Footwear retailer Clarks has opened a new-look pilot store at Westfield London which is intended to point the way to the future.

Clarks is a time-honoured British brand and operates through shop-in-shops and standalone units across dozens of countries. It also trades from eight local country websites and has a large network of franchisees, all working to spread the word about a footwear brand with a history that stretches back close to two centuries.

All of which means that change is a sensitive issue when it comes to a Clarks shop’s appearance, and the store design team usually seems to be bent upon evolution rather than revolution.

Yet for just over a fortnight, Westfield London shoppers have had the opportunity to visit a new Clarks branch that looks rather unfamiliar.

The store is a pilot and is trading on the Clarks heritage. The aim is to provide a template for future shops. Global head of brand Nick Sanders says: “About two years ago, Clarks set out on a journey. We see ourselves as a very successful brand in the UK, but we needed to understand what was required for us internationally.

The ambition is international and what you’re seeing at Westfield is about that.”

He adds that those who visit the company headquarters in Street, Somerset, are instantly aware that this is a brand with real heritage, but that has not necessarily been translated in its shops.

It is worth noting the different ways in which heritage is treated by retailers. For some, it means plastering Union Jacks across product and windows, usually accompanied by the word ‘British’, in case there were room for doubt.

This is the strategy deployed by retailers such as Hackett.

US retailer J Crew also used Union Jack merchandise when it opened its flagship on Regent Street to say hello to its new audience.

The other form of heritage is rather more subtle and involves both merchandising and the use of visual
merchandising props and store equipment to deliver the message. And it is the latter route, broadly, that has been followed at the new Clarks store.

History lesson

Stand outside the store and this might not be immediately apparent. Like almost every other shop on the upper level in the centre, the storefront is double-height with the upper portion being used for the Clarks logo. The word ‘Clarks’ has an adjacent roundel with a picture of a tower that looks remarkably like the one on top of Glastonbury Tor, which is relatively close to Street. It is accompanied by the words ‘C&J Clark Ltd Shoemakers since 1825’.

This is backed by a wash of green light, giving the whole thing a semi-3D feel.

Through this Clarks conveys a notion of the contemporary coupled with a sense of tradition - without resorting to images of cobblers, lasts and suchlike. Step across the threshold and the view lives up to the fascia’s promise.

The initial vista is one of white pyramidal frames that act as supports for trestle table displays of shoes.

Elsewhere, vintage and faux-vintage (reclaimed wood) tables are used to break up any sense of uniformity and to give a feeling of variety.

The perimeter is, for the most part, composed of white, backlit shelves on the left-hand side, supporting women’s footwear, while on the right it’s the men’s offer. This leads, beyond another wall, to women’s handbags. Global head of retail Deana Cogan says that much of what has been done when creating this store, undertaken in-house, has been about looking at the visual merchandising.

Cogan says: “We were not changing the engineering of the store, so we could do it ourselves.” She explains that a lot of time has been expended on “building a relationship between the walls and the centre shop”. This is not immediately apparent but the graphics package, which focuses on British scenes such as red telephone boxes and similar, does play the heritage card effectively and brings the walls in as part of the mid-shop ambience. And at the front of the shop, the bespoke wallpaper has “1825” in silver all over it - the closest the store gets to overplaying the brand tradition.

Change of scene

At the back of the shop there is a discrete kids’ shoe shop. This is entirely different from the rest of the shop in terms of fit-out, colour and materials palette. Children are probably not that concerned with heritage and the change from grey tiles on the floor to a light green carpet indicates the alteration of mood.

A number of elements in this area can be traced back to the last store prototype that Clarks unveiled in Exeter around three years ago. Foremost among these is the circular shelving fixture on the back wall, which seemed radical at the time but has now been adopted across most of the estate. It is the foot-measuring device that is probably likely to have the greatest appeal for children however. In place of the straps and slide rule-like calibrations that used to characterise the Clarks children’s footwear measuring device, there are white boards that are hung on the right-hand wall with iPads above them. Both are removed from the wall and the iPad is slotted into the board and then provides child entertainment as well as data about the required shoe size.

The wall on which the machines are stowed features a child-like drawing of a tree - presumably as a reminder of growth - and strikes an appropriate note for parents and children alike.

Cogan says that the Westfield store is the first of 10 pilots in which Clarks will be testing a number of design options.

Sanders notes that Westfied London was chosen because “we took a store at Westfield Stratford when it opened and that has been very successful for us, so when the opportunity came along at Westfield London it would have been daft not to take it”.

Lakeside and the Trafford Centre will both have new-look Clarks stores in the early part of 2014, as will New York.

“Trestles mixed with oak and white are about English eclectic,” according to Cogan and what is on view at Westfield London is certainly a departure from the Clarks norm. And on the evidence of shopper numbers on the second Saturday of trading, it looks as if the shoe retailer is treading the right path.

Clarks, Westfield London

Opened November 2013

Size 2,640 sq ft

Store status Pilot

Design In-house

Concept Heritage and contemporary blend

Ambience Unostentatious British

Ambition To provide a template for the UK and overseas