The retailer with a monochrome vision returns to its SW3 roots with a flagship store aimed at providing everyday luxury, writes John Ryan
Here’s an idea. Why not create a store that, broadly, sells clothing and homewares that are pretty close to being white and make sure that even if pink proves to be the biggest thing since, well, sliced white bread, it won’t find its way onto the shelves? As retail proposals go this one would be unlikely to find favour with the majority of seasoned retailers, who might opine that a strategy of this kind was a fairly short route to the offices of an insolvency consultancy.
Yet 15 years ago, this was the thinking that underpinned the foundation of The White Company, a retailer whose premise is mono or occasionally bi- or tri-tonal collections. From the outset, it’s a principle that has been stuck to and by the end of 2010 The White Company will be a 36-store strong chain, stretching from Scotland to the south coast. And until the beginning of September what characterised the brand was the relatively modest footprint of its stores. 3,000 sq ft was about as big as it got and there was a division between the adult homewares and clothing, and the children’s collection, with the latter being sold from separate units trading under ‘The Little White Company’ banner.
Now that has changed and for those in search of the total experience, the best place to visit is the retailer’s spanking new 7,000 sq ft ‘lifestyle’ store on Symons Street, just off Sloane Square and tucked behind Peter Jones. And in a way, this is a coming of age for the brand. The notion that this is a ‘new’ store is in fact a little misleading. Symons Street is where The White Company had its first store and as the doors opened at 10.00am on September 3, ladies who lunch sailed into the new, enlarged store (The Little White Company branch, just around the corner, had been closed and the range moved into the Symons Street store).
By 10.10am, the first of these was exiting, beautifully coiffed and with a member of staff trailing her carrying a few White Company bags as she attempted to hail a taxi. Not bad for a retailer that prides itself on offering “everyday luxury”, according to retail director Gary Temprell. “We’re not about high days and holidays,” adds Mark Winstanley, creative and product development director at the retailer.
Maybe so, but this could easily be described as the top end of the high street in terms of pricing and for the first customers in the door this was the chance to have a look at all 2,000 SKUs under a single roof. It is also an opportunity to see visual merchandising of a quality rarely seen in homewares, with a real whiff of design, without actually being ‘designer’.
A touch of heaven
Stand outside the rear of Peter Jones and look across the street. You can’t miss The White Company, owing to its main monochrome window - in which a kind of origami waterfall, formed of white paper, sets the tone for what you are about to look at. Now cross the threshold and the view is long and deep.
The store layout works by putting clothing - women only I’m afraid gentlemen in roughly the first third of the store - followed by homewares and then The Little White Company offer in a semi-discrete room at the back of the shop. Temprell says that the logic for stocking women’s and not men’s clothing is simple: “Most of our customers are women. Men tend to come in, sit sheepishly on the sofa clutching a credit card nervously.”
And the reality is that for male visitors there are plenty of places to perch as beyond the initial clothing area, there are plush sofas and roomsets to inspect, including bathroom and homewares. And it is perhaps the homewares and bathroom area that forms the heart of this shop. Here, there are five beds, which have all been beautifully merchandised (in a normal branch there would be just one), and there are lit tea-light style candles everywhere.
Temprell says that the bulk of the mid-shop merchandising equipment was developed for The White Company about two years ago by London design consultancy Brinkworth. He says, however, that the look and feel of this store is the outcome of work by the in-house team working with architectural practice DNA.
This is probably a good thing as the challenge of this store is its geography. Temprell points out that during the nine months it’s taken to bring the new store to fruition, the team has had to contend with a space that has 13 different ceiling heights: “It’s been an absolute nightmare,” as he puts it. This is largely because the store is an amalgamation of five different retail units and more or less everywhere you look there are ramps. These, however, do not interrupt the flow of the store and the waxed white oak floorboards are as much part of the ramps as they are of the rest of the shop.
At the back of the shop, on the left-hand side, there’s a bathroom area in which a functional Victorian-style bath and sink allow shoppers to test-drive the merchandise.
To the right of this is a large room that houses the kid’s range, The Little White Company. Looking at the stock, this might more accurately be termed The Little White, Red and Navy Blue Company as these colours are used throughout, although the backdrop is, of course, white. The choice of colour and jaunty visual merchandising gives this part of the store a French seaside ambience and helps to make the point that the kid’s ranges are not shrunken adult stylings.
Temprell says: “We will take elements of what we have done here to our other store refits. But in the average 2,500 sq ft store we’ll continue to offer the highly edited version.” For Covent Garden shoppers, a store will open in that location later this year, this will mean that the strings of crystals, used to form two feature lights at the front of the Symons Street store, will be part of the blueprint, but this will prove the exception.
Meanwhile, The White Company has a true flagship in SW3, a postcode that yields the highest per sq ft sales of any of the retailer’s stores. Ladies who lunch, and even those who don’t, will be pleased. This, along with Peter Jones, is a non-designer bolt-hole, in an area where luxury and high price are the norm: a store where everyday luxury seems assured.
The White Company
4 Symons Street, SW3
- Selling area 7,000 sq ft
- Range 2,000 SKUs - the retailer’s entire offer
- Equipment design Brinkworth
- Store design and layout In-house and DNA
- Shopfit Task
- Most arresting feature The visual merchandising
- Project time Nine months