Cookware specialist Steamer Trading has continued its trend for unique stores by refurbishing a Grade II building in the North. John Ryan tours the store with managing director Ben Phillips

Chester, or Deva to give it its Roman name, has a long history. Dig down and there’s a good chance you’ll come across remains that date from the time when legionaries were stationed here and the city occupied a strategic position on the road to the North. At street level things are not quite as ancient, but a lot of what’s on view dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and retailers taking space are likely to find themselves dealing with the problems of converting a building that will be a few centuries old.

This was certainly the case when Ben Phillips, managing director of cookware retailer Steamer Trading, took the plunge, parted with £950,000, and decided to open up shop in a building that had formerly housed a branch of the Birmingham Midshires building society. That was back in September last year and the five-storey building had lain empty for a while.

In spite of its not overly prescriptive Grade II listing, it was several months before Phillips and his team could get permission to carry out work that would lead to the opening of the 25th Steamer Trading last Saturday.

It is also the first time that Phillips has moved beyond the chain’s southern roots as Steamer Trading follows the northern path originally pursued by the Legions. The newly opened store trades from three floors and standing outside this handsome building with its elaborate woodwork and red sandstone pillars, it’s hard not to think of this Chester retail debutante as something that has been there a long time.

Boxed in

The reason for this is that Phillips opted for box windows and a recessed door, instead of a flat store front. This gives a traditional and, in some ways, old-fashioned appearance, but Phillips says it is more in keeping with the surroundings and it also adds a degree of drama that many of its retail neighbours lack.

Just as importantly, it also means that the amount of Zone A, so precious to most retailers, has been cut into – a move than many might have baulked at. The shop front is in fact just 14ft wide, providing a clue perhaps about why Phillips has taken the decision he has – blink and it would be very easy to miss this one while walking past, so it needs to be made to shout. Step inside and the ceiling is low, a little over 6ft 6”, and the narrow corridor that the shop front provides continues deep into the shop.

Phillips says that this internal geography has led to a series of very clear decisions: “We’ve used Fagerhult metal halide lights to provide a level of illumination that would make the space seem clean and then there are LEDs set into the ceiling, which provides spots for the merchandise units,” he says. A series of tables occupy the mid-shop in this initial part of the store and the walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves with “unusual stuff” as Phillips puts it. He says the reason for this is to provoke curiosity about what the many implements on view are and that the serious cookware – mixers, toasters and suchlike – is reserved for the wall at the end of this long retail corridor.

Putting the brightly coloured mixers at the rear also has the obvious attraction of dragging the eye towards the back of the ground floor and tempting the shopper deeper into the interior. Along the way, there is a wood-clad cash desk and the Chinese oak floorboards are a thing of beauty. 

Head towards the back of the shop and a surprise awaits. This store is Tardis-like. It is far bigger on the inside that might be apparent from the outside. The reason for this is simple. As you reach the back wall, the floor turns sharp right to reveal another, higher-ceilinged space, which opens up to reveal a view to the top of the shop via a glass and steel staircase.

The staircase will probably appear familiar to those who have visited the Steamer Trading store in Guildford, which will be two years old at Christmas. When that one opened, Phillips used a firm of London architects to deal with creating an interesting interior.

This time, he says he had a firm idea of what was required and after initially using, and then firing, a local architect he gave the job of making drawings of his ideas to a Sussex architectural practice. The task of making the staircase appropriate to the space and dealing with the mid-shop and perimeter units went to London consultancy Raylian, which also project-managed installation and build of the shopfit.

Block by block

Head upstairs to the first floor and from having been within a relatively narrow space, the first of the two upper levels is about space and having room to move. As on ground, the attention to merchandising detail is what marks this one out. Every shelf and table has been thought about and the strong use of colour blocking, repetition and using the stock as the point of sale, makes this an attractive browse.

On the top floor, the offer is more about gifting, with glassware and aspirationally priced plastic kitchenware all on display.

The element that really makes you feel good to be at the top of the shop, however, is the roof. In its former life, this had a suspended ceiling. This has been removed and the fairly crude wooden support framework for the roof has been exposed. This has been whitewashed, had lights suspended from it and the lower part of the perimeter has been clad in planks that have been painted a very subtle grey. Roof lights have been installed, as have windows around the perimeter, meaning that this is a very light and airy space.

Overall, the effect is New England ocean-side and there is a sense of crispness about the whole thing that should find favour with Chester’s shoppers.

Phillips says the 5,000 sq ft of selling space may have been relatively cost effective to buy, but that £750,000 has been lavished on creating this interior and that he is setting a target for the first year of “less than £1m” in sales for the store. “It will take a couple of years for people to really get to know this shop and to understand the interior,” he says.

It may well, but it looks worth it and as Steamer Trading store number 25, this retailer really does begin to merit the label ‘chain’. It is worth noting though that while this has the logistical infrastructure of a chain, every store is different, which is what makes it interesting. Another northern Steamer Trading opens in Beverley in November and there will be a further store beyond that before the end of 2011.

In spite of what looks increasingly like a recession, Steamer Trading appears to be ploughing its course and winning favour with lovers of kitchen gadgetry and appealing interiors.

Steamer Trading, Chester

Building Dates from 1660

Number of floors being traded Three

Design and build Ben Phillips and Raylian

Building cost £950,000

Interior fit-out and design £750,000