A new look store from the archetypal edge-of-town shed retailer is a surprise, but will it work? John Ryan visits Matalan in High Wycombe

Put the words shed and value together in a retail context and the picture conjured up is unlikely to be a pretty one. For most people, a store that offers inexpensive merchandise means a no-frills environment where the lighting will be basic and the palette of materials very limited.

The same, to an extent, is probably true of any edge-of-town retail proposition. This form of retailing involves the triumph of utility over any thoughts of a well-designed interior - you just don’t go there for an experience. And driving away from High Wycombe’s Eden shopping centre towards the new Matalan that sits on a bluff overlooking the town centre this indeed seems to be the case - but it’s a suspicion that is confounded when you enter the store.

It’s a Wednesday morning, it’s before 10am and the large car park to the left of the store is almost full. This is not the traditional edge-of-town modus operandi, where things don’t usually seem to get going until close to midday.

Store of the future

But this is not a traditional edge-of-town unit. In its previous life, it was a Focus store and given that, you’d perhaps expect a slab-sided unit with a logo attached. Instead, the front elevation of this 30,000 sq ft shed has large amounts of glass framed by a red goalpost that also contains the redMatalan logo, which is set against a white background.

The store has been designed by consultancy Checkland Kindleysides, and creative director Andy Turnbull says what is on view in High Wycombe is simple. “Matalan wanted a store of the future. When we went to them it was pretty obvious that it really knew its stuff but when you look at some of its stores, they weren’t really a write-home experience.”

Driving towards the store, until you finally arrive in the car park the same charge might be levied against this branch. As Charlotte Neugebauer, area visual merchandising manager, notes: “You don’t see the [shop] windows when you’re driving up from the town.” This is in fact the outcome of the building’s orientation.

Turnbull points out that the retailer’s building-high windows, filled with partywear, are in the same position as the original entrance to Focus - but the entrance and associated windows have been enlarged and made more dramatic.

Getting the store exterior to this stage was a process of negotiation for Turnbull, Matalan director of store development and visual merchandising Gill Moore, and the retailer’s main board. Turnbull says: “If you’re a hard-nosed retailer like Matalan, it’s a struggle to prove that a little bit of cladding on the outside of a building can make a difference.” It does make a difference, however, and the point about this shed is that for shoppers stood in front of it, it doesn’t feel overly shed-like and all evidence of the former tenant has been expunged.

Superior interior

Stand just inside the entrance and this feels even less like a Matalan. In place of the usual aisles formed by high fixtures that prevent you seeing across the space, in High Wycombe you are presented with a fan-like arrangement. The base of the fan is the main door with brand or category mats, rather than aisles, fanning out from this. In effect, you are in a position to see most of what’s on offer across the whole of the store. It’s a simple, but effective device.

Turnbull says the aim was “to be a little bit more engaging and to provide a bit more of an experience”, and it’s easy to see what he means. “Every value retailer talks about their quality and to a certain extent you think that this is because they want to distract from the way the store looks,” says Turnbull. He continues: “Part of the aim of this store is to appeal to a broader set of customers.”

And what is on view looks much more open than you might normally expect in a store of this kind. This layout would usually mean lower density on the sales floor. However, Turnbull comments: “We did a deal that said there would be no loss of density on the sales floor with anything we did. So we spent a lot of time planning and adding up [running metres]. We also did the design thing of making a beautiful model, which helped us to sell things.”

Show me the way

This kind of store design work comes hedged with many qualifications and Turnbull says the plans were worked on, reworked, torn up and then worked on anew, prior to a proposal that would suit all of the interested parties.

Moore says one of the things found from the research prior to starting on project High Wycombe was that navigation “came out strongly with our customers as one of our strengths”. From a practical perspective, it means that instead of signage and clusters of mannequins around a store, this branch has “catwalks” that show shoppers where they need to be.

Positioned once more at the store entrance, this strategy is obvious.

A mannequin-filled central catwalk takes the eye directly to the back of the shop, where there is a distinctly Kurt Geiger-esque mirrored cube with shoes on it and a giant court shoe installed above this.

The normal line of thinking in an instance of this kind would be that a raised catwalk bearing mannequins would equate to loss of selling space and that if repeated across a store, the result could be something that would look good, but which might be a tad uncommercial. Moore, however, points out that the in-store “kit” has been redesigned so that there are about 20% more options on display than in a similarly sized branch. This can be seen in each of the catwalks, the base of which is a display module for the clothes being worn by the mannequins - “you see it, you buy it,” as Moore puts it.

So with variably sized mats across the store, this is a Matalan that works by having a series of true shop-in-shops, ranging from lingerie to homewares. And care has even been taken to soften the box-like effect of a shed, by placing baffles in each corner that curve the wall.

Finally, it’s worth noting the overhead lighting grid that has been installed below the level of the high bay lights that you’d expect to find in any edge-of-town shed and that serves to bring the gaze down from the wide open spaces above the stock.

This sort of thing does not come cheap and Moore is at pains to emphasise that what this one view in High Wycombe does represent is something of a one-off. Equally, as might be expected, value engineering is under way that is likely to see some of what’s on offer in the High Wycombe store appearing elsewhere in the new year.

Two more new stores are scheduled to receive a similar treatment, although Moore declines to name then, and when the store development

programme restarts in January a number of retrofits are on the cards. Whichever way you cut it, this is a big improvement on a standard issue Matalan store.

Matalan, High Wycombe

Location Bellfield Road

Size 30,000 sq ft

Former occupant Focus

Store design Checkland Kindleysides

Major design element Store layout

Local competition

All the major value

fashion players