It’s Sale time and the race is on to clear old stock. John Ryan takes a walk around the Westfield Derby centre with Karl McKeever to see how persuasive retailers’ strategies are
We’re well into January and, by now, the majority of retailers should be tucking their markdowns into a discreet corner as new-season merchandise begins to fill the stores. But, as trading statements continue to filter through, it is apparent that the Christmas and January Sale period has been pretty atypical, in comparison with recent years at least.
On a practical level, slower sales mean more merchandise to clear. Therefore, a visit to any shopping centre should reveal bargains galore and retailers falling over themselves to offer new and tempting reasons for shoppers to keep on digging deep – even if they didn’t spend quite as much as retailers hoped during December and the earlier part of this month.
The recently opened Westfield shopping centre in the heart of Derby is huge and most of the shops there have opted to install their newest formats and latest shopfits. And, with just about every mainstream high street retailer present, it provides a good snapshot of the balance between reductions and new-season stock that retailers are striking.
A walk around the centre with Visual Thinking creative director Karl McKeever reveals many positives in the way retailers are dealing with unfamiliar trading patterns, as well as a fair few negatives.
McKeever has mixed feelings about the scheme itself. “It’s like somebody’s put Hollywood in the middle of the city,” he says. “It’s part of that new generation of shopping centres that are all about light and space. In general, I’m not really a fan of this kind of thing, but you do get the best of what retailers have. The point is, you could be in Dubai rather than Derby. It’s not that it’s bad, but you could be anywhere.”
“How scrappy does this look compared with Topshop?” asks McKeever. “There are so many messages in the window and, the fact of the matter is, you don’t have to try that hard. This is all a bit of a muddle.”
There is little mistaking the fact that River Island is on Sale, but the row of mannequins in the window dressed in red Sale t-shirts clashes with the “Trousers from£8”, “Bottoms from£7” and “Jackets from£10” notices on the glassline – all in bright cerise. Above this is a green banner advertising a half-price Sale and, finally, a turquoise banner announces that fact that River Island has “further reductions”.
Ultimately, it all looks like rather too much effort to bother entering the store.
The multi-level branch of Debenhams forms one of the anchors for the centre and much of it is an exercise in creating a black and white interior.
McKeever questions the store’s novelty value. “What’s dramatically new about this?” he asks. “In the early 1980s, Debenhams went for wood in stores, then moved on to gold and marble. Now it’s black and white, but it’s essentially the same kit of parts – mats with merchandise – as it was then.
“A problem for Debenhams is that it is a house of brands, which makes it hard to deliver a Debenhams point of view. But a company of this size should be prepared to stick its neck out and make a statement.”
For the second week of the Sale, there is remarkably little reduced stock on offer and what there is has been relegated to secondary positions on each floor. McKeever says: “They are the originators of the Blue Cross Sale, but it is all pretty invisible. It’s certainly not the biggest message.”
He is also critical of the in-store visual merchandising execution – particularly the Maine brand display, where shoes for the male mannequins appear to have been forgotten and plastic palms border the scene. But perhaps the most significant criticism is reserved for the beds in the homewares department. Each of these bears a sign stating: “Please do not sit on the bed.” As McKeever observes: “This is the killer statement. The message should be: ‘Please sit on the bed if you want to’’.”
McKeever points out the strapline on the window: “2008 starts here. Prepare to be captivated Next Christmas.” He says: “They don’t help themselves with this. It’s a long wait until Christmas.”
He is impressed by the general appearance in the store, but critical of the anonymity. “It looks a bit like River Island or Zara. They need to put some of their own hallmarks on it,” he says.
McKeever also notices that, in the children’s department, none of the mannequins have been dressed. Impressively, however, the Sale appears to be well under control, with few traces of reduced merchandise.
As part of the Inditex group, Bershka brings a little Continental flair to the business of shifting markdowns with a simple message in the window and no confusion involving prices or percentages. “It’s very much on brand and it’s got that youthful feel about it,” says McKeever. “I like that there are round price points for the reductions and it’s well laid-out.”
But perhaps signs above reduced shoes that state “shoes”, a pattern that was repeated across all merchandise categories, might lay Bershka open to the accusation of stating the obvious.
As in so many shopping centres, Zara, the mainstay of Inditex, is next door to Bershka and comparisons between the two are inevitable. Zara has used the same window treatment at Sale time for several seasons and McKeever regards this as a positive. “It acts as a beacon, something that shoppers can recognise and will readily associate with Zara,” he says.
With their offer of an “Up to 50% off” Sale, the Zara windows do not make the retailer a front-runner in terms of levels of reductions, but there is little mistaking the point being made.
“This is what a Sale should look like,” says McKeever. “Simple racks priced and brought to the front create a strong Sale presence. It’s punchy. Although there is a time for subtle [he glances over his shoulder at the very tasteful All Saints Sale window], it’s not the Sale.
“The only surprise is that the identity in the windows, in terms of the font and colours that have been used, is totally different to what is in the store. What is good about it, however, is that everything is clear and unambiguous.”
“Absolutely bang on. This is what a Sale should look like. It’s clean, it’s consistent, it’s expertly installed and it’s precise. And, surprisingly, it’s Dorothy Perkins,” says McKeever.
It is hard to temper his enthusiasm for this bastion of mid-market fashion retailing. The Sale scheme is simple, with the added advantage that it can be created quickly without recourse to high levels of visual merchandising expertise.
The Monsoon Sale is like nothing else in the centre. Priced rails of merchandise dominate the front, middle and back of the store, with no quarter being given for full-price stock.
“They’re definitely going for it,” says McKeever. “It does look a little bit panicky though.” Bearing in mind that Monsoon is in the throes of changing hands, it may be that this represents a fresh start. If this is the case, it seems there is a lot of work to be done.