Home shopping brand Simply Be has opened its first terrestrial store in Liverpool. John Ryan visits and talks to its management

Think of a store where you visit because of the fitting rooms. It’s hard to do because all too frequently the space given to allow shoppers to test-drive the merchandise is something of an afterthought. Normally, this is the place where there is little space to move and it’s a relief to get out and head for the cash desk… if the garments actually fit.

Now imagine a fitting room where you might actually want to spend time. The store is in Liverpool, has been open a week and instantly puts you at ease. Welcome to Simply Be, the first physical manifestation of a plus size, online and mail order brand that falls under the N Brown umbrella. Simply Be retail director Bev Jamieson says that during the run-up to opening the store last Friday, the fitting rooms were the place where you’d go and “just relax”.

It’s not difficult to see what she means. There are just seven fitting rooms and yet the space to try things on occupies about 25% of the total in-store space. The reason for this is not just bigger cubicles. There is a very large communal area outside with an iced velvet sofa and a couple of “thrones”, as Jamieson puts it.

And the communal area also has a floor to ceiling ‘magic’ mirror, which allows shoppers to take a picture of themselves and then send the results to Facebook, an email address, or just print off the results to see how they look. White Stuff has done the same thing in its Nottingham and Edinburgh stores, but the decision to install this kind of technology in a fitting room means Simply Be has joined the retail vanguard.

Mind space

The real point about this space, however, is that it takes you away from the busy world of downtown Liverpool and gives time to think about a purchase. Jamieson says the idea is to slow people down and make them stay a little longer. And with this in mind, there is even a full-size till in the fitting room area. “Our research shows that people don’t like queuing up again when they’ve been to the fitting room, so we decided to put a till in here,” says Jamieson.

Blackboards are hung on the door of each fitting room. Customers’ names are chalked onto these, along with the number of garments that they are taking into the fitting room. It’s an idea that is found in a number of retail locations in the US, but has not really been used in this country and it does allow the staff to personalise the shopping experience for customers as well as giving ownership of a cubicle for the duration of the fitting room visit.

So much for the Simply Be fitting rooms, and it might seem strange to start a tour of a new store with the rear portion of the shop, but such is the impact of what has been done that it merits being treated in this way.

Design is key

The rest of the shop is a good extension of the Simply Be brand into a bricks-and-mortar environment, with multiple ways of buying from the range, either via the internet or from the merchandise displays that fill this 3,600 sq ft store. The interior has been designed by the Bath-based Hagger Partnership and partner James Hagger says the brief was straightforward: “Create something different, not like anything else on the high street.”

And standing outside the store, located in the heart of Liverpool One, it is hard to say whether this is the case, but what the frontage does scream is screen and content. The unit is actually a tall one and although this is on the development’s upper level, there is still space for a ground floor and a mezzanine. Internally, the mezzanine is currently a stock room, but the full height is used in the window.

This means a large screen in the upper left-hand side of the window, and as Simply Be is first and foremost a home shopping retailer, content for this has been taken from its online avatar.

Step indoors and the floor is long and relatively thin, but the sense of a narrow space has been dealt with by tiering the wall on the right-hand side of the shop. This has the effect of breaking the space down and creating separate mini departments. It also means that there is a return wall for each tier, to which a light box with a brand message is attached. Each of these light boxes turns out to be a screen that is on rails allowing them to slide away from the perimeter. Do this, and storage space is revealed – a forward reserve instead of keeping everything upstairs.

The right-hand wall in fact defines this interior with individual sections for a range created by Zandra Rhodes, a denim wall and a lingerie shop adjacent to the fitting rooms, among other departments. The mid-shop is filled with low-rise display equipment meaning good sightlines across the floor, and the rear half of the floor is curved and bigger than the narrower areas towards the front of the shop.

This is because a fair chunk of the space further forward has been set aside for the cash desk and the staircase up to the mezzanine has been retained in case there is a need for future expansion.

Mention should also be made of the shoe shop in the curved area at the back of the shop. This has a series of iced velvet seats with the merchandise displayed on shelves around the perimeter, and again there is sense of space.

This is not accidental: there has been a concerted effort to maintain a distance of 1.3m between pieces of mid-floor equipment and the perimeter to allow space for customers to move.

Finally, it is almost impossible to exit this store without noticing the multichannel attitude that has been adopted. There are three internet kiosks (with comfy seats) dotted around the sales floor and in the antechamber to the fitting room, meaning that you can order anything not on view online and then have it delivered to the store or to your home.

Test case

Simply Be is well placed to do all of this with ease, given its infrastructure, but nonetheless it does impress at store level. N Brown chief executive Alan White comments: “It’s [the store] very clearly a test for us. What we don’t know is whether the incremental sales that we will get by having a store, and by the traffic that we hope it will drive to our website, will be sufficient to justify the extra expense needed for the rent and so on.”

A larger store, 4,780 sq ft, is scheduled to open in Bury in a week and this will be followed by four more before Easter next year. White says if things go according to plan there is the capacity for as many as 25 Simply Be stores in the UK, with major shopping centres and high streets being targeted.

This is an example of a home retailer that has taken the plunge and headed for the high street in a reversal of the normal order of things. According to White, 89% of plus-size shoppers still use the high street to fill their wardrobes. Everything to play for then.

Simply Be, Liverpool One

Size 3,600 sq ft

Location Upper South John Street, Liverpool

Design The Hagger Partnership, Bath

Cost £100 per sq ft or “around £4m to get the two shops up and running”

Reason for opening “There is untapped potential on the high street for plus-size shoppers” Alan White, N Brown