EuroShop took place last week and the faithful flocked to examine the new, the eccentric and the must-haves. John Ryan went along for a nose around

Sore feet, a few sore heads and the feeling that something had been achieved – that seemed to be the experience of most visitors and exhibitors at last week’s EuroShop, the German retail fest in Düsseldorf.

With the sting of John Lewis’s announcement that the prior week had been “the toughest in living memory” still ringing in their ears, the 100,000 sq m fair, roughly the size of six large Ikeas combined, came as a welcome break from trading reality.

Here, under a number of large roofs, was everything that anyone working in retailing anywhere in the world could expect to encounter, as well as a good few novelties. It also offered the chance to get up close and personal with suppliers and other retail organisations that most people, even in these well-travelled times, would otherwise have little chance of meeting.

But was it worth it? And what were the highlights?A quick whirl around Hall 12’s Designer Village, a space where consultancies from across Europe were hoping to attract new customers, provided an initial answer. Mick Kent, director at the eponymous Kinnersley Kent Design in London, commented: “Unlike a show that we went to in Dubai, the people we’ve met here have been serious.”

He added that for “first-timers” the sheer scale of the fair can be daunting. There is a sense that, if you are not careful, you can emerge a little “punch-drunk”, having seen much but understood little or nothing at all. “You do have to be quite focused,” he said.

A similar view was taken by Gay Briggs, managing director of visual merchandising equipment company Rare Basic, who was encouraging visitors to consider Lithuanian shopfitting and mannequin production. Listing Next, Marks & Spencer, Reiss and French Connection, Briggs said: “We’ve got a lot of UK retailers coming over.”

Sarup Chowdhary, chief executive of Indian digital entertainment, information and mobile phone retailer Reliance World, seemed pleasantly surprised. “I came here to look at the digital stuff,” he said. “Actually, it’s much better and bigger than I thought it would be. This is much more worthwhile than some of the shows that I have been to in the US.”

Tomorrow’s world

Those retailers from the UK who chose to take the short hop across Europe to northwest Germany found plenty there to occupy them. Among the many curiosities, one of the more interesting was the robot on the EHI stand, which bore an uncanny resemblance to a machine viewed by many in the 1960s cult sci-fi spoof Space Family Robinson.

Even if you are not of an age to remember this, the sight of a wheeled robot, which has a touchscreen that you can call up all of the products in a DIY store on, and which will then lead you to the appropriate article, must have been engaging. It is apparently in use by a German DIY retailer. Whether it is cheaper than a clued-up member of staff, who is equally able to tell you that the product you want is in aisle 12 and lead you there, is clearly a moot point.

Less trivial but rather more mundane was a hall full of refrigeration equipment and much of the most expensive equipment was being pored over by supermarket design groups.

If it was a chiller display that could be made to order, wrapped around a pillar or produced in the form of a wave you were after, this was the place to see it. Of particular note was a product that puffed low-temperature clouds across open-fronted displays of fresh food. The theory goes that this gets rid of the need to have heavily chilled cabinets and the micro droplets of water vapour keep the produce looking attractive. The French manufacturer insisted it is in use by large food retailers in France, including E Leclerc and Intermarché. But the technology has yet to find its way over to this side of the Channel.

By far the biggest crowds, however, were to be found in the halls containing the output of the large shopfitting manufacturing systems, as well as the areas set aside for visual merchandising.

Judging by the crowds that were gathering on almost every stand in these areas, there is, in spite of the much-reported slowdown in sales figures across the retail spectrum, little sign of a let-up in pace among shopfitters. This also seemed to be the prevailing ethos among exhibitors. All of the large shopfitting equipment companies – Umdasch, Alu and Vizona among them – were reporting healthy conditions.

But perhaps the words of Denny Gerdeman, director at Ohio design consultancy Chute Gerdeman, go some way towards explaining this apparent anomaly. “In the US, it’s a real estate thing. There are still new shops and developments in the pipeline and it’s keeping the whole thing going,” he said.

The comment could equally apply to any of the major European economies. It should also be coupled with what David Dalziel, creative director at Dalziel + Pow and exhibiting at the show, had to say. “The best retailers keep design as part of what they do in any recession. Look at River Island, which went from being Chelsea Girl to River Island. Whenever there’s been a downturn, they’ve just kept improving their shops.” Viewed this way, it is perhaps little surprise that retailers seem to be continuing with their store development programmes.

A lot to learn

Among the Brits at the show, there were a significant number of EuroShop virgins. National Association of Shopfitters director Robert Hudson said: “We’re here because we have to recognise that there is more to shopfitting than what we find in the UK.” He added that his visit had been worthwhile purely as a learning exercise and that EuroShop gave retailers the opportunity to view concepts that haven’t yet been seen in this country.

As at most shows of this kind, the lighting halls were filled with innovation and, alongside a stand dedicated to turning plastic bottles into shopping trolleys, there were eco initiatives visible on most stands. Philips devoted an entire area to the green cause, extolling the benefits of using less energy by installing, er, Philips luminaires and LED lightings.

It was Halls 3 and 4 that really turned heads, though. These were the zones that had been reserved for what might best be described as “mannequin world”. Large European mannequin manufacturers, including La Rosa, Hindsgaul and Dattenberg, had come from across the continent to show their wares and, for many, the lesson seemed to be that more is less.

Indeed, a number of stands featured lifelike mannequins wearing little more than bondage gear and positioned in what might be seen as an advanced state of relaxation. Many retailers seemed more than a little bemused, although almost all had made the journey around these halls.

As the faithful headed back and studied their expense claims, the question that will have been running through many heads is: Was it all worthwhile? The answer would seem to be a qualified yes, with groups including Sainsbury’s holding impromptu on-stand meetings, where they looked at new store plans before considering what was on offer.

Even if nothing appropriate was found, EuroShop will have saved many months of legwork. As a triennial event, this remains one of the few must-visit fixtures on the store-equipment and retail design calendar.