Making the most of your shop with limited space is never easy, but it can be done. John Ryan visits two strong new examples.

Making a small retail space work should be easy for no better reason than that there isn’t much surface area to deal with. On this basis, you would think that small shops would tend to be better than big shops in terms of their retail environments and that our high streets would be filled with perfectly evolved stores where the total footprint was, say, less than 1,615 sq ft (150 sq m).

However, experience says that this is rarely the case and that a good-looking small shop will, more often than not, be one where high ticket prices are required to offset the costs of creating an engaging interior.

Larger stores have the chance to be expansive in how they display their offer. This means that while they need to create impact, not everything has to be crammed in to the same degree. More space means more options with pricing. And achieving economies of scale is more straightforward in a large space than in a smaller one.

There are, however, exceptions to these sweeping generalisations and over the past couple of weeks, two shops with very modest footprints have shown that small really can still mean beautiful.

Thorntons, Kingston upon Thames

Confectionery retailer Thorntons has always worked on the principle of having small outlets, primarily because of the size of the products that it sells. This is a retailer that has been a high street fixture for years, as much a part of the average town’s retail fabric as a branch of WHSmith or Boots; just a lot smaller.

Its stores have also remained steadfastly the same for as long as you might care to remember – a fact that has left many of them looking a little tired and somewhat outdated when compared with the slick delivery that characterises operators such as Hotel Chocolat or the newer Montezuma’s.

Time for a change, therefore, and Thorntons called on Kew-based design consultancy Caulder Moore to create a new look for the chain that would be capable of being rolled out and give the brand greater standout on the high street. Caulder Moore creative director Ian Caulder says that the brief was simple. “We were asked to help restore the Thorntons brand promise,” he says.

This might sound simple but it is difficult to achieve, because it involves a retailer having to pinpoint exactly what its brand promise is and then communicating this to the design team charged with making the promise a reality. In this instance, the store that was chosen to receive a makeover, in Kingston, was not big – about 485 sq ft (45 sq m) – and was badly in need of a facelift.

The outcome is a store that has the name Thorntons over the door but which is completely different from what those familiar with the retailer’s offer will be used to. Externally, the fascia colour scheme has changed, with strawberry-red being used on the lower part of the fascia and white on the upper half. The Thorntons font has been retained, but when set against a white background, the brown lettering on the bus-stop style sign that stands proud of the shopfront assumes an altogether more upscale aspect.

In spite of the diminutive size of many Thorntons stores, it is often difficult to see into a branch because of the profusion of things that are placed in the window. In Kingston, a combination of deft in-store lighting and a complete overhaul of the internal colour palette mean that shoppers can stare deep into the shop.

Step inside and a number of features stand out. On the left-hand side is a chocolate waterfall. It takes 6kg of melted chocolate to get it going, apparently, and it draws the eye towards the counter with its offer of bespoke confectionery services.

The chocolate waterfall’s shape is mirrored by the shape of the counter and the visual merchandising inside its curved glass front. With entry-level individual chocolates waiting to be boxed and gift-wrapped, on the lowest tier, the well-heeled may be tempted to splash out and graduate up the ziggurat-style arrangement to the indulgent offer on the top shelf. There is something of a mittel-Europ, Viennese feel about this way of presenting the merchandise and although the ranges are the same as in other Thorntons stores, there is the impression of more being available.
Caulder says that consumers become so used to buying specific items in a small shop that it is easy to overlook what is on offer. There is no such danger in this store and it is hard not to be persuaded to part with a modest sum and leave bearing sweeties. As on the outside of the shop, the lower part of the service counter is bright red. White open-fronted cupboards form the perimeter wall behind it.

The same is true of the long wall that forms the right-hand side of the shop. This is used to segment the offer, with exhortations at the top of each bay bearing messages such as “To share”, “To treat”, “To gift”.

At the back of the shop, a translucent panel backed by coloured lights that change constantly provides a showpiece that takes the eye from the shop’s front to its rear.

This is a store where the keyword has to be maximalism. Every possible space has been used and although the shop design and fit-out are striking, they still allow the merchandise to do what it should do in a good choc shop: provide temptation.

Charles Tyrwhitt

Making the most of limited space is a talent that shirt retailer Charles Tyrwhitt has in common with Thorntons. It opened a store in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade shopping centre last week, incorporating all that a small store has to be to make a big noise.

The 1,290 sq ft (120 sq m) shop is the first instance of the roll-out of a format that the retailer has been working on in its London stores. This means that the value engineering of the format, carried out for Charles Tyrwhitt by London-based consultancy Ink Associates, has taken place already and a modular approach has been adopted.

In practice, this means that although the shop looks as if it has been filled with expensive and unsustainable mahogany cabinets and perimeter fixturing, it is in fact the product of staining wood to give this appearance and lighting it in a manner that is redolent of a posh gentleman’s club.
As in the Thorntons store, the back of the shop is lifted by artful visual merchandising. Here, it is dotty red and sky blue socks that stand out from the sober wardrobe shelves on which they are displayed. Again, this is about ensuring that all of the stock gets noticed, even if you’ve come into the store for a plain white cotton shirt.

Equally, like Thorntons, the offer – in this instance shirts – has been subdivided by category, with bays devoted to slim-fits on the left-hand side of the shop and classic fits on the other, The signage is there as well, used as a navigational aid, but is kept low-key so it does not distract from the stock.

The same is true of the colour scheme overall. Brown wood, off-white walls and white light give the store a neutral aspect. This may be a different strategy from Thorntons, but the buying occasion is also different and the purchase is inevitably going to be more considered, so a quieter environment is appropriate.

John Ryan’s verdict

What both Thorntons and Charles Tyrwhitt manage to offer is a retail space where the store is perfectly in tune with the stock that is being sold from it. And this is probably the secret of making a small shop work harder as a retail proposition. As Steve Kenyon, director at Charles Tyrwhitt’s design consultancy Ink Associates, puts it: “Take a simple design, provide a bit of sparkle and use the merchandising to bring the colour in.” This may sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but it’s surprising how often store design is allowed to take precedence over the product that is being offered on the shelves. Equally, crowding the fixtures is never an answer to dealing with range in a small shop. But then neither is emptying them and allowing the internal landscape of a modestly sized space to dominate. It’s a tricky business and achieving a balance is rarely straightforward.

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