EAT and Starbucks are changing their games to remain relevant to the high street. John Ryan visits new stores in both chains to assess the progress so far.

What happens when you take a very large retailer and try to make its store environments suit a specific, local population? And what happens if a much smaller retailer is trying to make its appeal more relevant? For the answer to these questions, look no further than Starbucks and EAT.

The former is a global behemoth with more than 750 ‘stores’ in the UK alone, while the latter has 117 in this country.

Yet both are vying for a slice of the same cake – the food and beverage to go and to stay in market. The essential difference is that one is posited upon different ways to sell coffee with associated eats, while the other is, at its most basic, about shifting upscale sandwiches with associated drinks. Both have extensive pastry confections and both have launched new looks in their stores during the course of this year.

And yet the pair bear close comparison for the end that they have in sight – keeping their stores relevant for UK consumers and adapting their interiors to make them appropriate for changing shopper habits.




Since being established in 1996, private equity-backed EAT has become a food retailing business with a turnover of about £100m. Founder and chief executive Niall MacArthur says plans are in place to open a further 100 doors over the next three to five years. This, therefore, sounds like a positive and cash generative business but, having been around since 1996, inevitably means a mixed store portfolio.

Now that has changed and since November 22, the future path for EAT has been made clear with a new concept store on The Strand, in London. “We’re a big company now and this is the next step. This store is brighter and fresher and it’s about putting food at the centre of the business,” says MacArthur.

This means different graphics, the installation of flatscreen monitors above the serving counter and a change of branding. The redesign is predominantly the work of architectural consultancy Stiff and Trevillion, which has worked with artist Joel Penckman, who has produced the hand-painted illustrations that are found around the shop.

There is also a change of colour palette with lighter wood and small Roman terrazzo tiling covering the floor. Most of all though, the lighting is brighter and the sense of a more modern environment is apparent. The store on The Strand cost £500,000 to put together. And perhaps the most important thing about it is that it is scalable – meaning that MacArthur’s ambitions should be possible to realise. What has been done in The Strand is a modular approach and while it is not a case of one size fits all, it is certainly close to it. It’s a matter of getting things ready for roll-out.




The brand whose ubiquity is frequently used as a stick with which to beat it by those protesting against big corporate organisations has been through the roll-out mill and has come out the other side. Now the focus is on creating stores that function as destinations by making them relevant to their location.

The process started earlier this year in London’s Vigo Street, when an interior was created that was supposed to remind the onlooker of a London townhouse. Since then the “learnings”, as design director Thom Breslin puts it, have swung into action and 10 London stores had makeovers during the latter part of 2011.

The learnings he refers to are in fact to be found relatively close to the Vigo Street store at Harewood Place, where the store has been open just a couple of months. Here the emphasis is on the ‘journey’, for which read ‘the route taken by the customer to a cup of coffee and a cake’, as well as the phenomenon of ‘putting the food on the wall’. The latter part of the equation involves putting drinks, coffee and some ambient foods on open-fronted wardrobes attached to the perimeter wall closest to the tills. And between the wall and the tills, there is a long, skinny, mid-shop table that means when a queue forms, it snakes around it, allowing time for additional merchandising opportunities.

More than this, however, is the sense that this may be an outpost of a very large US corporation, but it does feel a lot more English than what you normally expect of the brand.  

Two approaches

EAT is ready to become a much bigger company and has put the pieces in place for this to be made a reality. Starbucks, by contrast, is a corporate behemoth and one that needs to trim some of the design accretion that tends to accompany big roll-outs.

There are a lot of people who complain that big chains, and food and coffee chains in particular, make the high street a bland and anodyne place. Starbucks and EAT are taking steps to avoid this.