For its first store in Wales John Lewis has made a timely and bold shift to a more fashion-focused layout. John Ryan reports from Cardiff
Had you scanned the website associated with this magazine a couple of weeks ago, one headline might have jumped out from the home page: “New John Lewis store ‘huge success’”. At the time, the four-floor, 170,000 sq ft flagship had been trading for eight days and was, rumour had it, running more than 20% ahead of planned sales for its first week.
The word flagship is used advisedly in this context. This is the sole branch of Middle England’s preferred retailer in Wales and as such, the fleet that it is leading is one-strong. Nevertheless, it is the second largest store in the Partnership and therefore probably merits the use of the term.
It also happens to be one of the most architecturally arresting stores to open in the UK this year and blends perfectly with what can only be described as the new Cardiff. For many years, Cardiff was, fairly, seen as the point at which the M4 proper stopped before it became the road less travelled as it continued on to places such as Bridgend, Port Talbot and Swansea. There was also, somewhat unjustly, a sense that Bristol, about 40 to 50 minutes away by car, was a rather better place in terms of shops, culture and, well, almost anything else you might care to mention.
Now, with the imminent opening of the extension to the Land Securities and Capital Shopping Centres-owned St David’s Centre, the shopping axis of the zWelsh capital is poised to change and, if nothing else, the John Lewis store is the flagship for this shift.
From the outside, there is much that might be viewed as a justification for the maritime analogy given to this building - particularly the sharp-pointed prow, housing the main entrance and serving, perhaps, as a reminder that Cardiff is essentially a port.
However, head indoors and this changes, with the first thing the shopper encounters being the “premium beauty” department, spreading towards the menswear department that follows.
It is probable, at this point, that one of the key features of this store will come sharply into focus. The shopper is confronted, for the most part, by brands and although these are contained within a John Lewis store design envelope, they are allowed a prominence that is not replicated in the great majority of the retailer’s other branches.
John Lewis head of retail design Kim Morris says: “We wanted to give the brands an environment in which they would feel happy and which would give us the density that we need.” This has meant, according to John Lewis Cardiff managing director Liz Mihell, that there have been many “conversations between the brands and the space that the buying teams feel they need”.
Fit for brands
The other point, which is certainly worth making, is that although the impression is of a series of brands, everything on view is own-buy - meaning that the in-store landscape is at John Lewis’ behest, rather than the other way round.
The game is given away when you glance at the perimeter. As the move is made from beauty into menswear, Polo by Ralph Lauren forms the introduction to the area. As in many other stores where this brand has a presence, the bulk of this is about brown wood fixturing - you could almost be in a Polo standalone. The difference is that the shopfit for this area is more or less the same height as all the other menswear brands: Zegna, Tommy Hilfiger, Gant, Nicole Farhi and so on. It is subtly apparent that everything is done on John Lewis’ terms and that the brands have thought it worthwhile to bend with the wind in order to have their stock make an appearance.
Now ignore the rest of this floor, which, while good, is not really the main event in this particular store. The big draw lies one floor up. Ride the escalator, while admiring the store-high central atrium, and you arrive on a very large floor devoted to womenswear, accessories, shoes and haberdashery.
In days gone by (and still in a number of John Lewis stores elsewhere) you might have been aware that clothing was on sale, but applying the term fashion to it would have been difficult as everything was done the company way. Morris notes: “We have got a legacy of older shops and the fact is that they’re not going to have the same level of surprise and detail that you can see in a new shop.”
She and her team have worked with consultancy Dalziel+Pow to come up with the look and feel of this floor and, by the standards of John Lewis stores, it is certainly different. “The brief from us was to create a step change. We didn’t want something that would be incremental. We wanted to move away from what customers described as a sea of rails,” says Morris. She adds: “It was very supermarket previously - very ordered, very lined-up, but with none of that emotional connection.”
Having received this message, Dalziel+Pow creative director David Dalziel’s interpretation of what needed to be done was simple: “Our brief was to reflect the buying policy in the store. If you’re buying fashion, then it should be a fashionable store.”
Practically, this has meant losing most of the walkways normally associated with the John Lewis way of doing things and creating merchandise zones, according to Dalziel, around which shoppers will find their way “intuitively”.
And to be fair, he has a point. Just beyond the escalator is the jewellery department - a series of highly polished edge-to-edge glass cases internally lit by small LED lights and all of them resting on top of black cabinets. Overhead, a square space has its edges defined by a curtain of clear crystal, creating an upscale Swarovksi-like feel to the area.
If one were to be objective about what has been done, it might be worth recalling the House of Fraser jewellery department at Westfield London, but there is certainly nothing similar in Cardiff. Now walk from here into the adjacent shoes and bag department.
This is contained by a network of floor-to-ceiling screens, formed by a lattice of bronze-coloured metal attached to white suspended ceiling rafts and descending to provide one end of the mid-shop gondolas in the area. Morris says that it’s the first time that bags and shoes have been put together in a John Lewis store and that the size of the department has allowed the price architecture of the ranges to be made clear. This part of the floor would be good enough to work as a standalone store and the screens mirror elements of the “spectaculars” found elsewhere on the floor.
The latter are, in effect, runways on which mannequins are posed, and employ much of the same latticework to good effect. Morris says: “For us, this was all about being big and bold with visual merchandising. I do have to have a really good commercial argument for visual merchandising. We work
on incredibly high sales densities in John Lewis.”
Mention should also be made of the denim department, Whichever way you look at it, John Lewis will probably never cut it when set against retailers such as Diesel, but there again, Diesel shoppers are also unlikely to be found in a John Lewis denim area. All of which notwithstanding, the stock in this area is certainly top end, with Paige, Lofli and 7 For All Mankind, all in evidence. But the ambience is a little sanitised with the back wall, against which jean-clad lower-body mannequins are posed, looking a mite too vinyl wood for comfort and for the products on display.
Finally, there is the designer zone, a semi-discrete part of the floor with gold walls, dark wood fixtures and lower densities such as you might expect in, say, an LK Bennett or Jigsaw.
There are two floors above this, one for furniture and furnishing, featuring a preponderance of oversized lampshades, and on the floor above this are the children’s, technology and sports departments.
It would be hard to leave this store without visiting the cafe. As well as boasting strings of crystals attached to the ceiling and clustered to create a non-illuminated light feature, weighing three-quarters of a ton, this is a large area with great views and too-comfortable chairs - the perfect place for a discreet assignation.
A new store for a regenerated Cardiff then and a retail standard-bearer for a capital city. It’s almost good enough to make the lengthy trip along the M4 for on its own.
John Lewis, Cardiff
- Total selling area 170,000 sq ft
- Number of floors Four
- Location The Hayes, Cardiff
- Women’s floor design Dalziel+Pow; John Lewis head of store design Kim Morris