Ailing DIY retailer Focus is being reinvented by its management team. John Ryan visits the first new-look store in Wantage, with chief executive Bill Grimsey and brand director Richard Bird

Consult the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the meanings for focus is “the state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition”. Ironic, therefore, that the chain of DIY stores that uses the word as its name has been almost entirely devoid of this for some time.

That, according to Focus’s brand director Richard Bird, was the state of play when private equity company Cerberus acquired the ailing retailer for£1 last June. “It was a very distressed brand and we were given the opportunity to fix it,” he says. The former managing director of Wickes, with which Focus was fused until 2005, adds that Focus was suffering from a “loss of clarity”, “a loss of pace” and, just as importantly, “a loss of pride”.

That was the way things were until last year, when Bill Grimsey, the new chief executive, made the call to bring Bird into the fold and turn the retailer around. He also picked up the phone to Rob Gladwin and Gary West (both from the Wickes stable) and asked them to be chief operating officer and commercial director respectively. They accepted and, with the exception of a number of store closures when the Cerberus deal was done, the first fruits of the new team’s labours were on view at Wantage in Oxfordshire last week.

The choice of Wantage was not theirs, according to Grimsey, because this was a new-build store that was in the pipeline already. But what it did give the management team was the chance to do things differently and to show how Focus might be reinvented successfully.

Before any of this could be done, however, there was the little matter of deciding who the Focus customer is and what reasons he or she might have for visiting one of its stores. Bird commissioned interviews aimed at discovering who Focus customers are and the degree of disaffection with the brand. This exercise showed what was broadly understood already, that Focus was in trouble. “People were coming to us because it was closer than the competition,” says Bird. However, it also revealed three distinct types of shopper who were considered vital to the retailer’s well-being.

Ask a member of staff in a Focus store these days who Arthur and Margaret are (“green-fingered traditionalists”, apparently), or Lucy and Stewart, or Roger and Judith, and you’ll find they have been taught to use the names as visual shorthand for specific types of customer. This is fairly standard stuff, but it shows that Focus is at last doing what its name might imply is a given – knowing who its customers are.

Armed with this knowledge, Bird employed Paper Creative to work with him on a blueprint for a new store that would appeal to the Arthurs, Margarets, et al, of this world. Bird says that the one thing that the consultancy was told was not part of the scope of the brief was a logo change. He recounts how Paper Creative made a presentation and on the last slide a new logo was included. “Yellow on blue is done by Ikea and Kwik Fit and Halfords used to do it. It has connotations of cheapness,” he says.

 

At Wantage, the first thing a visitor sees is that the name is now emerald green on blue. This still looks loud, but it carries the advantage that there is no ready comparison with other retailers, particularly where negative associations might be made.

The other thing about the fascia of this 20,000 sq ft (1,860 sq m) store that the observant might pick up on is the photography of a bright yellow water sprinkler. This forms the basis of a graphic across the window-line but is not visible when you walk into the antechamber at the front of the shop. Clever stuff and Bird is the first to admit that he doesn’t know how it’s done, but says that it does mean that shoppers don’t have to look at the back of a poster when they enter the store.

Sense of space

Step beyond the uncluttered antechamber and you enter the store proper. The sense of space and being able to see from end to end of the shop is unusual for a DIY store. The normal model for stores in this sector is seemingly endless aisles of stock frequently with little, or no, logic to the flow between the different areas, other than a division between hard and soft-end DIY.

No such ambiguity in Wantage. Equipment heights have been, for the most part, kept relatively low, which means that the large blue navigational goalposts that have been erected to let shoppers know where things are are clearly visible. And what is clear is that this is a store dedicated to home improvement rather than the harder end of the DIY spectrum.

This is not entirely surprising when the store’s Wantage location is considered. Nearby is a large development of expensive-looking retirement flats and the demographic profile of this Oxfordshire town is likely to be nearer 65 than not. With this in mind, perhaps, the Wantage store has a large area at its heart that is dubbed “the arena”. This is the mid-shop space just inside the front door that stretches away into the interior and which is used for seasonal merchandise. At this time of year, this equates to garden furniture, swinging seats, wood tables and suchlike.

To the left of this are the painting and wallpaper areas, each designated by goalposts and, on the perimeter, big posters that have been provided by the brands that are on sale. West says that own-brand merchandise accounts for about 25 per cent of the offer found in Focus and that this is likely to reduce over time as there is a feeling that there is little value-add in Focus own-brand.

Whether this proves to be the case or not, the bright graphics that adorn each of the category departments go a long way towards making the store feel less of a shed and rather more of a shop.

Elsewhere in the store there are fitted kitchens and bathrooms, for the design conscious and, for the handyman, to the right of the arena is the power tools and widgets area. Even here, thought has been given to creating displays that do not look like a hire shop and to editing the range of implements that may be available so that only the essential elements are on display. Externally, there is a 5,000 sq ft (465 sq m) garden shop that Bird says follows standard Focus lines.

So is Wantage the potential saviour of the Focus brand? It would seem to depend largely on whether the money can be found to take the good looks of Wantage across the rest of the 180 store-strong chain. At roughly£36 per sq ft (390 per sq m), this is not an expensive fit-out, but in DIY terms neither is it cheap.

Cerberus, the ferocious three-headed dog that patrolled the underworld of Greek mythology, certainly enjoyed its pound of flesh. There is no reason to suppose that the private equity company that bears the same name will behave much differently, in commercial terms and making Wantage work quickly will be a priority. A brave time to be testing a new format, but there is much to admire about the way that Grimsey, Bird, West and Gladwin have gone about things.