US sports brand New Balance opened its first UK flagship last week on London’s Oxford Street.
Oxford Street is 1.2 miles long, and for those prepared to walk its length there are a lot of options as far as sportswear is concerned.
Starting at its western extremity there is an Asics flagship.
Head east and there’s an Adidas flagship, followed by Nike’s global leviathan in the shape of Niketown at Oxford Circus.
All of which would seem to indicate that if sports clothing is required, there is an ample supply on Oxford Street and competition will inevitably be fierce for any retailer considering entering the arena.
Yet last week US-based sportswear brand New Balance opened a three-floor 12,570 sq ft store more or less in the middle of Oxford Street – the kind of statement normally reserved for chains that wants to show off with a London flagship.
There are other standalone New Balance stores in the UK, but all of them are in outlet centres despite the brand having space in more than 500 retailers across the country.
This then is not only a flagship, but also the brand’s only high street store in the UK.
Making a statement
It would be hard not to notice the store from across the street, with its treble-height frontage that shows off the ground and first floors festooned with headless mannequins.
There is also a red perforated sheet, rising from floor to ceiling, that forms a backdrop for the racy-looking New Balance logo in bold white.
The windows are framed by neutral bronze-coloured metal frames and the large doors give onlookers views deep into the interior.
Standing on the threshold, the vista is generally a dark one, punctuated by a wall with digital projections running across it on the right-hand side.
The mid-shop features row after row of low plinths on which mannequins do sporty things.
The eye is taken to the back of the shop where a 3D rectangle is suspended from the ceiling.
When a shopper glances at the rear wall, there are displays of running shoes accompanied by the legend ‘Run’.
However there is a fair amount to get through before reaching this point, and a mix of screens and lightboxes are used to break up the journey.
This floor is about running and could be compared with Niketown and Asics.
Like in those stores, technology is used to help shoppers find their ideal running shoe.
A racetrack running from left to right across the middle of the shop is home to Stride ID – a device where the shopper steps onto a 3D scanner, learns about their foot and then finds “the shoe that is right for you”.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this perhaps, except the strong sense of having seen the same before, or at least something very similar, in stores along Oxford Street.
The same is true of a screen that looks like an outsize Android phone, above which the message ‘Join NB Race Club London’ is emblazoned.
It’s hard not to think of Nike+ Run Club, which has served the same function for a number of years.
There is also the matter of the in-store environment.
A lot of care has been taken with this one, with polished concrete panels used across all of the walls and a ceiling void that has been blacked out to ensure the main focus is the stock and displays.
The floor is also polished concrete and white lines have been painted onto it to foster the sense that the shopper is in an environment where running matters.
To the right, a metal and glass staircase takes shoppers up to women’s sportswear or down to a floor devoted to football boots and clothing.
The cash desk is on the left-hand side and the wall behind it features a graphic that looks like a tube map that has been turned into a running track.
The cash desk is small when the size of the floor is taken into consideration, but it did not seem overly troubled by shoppers on the day of visiting.
Worth noting too are the motivational messages that have been stencilled onto the walls around the shop, ranging from: ‘Shatter Expectations’ to ‘Always Evolving’.
A softened section
Upstairs, on the women’s floor, the mood is softened slightly by the use of wooden ceiling baffles and merchandise mats, making the concrete feel less stark.
At the back of the floor, wooden pallets are used to create display plinths and the lower ceiling means that this feels more like a shop than an industrial warehouse.
As on the ground floor, the bulk of the display action is the result of actively posed groups of mannequins, both in the mid-shop and around the perimeter.
The beautiful basement
And so to the basement, where football boots and training shoes are on offer.
Descending the staircase to this floor, two large floor-to-ceiling screens show football players accompanied by the messages ‘Game On’ and ‘Game Over’, sandwiching a display of boots intended for different playing surfaces.
The message about taking the business of playing football seriously is well made, as is the ‘Made in Britain’ graphic that uses a monochrome Union flag on the wall at the other end of the floor.
Steel pillars and more wooden pallets complete the floor design picture and, as with everywhere else in this shop, ceiling spotlights provide drama.
Although this is a basement level, at no point does it feel dark.
The football floor was overwhelmingly the busiest in the store and the large selection of training shoes on this level seemed to be finding favour with visitors.
A balanced view
There are therefore two questions to be asked about this store.
Does Oxford Street have room for another sportswear giant?
And, supposing that it does, has New Balance offered anything different from its rivals?
“Does Oxford Street have room for another sportswear giant?”
The answer to the first is maybe. Oxford Street is a long and surprisingly localised shopping thoroughfare and therefore there may well be space for a new arrival.
To the second however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that while this is a perfectly respectable iteration of a big sportswear shop with technology used to enhance the interior, New Balance may have to run a little faster if it is to get this store away from the blocks.
New Balance, Oxford Street
12,750 sq ft
Number of floors
New Balance headquarters