “What does it remind you of? MFI. It’s almost as if we’d taken what MFI does, but better, and put it into a store.”
The area is certainly large and, like all of the shops, has been fully merchandised to give shoppers a complete picture of what things might look like if they choose to go the whole hog in-store and buy a B&Q kitchen. All of the elements that form the roomsets, from tiling to fabrics, have been gathered from elsewhere in the store, creating a series of “vignettes”, as Brody refers to them. Even the flooring comes from the in-store flooring shop and is used as a device to differentiate specific in-store shops.
There are service areas in each of the in-store shops. Brody says staff are being trained to offer expertise in that area and, while he admits this is an ongoing task, the aim is that shoppers should be able to walk into one of these departments and get informed advice.
And departments are very much what this floor seems to be about. It’s almost like walking around the home floor of a department store rather than a suburban retail shed.
But has all of this improved sales? Brody says that refurbished stores perform, on average, 13 per cent better than old-style B&Qs, which means that, allowing for the fact that the Sutton branch’s turnover is “around£30 million”, according to Leontiou, the route to a return on investment looks reasonably rapid.
Sutton also represents a considerable move away from the life-styled store that was unveiled at Luton in April 2006. Brody says that things were taken too far in creating a softer interior in that branch. For the meantime, therefore, until the next refurbishment is crossed off the rolling project list, Sutton is as good as it gets for B&Q and local competitors, of whatever hue, will be taking a look.
The chief executive’s view
Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire seems pleased with the direction that things have taken during the refurbishment programme. “I think there’s more to come. We’re very happy with the revamp performance,” he says.
He adds that yields in refurbished stores average about£200 per sq ft, against£160 for stores that have not had the treatment. For Cheshire, the five-year revamp programme is like painting the Forth Bridge and, when completed, further capital expenditure on a rolling basis is on the cards.