Flagships seem to be increasing in number, but what does the name actually mean and is the status quo shifting? John Ryan reports.

Primark madrid 5

Retail life on the high street and beyond used to be relatively simple.

If you wanted a basic item and wanted it immediately, you went to the corner shop, aka a convenience store. If you wanted more, you headed for the high street where mid-sized shops offered a reasonable selection of products.

Finally, for those in need of a megastore fix, there was the city centre, edge-of-town or regional shopping destination, which featured very large stores and where a very wide choice was on offer.

“The ‘soft jelly’ in the middle is nowhere – there is not enough curation or enough choice”

Mike Shearwood, Clarks

Things have changed. The convenience store could still be a corner shop, but it might equally be a much larger unit frequented by shoppers on the way home, largely on foot, which offers everything you might need for an evening meal, or even a dinner party.

Meanwhile, the mid-size panorama looks threatened, both by online sales and by the rise and rise of the flagship destination store.

Or as Mike Shearwood, chief executive of Clarks, puts it: “People are being driven to destinations for choice and they go to local stores for convenience and a curated offer.

“The ‘soft jelly’ in the middle is nowhere – there is not enough curation or enough choice.”

Little and large

There are, however, other aspects that might be contributing to the polarisation that seems to be taking place in retail currently between llittle and large stores.

“With more sales migrating online, more pressure is placed on sales density, so what do you do with your store?”

Guy Smith, Arcadia

Guy Smith, head of design at Arcadia, notes that ‘experience’ has a part to play in the big/small store duopoly: “With more sales migrating online, more pressure is placed on sales density, so what do you do with your store?”

He continues: “Experiential stores also place pressure on square footage and linear [there is less available of both in an experiential store], it’s a double whammy.”

Unprofitable flagships

On this reckoning, it might be tempting to consign physical stores to the scrapheap, but as Smith remarks: “The role of the store is being questioned.

“If your flagship store can be seen as supporting your ecommerce, you can have the odd position where you may be trading at a loss [in the physical store] and yet the store could still be viewed as your most important asset.”

Smith claims that “the British high street as we grew up and knew it, doesn’t really exist anymore”.

“It all relates to location and whether it’s coffee culture or Champagne culture; it looks as if retailers need to adapt what they’re doing to get people into their stores”

Roy French, Itab UK

Maybe so, and if the views of Smith and Shearwood are put together, the way forward is perhaps big stores in which experience has a major part to play, but which don’t turn a penny for their owners.

Roy French, managing director of Itab UK, says that the situation is beguilingly simple: “[There will be] fewer shops, more repurposing, more remodelling.

“It all relates to location and whether it’s coffee culture or Champagne culture; it looks as if retailers need to adapt what they’re doing to get people into their stores.”

French cites John Lewis on Oxford Street and the H&M store in Covent Garden as prime examples of the retail experience economy and as reasons why shoppers continue to beat a path to their doors. 

John_Lewis_Oxford_Street

John_Lewis_Oxford_Street

John Lewis’ Oxford Street flagship

It’s a point not lost on Peter Cross, who recently became director of customer experience at John Lewis, as well as director of communications:

“I remember when people started talking about flagships and it was Niketown. It was all about scale. What’s interesting now is that it’s got to be linked with digital.

“It has really put shops under the spotlight and brands are reviewing the role of shops. Location is a critical driver. All of this means that retailers have to be bolder in explaining what their shops can do.”

Cross says that this process of ‘explaining’ means that the “two flagships” of John Lewis (we live in an age where it is now possible to have more than a single flagship leading a fleet, apparently) can coexist.

Making a statement

Cross’ thoughts on multiple flagships are echoed by David Dalziel, chief creative officer at Dalziel & Pow: “If you think about a flagship, it should be the standout for a brand.

“If I were a retailer right now, I would work towards making a store that is a statement, a flagship. It is not a time to be second best”

Peter Cross, John Lewis

“There are compromises in regular retail, but a flagship should be the best that you can do.”

He adds: “If I were a retailer right now, I would work towards making a store that is a statement, a flagship. It is not a time to be second best.”

He cites Primark in Madrid, which Dalziel & Pow worked on, as an instance of a flagship that works at a national, rather than a regional, level and which has the capacity to elevate a brand across an entire country.

“[Because of the Primark store in Madrid], every store in Spain will do better,” he says. 

Primark madrid 5

Primark madrid 5

Primark in Madrid

Where next then for the flagship, given all of this? It would appear that what constitutes a flagship and the role assigned to it will vary depending on who is spoken to and what the underlying aim is.

For the most part, these remain shops that house a retailer’s complete offer and where shoppers expect to be given reasons for spending more time browsing and buying.

As in so much of retail at the moment, flagships are in a state of flux and may still be en route to becoming something else. The final destination of the destination store is unclear.

The dawn of a flagship

The obvious question in all of this, as far as almost any retailer is concerned, is when does a regular store become a flagship?

Instances of small brands that open a single store to which the label ‘flagship’ is attached are commonplace, but are these really anything other than small stores? 

Missguided Bluewater Kent

Missguided Bluewater Kent

Missguided in Bluewater

The answer might be a qualified yes, as flagship status depends largely on context. With this in mind, it is entirely possible for a small or medium-sized store, such as the Missguided stores in Westfield Stratford and Bluewater (also worked on by Dalziel & Pow), to lay claim to being flagships.

Both stand as physical representations of an online retailer and, given that there is little customer crossover between the two destinations, both function as flagships.

David Dalziel says some believe that creating a flagship simply involves putting in a coffee shop, but that there is rather more to the process than this.

The puzzling thing in all of this, therefore, is the manner in which ‘flagship’, as a term by which to identify something special in a shopping area, has morphed into an entity that is some distance from the big store with a few extras. Today’s flagships, it seems, can be relatively small, or very large, and there is an extent to which size is really not that important.

Rather more pertinent, as Peter Cross notes, is the role of a ‘flagship’ store as a purveyor of inspiration and experience primarily for shoppers, but also for other stores in a chain, or as the physical manifestation of a large online operator.

It is also perhaps worth noting that while Guy Smith says that making profit may not be the principal consideration when looking at a flagship, as Dalziel puts it: “I’ve never worked for a retailer or brand that doesn’t intend to make money from a shop.”