The department store has repositioned its beauty hall at Manchester Exchange Square, upping the glamour stakes. John Ryan visits.

Think Selfridges and the tendency is still to picture a large department store in the middle of London, and unless you happen to live in Birmingham or Manchester there has been little reason to change this view of things. True, the Birmingham store may feature an amazing external carapace and the two Manchester stores, in their different ways, provide a perfectly respectable luxury offer, but they do not capture the imagination in quite the same way as the London flagship.

But this may be changing following the first tranche of a £20m revamp being carried out on the Manchester Exchange Square store, bang opposite the newer part of the city’s Arndale Centre. Except that talk to Selfridges managing director Anne Pitcher and she is less keen on referring to it as a ‘revamp’, preferring to call it a “repositioning of the business and of our position in Manchester”.

Glamorous feel

Pitcher says: “Our vision is to be the destination for the most extraordinary customer experience.” Whatever your view of what’s being done at the store, the money being spent is about making things different, and the first steps have been completed with the unveiling of a new beauty hall … in the basement.

Putting a beauty hall in a basement is unusual and not unlike opting to locate a drive-through McDonald’s on a building’s first floor – it doesn’t often happen. “We looked at beauty and how to give it the space it deserved,” says Pitcher. “We realised that to make it work it would have to be on the lower ground floor [basement].”

The outcome is a brand new floor, double the size of the previous department, accessed by mid-floor escalators and with a real feel of glamour as the journey is made to what in many stores would be an artificially lit netherworld. Selfridges benefits in the first instance from having a fair amount of natural daylight, thanks to the building’s glass front beaming a shaft of light into the basement via a void between the shopfront and the point at which the floor above actually begins.

From the floor up

This, however, is largely immaterial as what has been done across the rest of this substantial space takes the eye and indeed the mind away from considerations of whether the floor is artificially lit. Starting with the essentials, it would be hard to walk around the floor without noticing, well, the floor. This is marble and tessellated with a complex semi-trompe l’oeil pattern that forces you to look along each of the walkways that together form a loose grid. Then there are the products on view.

The first thing the visitor is likely to spot are the two brands located in the space next to the escalator: Dior and Tom Ford. Pitcher says both are in fact pop-ups and will remain in place until Christmas, adding that the Tom Ford beauty space is a world first. As in the London store, therefore, an area has been set aside in the beauty department that will be changed on a seasonal basis, meaning occasional visitors will notice difference when they drop in.

Alongside the likes of Clinique (complete with iPads to help shoppers make a choice), MAC, Bobbi Brown and Giorgio Armani, there is also Blink.

As well as selling various beauty products and emollients, Blink is a beauty brand that offers treatments such as threading, and shoppers can be worked on while seated – a row of barber’s chairs have been installed for the purpose. Pitcher says there are 50% more chairs in this beauty hall than in any other similar space in the city and that it is part of allowing the customer to have fun while shopping.

The majority of the beauty brands on show will be familiar to shoppers. There are 27 in total, but five of these are exclusive to Selfridges in Manchester, providing the store with another point of difference.

Don’t be dazzled

This floor is not, however, solely concerned with beauty products – between a third and a half of it is devoted to costume jewellery, watches and sunglasses. The sunglasses are perhaps the most obvious among these other categories as they are displayed within a sunglasses area, rather than by brand.

Practically, this means a series of antique brass frames, reaching from floor to ceiling, into which graphics and back-lit niches for sunglasses have been inserted. Within this total space, each brand has its own area, but the net effect is you notice this as a sunglasses area, rather than a series of brands (the possible exception being the Chanel display in its signature high-gloss black).

There is also jewellery, displayed in much the same way as the beauty products with brands operating from individual islands in the mid-shop and dedicated areas along a single perimeter wall – hard to tell whether it’s the left or right one as this is a square basement. Links, Georg Jensen and ToyWatch are among the names here and while nothing is top, top end, it all feels fashionably aspirational, although most of it is still within reach.

Finally, few will be able to exit without noticing the mirrored pillars, lit at the top, that help to divide up the floor as well as providing support for the high ceiling. This may be a beauty hall in a basement, but there is no sense of subterranean gloom and, even as a male, it was hard to not to feel a slight tinge of excitement at this glitzy interior – although a purchase was not made.

Destination dream

This is, however, just the first stage in Pitcher’s “repositioning” and having been open for close to two months, is it working? According to the managing director, average transaction values are 50% higher in its new form than when the department was in its previous ground-floor location. This may well be boosted further when the remaining piece of the basement jigsaw, an Aubaine restaurant, opens later this autumn (there is already one the second floor of the London store).

If all goes to plan, there is a possibility that Selfridges Exchange Square may emerge from all this as not just a luxury department store, but also as a destination that may find note beyond its immediate hinterland in the way that its sister store, down South, already does. Hats off too to design consultancy HMKM, for working closely with Selfridges on the beauty hall and arriving with the retailer at a solution that does have a real feeling of invitation. This is a bold move at a time when many are engaged in battening down the hatches.

Beauty Hall, Selfridges, Exchange Square

Location ‘Lower ground’

Size 15,070 sq ft (twice the size it was before)

Design In-house and HMKM

Number of beauty brands 27

Ambience Luxury glam