JJB Sports is trialling a new look store in Slough that seeks to do the simple things well. John Ryan gives the store a workout

Slough isn’t the first place that springs to mind when thoughts turn to stores. The town, star of TV sitcom The Office, is on the fringes of London, supplies labour for nearby Heathrow Airport and is remarkable for being unremarkable in terms of buildings that might mark it out.

With much of it strung out ribbon style along the Bath Road, this is a town that it would be quite easy to drive through and wonder where and when it began and at what point it ended. Yet on the retail front, as well as being the UK headquarters of Amazon and O2, it can claim some kudos for being the location selected by Wigan-based sportswear retailer JJB Sports to trial a new format on which much of its future may depend.

As a company, JJB Sports has been dogged by misfortune and poor sales during the past few years. Indeed, there was a point when it looked as if it really was on the brink as a CVA and ownership battle distracted the company from the business of selling. Yet recently, the retailer has had something to celebrate as a World Cup sales fillip contributed to a like-for-like revenue increase of 12.1% for the period from February 1 to July 4.

Store of two halves

Now, on top of this, there is the new look Slough store format, which is set to be taken to four other shops during the course of the summer. Approach this one from the dual carriageway that is the Bath Road and there is little to distinguish it from other edge-of-town sheds. It is cheek by jowl with a somewhat old-fashioned branch of B&Q and it follows a long east-west trail of sheds that flank this characterless road.

Externally, there is, the usual outsize logo, used to attract the attention of passing motorists. Nothing has been done to alter its shape or form and it follows the template first seen in Bristol’s Cabot Circus when it opened in the autumn of 2008. Step inside, however, and what you are presented with is a workmanlike job of breaking up a space and making it acceptable for a broad range of shoppers who need to find what they want quickly.

There is a modest mezzanine at the back of this store and if it’s football that’s your thing, this is where the action is. But long before you get to it, there are areas for male and female runners, a cycle shop and, on the right at the back of the shop and before you reach the mezzanine, there’s a an area for golfers, complete with practice area. The latter allows shoppers to test-drive the clubs on offer and see whether they are likely to prove budding Tiger Woods - on the greens at least.

Finding your way to any of the 26 sports is straightforward as the upper level of the perimeter is festooned with large, blue signs informing the onlooker which department is beneath it. This makes life easy because each department is built out from the perimeter into the mid-shop. It’s all a bit

layout by numbers, but there is no denying its efficacy as a means of getting people through the space to where they need to be.

It is also cheap. There are no flashing lights, no mirrors and certainly no TV monitors on the ground floor, all the kind of thing that you might normally expect in an environment of this kind and size.

There is also a striking similarity between, say, the sports footwear department and the area set aside for racket sports, both in terms of the display equipment used and the manner in which the stock is displayed. In the mid-shop it’s white, forward-hanging rails coupled with mannequins posed along the central walkway that leads to the stairs that take shoppers up to the mezzanine. Again, nothing wrong with any of this and you can see exactly why it’s been done - it tidies things up and ensures that the formula can be taken elsewhere without huge expense: the last thing that is required when following a recovery path.

There is only one slight niggle with all of this - the ranges, which are a bit hit and miss. Take cycling, for instance. Pedal around London at the moment and the chances are good that you’ll be overtaken by a pod of lycra-clad types all hell-bent on getting the best out of their racing bikes. Which is rather the point. Racing bikes are having a moment currently, just not at JJB Sports in Slough. To have missed this so entirely speaks of a range that may be entry level in terms of price, but which lacks market awareness, although space is always a problem when deploying the number of sports options that are on show in Slough.

Contrast this with the view of Arden analyst and cricket enthusiast Nick Bubb who notes: “You judge a sports store by its cricket department. I was pretty impressed by its ranges - there were 30 of them - a very decent showing.”

The right brand

Many of the big brands are on sale: Reebok, Adidas, Nike and even the Lance Armstrong-endorsed Livestrong. This may not, however, add up to a shop that ticks all boxes if something is not done to make the brands enticing. Look closely and there is, in fact, plenty of point of purchase, such as the outsize trainer displaying the merits of the Adidas Fluid Trainer, but there remains an air of sameness about the in-store panorama.

Now walk up the stairs to the mezzanine. This is a relatively small area and there is nothing in it apart from football merchandise. And the first thing that you note is the AstroTurf that has been laid, possibly in imitation of the surfaces seen in so many stadia these days. This is certainly different from the rest of the shop and as such merits careful consideration.

There are also a few more eye-catchers than on the lower level. For a start, there’s the TV monitor, tuned to a channel that seems to provide non-stop football news. Then there’s the graphic on the left at the back of the space that features all your favourite footballing heroes, from Wayne Rooney to John Terry. These are part of a tableau with a red background and gold frame, and although the depicted may not have delivered in the recent World Cup the poster still manages to imbue a sense of invincibility.

The most effective use of mannequins in the store is also on the football mezzanine. Instead of opting for the action poses seen everywhere downstairs, the decision has been taken to dress them in various team kits and position them looking out from the balcony over the expanse of the lower floor. This may have little to do with football, but it serves as a departmental marker for those glancing upwards from the store entrance and provides drama for those who make it upstairs.

The point about all of this, however, is that none of it would have involved large capital expenditure and it can easily be replicated irrespective of a store’s particular geography. But is it sufficiently different to pull in the crowds? Read the JJB Sports blurb that accompanied the 11,000 sq ft (2,000 sq ft of which is mezzanine) unveiling and things look promising. The store was supposed to have improved navigation, layout and signage, have better people and services and offer product that would force shoppers into shelling out.

Things are certainly different from other JJB Sports shops and the store’s 33% sales uplift for the period from May 21 to July 4 does much to show that the format has made the retailer’s prospects more promising. Everything may have been done on a budget, but this does not mean that it looks cheap.

There is still a way to go on the product though, and chief executive Keith Jones has recently gone on the record saying that there would be greater amounts of own-label as an intrinsic part of moving sales in the right direction. If this is achieved, then it may have more of a point of difference and JJB Sports could yet emerge from the recovery room in rude health.