Family department store Bhs has had a rocky ride over the past couple of years, but a new store in Uxbridge points to a retail brand that may be about to enjoy better times.

There’s a lot riding on this one really. This is the sort of make or break move by a retailer that doesn’t happen very often and that will, in part at least, shape the fortunes of several others in the mid-market.

The store is Bhs in Uxbridge and at stake is its future. That context, or a version of it, is how you might view the makeover that this two-floor 27,000 sq ft store has received over the past few months, which finally came to fruition last week. And the reason this is so important is because this former high street stalwart has fallen on progressively harder times, culminating in the recent unveiling of a £62.1m loss for the 74 weeks to August 29, 2009, on sales of £1.1bn.

This would be bad enough at the best of times. But when it comes against a backdrop of a chain of stores that, in many locations, look as if they are a little slice of yesteryear, the importance of what has been done in Uxbridge cannot be overstated. Bhs may have been merged into the Arcadia group in 2009 and benefited from ‘insertions’, in the form of in-store implants from sister brands including Burton, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins, but it still looked and felt like, well, Bhs.

Bhs creative director Jacquie Gray, who joined the chain last year, puts the point succinctly. “I looked at this [Bhs] and said we have got to modernise completely,” she says. “It’s not a tickle. But what I wanted to do first was to get the architecture right. I didn’t want a big box, so that was the brief [to design company Dalziel + Pow].” A mandate for change, therefore, and the need to get things done in the face of a retail brand that has managed to garner largely negative associations, is what this store design is about.

And walking into Uxbridge’s Chimes shopping centre, a minute’s walk from the end of the Metropolitan line, in the distance the Bhs logo is highly visible. Except that this is not the logo of old, or any of the varieties that can be found marking different stages in the brand’s evolution. Instead, what are on view are three equally sized white capital letters standing proud of the shopfront. These are internally illuminated and set against a grey background, giving them an even louder shout than they might otherwise have.

Walk a little further and you are in front of a store that seems to bear little relation to any other Bhs. This is the store’s first floor, as the walkway into the centre takes you in this direction, and at 13,500 sq ft, it is the same size as the floor below.

Out with the old

And the overriding impression, if you didn’t know otherwise, would be that you are standing in front of a store that had come from the same design stable as perhaps a branch of Habitat. The whole of the storefront is in fact grey and the windows have been merchandised by Gray and her team in a manner that might be expected of a new John Lewis or a refurbished Marks & Spencer.

This is probably not an accident. “We wanted to do something completely different,” she says. “We know that John Lewis are modernising. They’ve spent a lot of money, so we knew we had to come up with something that would bring us up to date without scaring off our customers.”

Looking at the displays that have been created, there seems to be little danger of this, but they are so un-Bhs that the initial sense of unfamiliarity is reinforced.

The main event is the store, however, and the first thing that is likely to hit the shopper, is either Wallis or Miss Selfridge. Both of these are Arcadia Group ‘insertions’, as the corporate lingo has it, and given the heavy branding that has been afforded to each of them, you might be forgiven for wondering which shop you were looking at.

The Miss Selfridge shop-in-shop is a first for Bhs and Arcadia, according to Arcadia chief executive Ian Grabiner. “It’s probable that this may be a one-off and will be the only time that we do it,” he says. This may have something to do with the fact that this is actually the first time that Uxbridge has had a Miss Selfridge.

Miss Selfridge is to the left and Wallis to the right of the entrance. The space between the two is indeed Bhs merchandise, although you would be hard pushed to realise the fact if the signs on the store exterior were removed. But what is equally surprising is that the combination of slate-grey terrazzo tiling on the floor, a slick new lighting scheme and moody grey and white walls mean that all prejudice about the Bhs stock is more or less dispelled: everything looks good.

The first floor is solely womenswear and the grey interior with paprika “accent” colour, as Gray puts it, is used throughout.

The way forward

In-store navigation is simple as well and kept to a relative minimum, consisting of orange billboards with a bold white font, informing shoppers where they need to be.

It is also worth noting that there is very little sense of a square box about this store, in spite of the large footprint of each of the floors. Grey says that a lot of the store design and merchandising is about breaking the space down and creating circular areas. This is particularly evident in the lingerie shop at the back of the store, where a curved mid-shop wall is sophisticated by mid-market norms.

Downstairs, it’s menswear, kids, home and a cafe. Standing at the front once more and glancing to the left, the casual observer will encounter the Bhs Cafe - an area discrete from the rest of the shop and bearing the legend “Eat in or Take Away”.

This is another departure from Bhs norms as the cafes found across the chain are traditionally buried in slower-moving areas towards the rear or on a first floor. Grabiner makes the point that the cafe is a statement and puts the store in the forefront of activity in Uxbridge. It does, and the cafe’s clean, white, contemporary fit-out was attracting large numbers of customers on the day of visiting.

Menswear dominates across the rest of the floor and, as with upstairs, there is an insertion in the shape of a Burton concession. Display standards are clean and the new tubular steel mid-shop equipment that has been used throughout the store creates a clean and uncluttered feel.

Grabiner says that the Arcadia brands in this store represent 13% of the floor space, but that this has been done without compromising the linear running metres available for Bhs stock. “We’ve had to create space without losing space from Bhs,” he says, adding that this has been achieved by using triple hanging equipment and looking at perimeter displays.

At the back of the floor is Home, which bears close comparison to a new branch of Debenhams and where merchandise colours appear to have been restricted, meaning that colour blocking along the wall is highly effective.

All in all then, a radical departure for Bhs, but is it capable of being rolled out? Grabiner says that the cost of this store has been around £1.5m and that the format in its full form is likely to be taken to flagships and new stores. He says it will be a case of considering which elements will be appropriate to take across the rest of the chain, but that it is a matter of urgency.

“This is affordable. My objective is always to have store designs that can be rolled out,” he adds. “We have to invest in this business - there is no alternative.”

Whatever happens, this looks the best store in The Chimes and, providing the will really is there, we could be on the verge of seeing a Bhs renaissance.

Store facts

Size 27,000 sq ft

Number of floors Two

Design Dalziel + Pow

Bhs creative director Jacquie Gray

New in-store colour palette Grey and white with paprika highlights

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