HobbyCraft has unveiled its a new-look store in Orpington, which it hopes will tap into a younger demographic and provide a blueprint for future stores. John Ryan visits

Hobbycraft, Orpington

Location Nugent Shopping Park
Size 13,000 sq ft over two floors
Design 20/20
Visual merchandising Elemental Design
Store fit-out AMS
Store construction Portview
Reason for visiting Clarity of presentation

Good news, for the purposes of this article anyway. Tomorrow sees the start of National Knit In Public Week. While this may have the unintended consequence of making knit one, purl one enthusiasts seem in some way furtive, carrying out their chosen pastime behind closed doors, it is good news for arts and crafts retailer HobbyCraft.

And the big day comes just a couple of weeks after HobbyCraft celebrated the opening of its 52nd store, in Orpington. It had reason to celebrate, as this is a brand new format, intended to appeal not just to the retailer’s core customer, but to a younger, predominantly female demographic.

But first, a few words about HobbyCraft. It is fair to say that there is no other retailer in the market that offers the same proposition - a mix of knitting, haberdashery and equipment for craft-based ways of whiling away the hours. “We’re in the leisure business. People come to us because they have a specific hobby,” says marketing director Lisa Looker.

The problem for HobbyCraft was that its stores may have been leisure-seekers’ destinations, but shopping them involved a fair degree of perseverance as they were neither well-merchandised nor particularly welcoming retail environments. It is to HobbyCraft’s credit that it had identified this weakness and set about changing things a year ago following research conducted by consultancy Circus, which looked at its brand positioning and who its customers are.

This research found that as well as being more than 90% female, for most categories HobbyCraft’s core clientele were, at best, of a certain age. A brief was therefore developed for 20/20 - the design company that worked on the project - to create new branding and a remodelled interior that would widen the appeal of the stores.

All sewn up

The result of this research is the Orpington store and standing outside, the change that has been made is immediately apparent. In place of the yellow font on a royal blue background (a lot of retailers, from Best Buy to the recently failed Focus, have opted for this colour scheme), the new logo features a plum background with bold, pinkish and white words. Looker says that this was a bold move for HobbyCraft and that 20/20 account director Lorraine Tovey pushed hard to get the branding approved by the board.

What it does achieve is to make HobbyCraft feel instantly more contemporary, aided by the uninterrupted double-height glazed frontage. This is an 13,000 sq ft store on two levels, ground and a mezzanine, with the ground floor occupying about two-thirds of that space. And the view from just inside the door is right to the back of the ground floor. This is possible principally because although there is a mezzanine, the ceiling beneath it is not so low that the gaze tends to stray upwards.

There is, however, an additional aid to in-store navigation, provided by a combination of overhead printed card beacons and cardboard goalposts around the perimeter, with the latter demarcating specific merchandise areas and departments. Looker says that the underlying principle was simple: “Where we merchandise high enough up the wall, people can work out what’s what without having to put up a sign telling them what something is.”

This makes sense and avoids the pitfall that so many retailers fall into of stating the obvious while at the same time creating a blur of unneeded signage. The beacons themselves are also worth noting for no better reason than that they are slick pieces of graphic design that couple the words for the department they are above with designs that mimic the objects that can be made using the materials on offer.

There is also space, a lot of space, and Looker says that this is a luxury that has been made possible by a rigorous rationalisation of the offer. “We normally have 42,000 SKUs in a standard store, but we’ve got just 30,000 in this store,” she says. This, she adds, has been achieved by taking out range duplication from the Orpington store, clearing the way for a more distinct offer and greater departmental segmentation.

Art attack

The other point about the Orpington store is that there are departments that have been included which do not exist elsewhere in the HobbyCraft empire. Foremost among these is the artists’ supplies shop-in-shop. “This is a first for us and there is nothing like it around here,” says Looker.

There is not. In fact, this department has three walls and so is semi-discrete within the store. It also takes about a sixth of the space on the floor - this would be a perfectly respectable offering as a standalone artists’ material shop in its own right. As such, HobbyCraft deserves applause if only for its ability to do something new and to take a degree of risk at a time when many are consolidating. Finally on this floor, mention should be made of the corrugated cardboard blocks on top of each piece of mid-floor equipment with a category card attached by rubber bands - perfectly on brand for a retailer offering craft equipment.

The mezzanine has been set aside for what might be termed HobbyCraft’s core shoppers. This means a large area devoted to wool and other yarns that can be knitted, haberdashery - “we aim to be up there with John Lewis” says Looker - and jewellery, or at least some of the materials from which personal adornments can be fashioned.

However, pride of place goes to the decorative paper flower displays at the rear of the floor. Looker says that traditionally this would probably have been displayed on shelves or on a gondola, “but we looked at it and wondered how it could be done differently. Then the answer came to us, show it in the same way as a florist would”. This means that there is a mini paper florist on this floor, providing a decorative magnet to draw shoppers through the space.

Model store

Is what has been done in Orpington therefore the future for HobbyCraft? The answer it would appear is yes. 10 stores following this model are due to be opened this year and a refit programme will see four retrofits during the summer. After that, the whole portfolio will be refitted over a 12 to 24 month period, according to Looker.

Providing this programme is stuck to, there seems every reason to be optimistic about HobbyCraft’s prospects. The notional 25- to 30-year-old shopper called ‘Emma’ - the new target that HobbyCraft wants to capture - will probably be pleased when she steps across the threshold.

As for the small number of men who do wander in, at least there are the plastic Spitfire kits and the model trains at the back of the ground floor. There might even be the occasional fellow who is unafraid to knit in public. Something for almost everybody really.