Following Robert Dyas’s management buyout the hardware retailer wants to declutter its stores. John Ryan visits the Maidenhead test bed

When was the last time that you walked into a branch of Robert Dyas? If there’s one within shouting distance of where you are, the answer is probably recently as it is the sort of place that shoppers drop into.

Chief executive Steven Round, who led a management buyout of the business in April and is heading its reinvigoration, previously held senior management posts at Kingfisher and MFI, says that this is hardly surprising. “For men, we’re the shed on the high street,” he says.

Translated, this means that Robert Dyas is a retailer whose 99 outlets are found everywhere from Lakeside to a southern corner of Gray’s Inn Road in central London and that it offers hardware and kitchenware.

And it is the hardware element of the offer that is the genesis of Round’s comment. As he points out, the present Robert Dyas shopper is probably over 50 and, unusually for a high street operator, is just as likely to be male as female.

Practically, this means the offer is very broad. For half the population this is something approaching a high street haven - and not only for those wishing to get down and dirty with monkey-wrenches, screwdriver sets and wind-up radios, but also for crème brûlée experts wanting brightly coloured blowtorches (£9.99 if you’re tempted).

And more often than not this offer is contained within shops that hover around the 3,000 sq ft mark. In consequence, as Round remarks, research on the Robert Dyas customer shows that “while they are loyal and it is loved, for some people, the truth is they can’t find what they want. This may have charm, but you have to ask at what point does bazaar become bizarre?”

With this in mind, Round has worked with Hove-based design consultancy CDW + Partners and London brand strategy company Circus to create a format that will give Robert Dyas devotees room to move and the ability to see where things are. Round also asked for an overhaul of its store format in an effort to make the shops appeal to those aged 30 and upwards. “Part of my
analysis of what was wrong with Robert Dyas was that it hadn’t met the needs of different shopping missions,” says Round.

The outcome is a refitted store in Maidenhead’s Nicholson’s Shopping Centre where, along with Peacocks, it is the newest and best-looking shop in this somewhat dated development. And standing in the mall, it is apparent that things at this branch are different from the other 98 outlets.

Less white noise

The fascia is surmounted by a dark green strip to which a Kermit-green Robert Dyas logo has been applied. The effect is contemporary and the windows allow shoppers to see deep inside the store. This contrasts with other Robert Dyas branches where, owing to the sheer depth of ranges, there has been a tendency to strew the glassline with posters and point-of-sale material, providing the visual merchandiser’s equivalent of white noise.

CDW partner Paul Andrews points to the larger left-hand window, which has a box display system that he says can be changed quickly and adapted to fit any size or store location. Graphics have been applied to the boxes, telling shoppers that this is a “NEW STORE” with “Bright ideas” and that it’s “NOW OPEN” and has “Bigger ranges”.

Such facts hardly need stating, but the combination of a stencil-style packing-case typeface and a paint brush and ruler lend the window a no-nonsense appeal, which seems entirely appropriate to the brand.

Rather more radical are the green and blue silhouettes depicting items that are on sale in the store. These are used to fill the area at the top right-hand side of the fascia and are then repeated around the store, sometimes grouped together to form a house shape.

Now step indoors and the layout and ambience changes are immediately evident. Look up and there are category signage icons and words around the perimeter. These have been created by printing dark green canvas with the same Kermit green that is used for the fascia, linking inside with outside. These are in fact mini-blinds and conceal storage space used to create a forward reserve for the items that are on sale directly beneath them.

This design feature is a simple solution to the problem of having stock in the showroom without being overrun with boxes and the sense of having stepped into a warehouse - a trait that many retailers are increasingly guilty of.

Overall, the impression is light and bright - thanks in part to the overhead pendant lights, but also to the white floors, pillars and ceiling. This is a marked change from what you
might expect to see in a run of the mill Robert Dyas, where dark interiors are frequently the order of the day, owing to high mid-shop equipment that has a tendency to make the space feel enclosed.

The high equipment is still in place in this store, but the way in which it is configured and its location within the store is different from other branches. The front of this branch has varying equipment levels, allowing good sight-lines, and the emphasis is on the more “aspirational” elements of Robert Dyas’s offer, as Round puts it. This means that seasonal offers are to the fore, with a wooden garden table and chairs providing the store entrée.

Low-key eco-elements

To the left is the cash-taking area, the front of which has a series of dark blue-green drawers with brass handles, in a nod to hardware stores of old. Much of the upper part of the counter has
been fashioned from bleached wood, which Andrews says is recycled.

It’s a theme that is repeated around the store, where low-key responsible retailing is evident both in the choice of materials for the store design and the products on display.

The front of the shop is also home to a new venture for Robert Dyas - an internet kiosk. Located as part of a sky-blue wall panel next to the cash desk, the “Browse & Buy” area offers shoppers the chance to purchase from extended ranges.

On the wall next to the cash desk is a graphic that once more uses the product icons seen on the fascia, coupled with the message “A-Z OF USEFUL IDEAS FOR THE HOME”. This message ispicked up around the store, with a further graphic depicting alphabet-style bricks, each with a tool corresponding to a different letter.

And if it’s kitchenwares that are sought, Round claims that the offer is “probably the best that you’ll find in central Maidenhead”. A quick look around the rest of the Nicholson’s centre and adjoining high street reveals that this is the case.

The back of the shop is used for destination merchandise - the kind of things that you have made the trip to this store to buy. As such, it is more about commodity selling and the displays reflect this, with utilitarian aisles of essentials such as light bulbs, cleaning materials and DIY tools.

To reflect the change of pace, the floor colour changes from cream to a brighter white, but the high-level perimeter graphics remain, ensuring that even though the display shelving is higher, you can find your way around easily.

Although Round won’t give figures for the cost of the fit-out, perhaps surprisingly, he says that he has worked with CDW to ensure that it is “no more than in any of our other stores”. If this is the case, it seems probable the Maidenhead model will be used in the new stores Round expects to begin opening during the course of 2010.

Equally important, as this is a predominantly modular response to redesigning Robert Dyas’ interiors, is that it should also be possible to export large elements of this fit-out to the existing store portfolio.

So is this store the answer? After a tumultuous first half, much work still remains to be done to ensure Robert Dyas’ future, but this appears to be a very workmanlike step on the road to recovery and one that will find favour with shoppers.