Riga may be the capital of a small nation still unfamiliar to many in the UK, but its retail offer is dynamic and up to the moment.
A world away (or, actually, a little more than 1,000 miles) from the troubles of BHS or indeed Austin Reed is Riga, the capital of Latvia. The ‘middle one’ of the three Baltic states, this is a youthful nation, inasmuch as it was under the thumb of the former USSR until relatively recently.
Since that time, however, this monumentally inclined city (there are broad avenues and statues everywhere) has had a makeover. Now it’s a busy and amazingly flat metropolis of 650,000 souls. And it has everything you’d expect of a city on the fringes of Europe, where brands are an indicator both of status and success.
From a retail perspective, this means that Burberry, Boss and suchlike have a very well established presence in the city centre, but there is rather more to what’s on offer than some better-end labels. The Central Market, for instance, is housed in three massive former Zeppelin hangars with a degree of specialisation that would be hard to match elsewhere. One of them contains almost nothing but smoked fish and sausage, while if amber is wanted, there are any number of emporia intent on selling the stuff (it washes up on the shores of the southern Baltic).
More mainstream shopping is to be found in the big shopping centres dotted around the city, with Spice and Spice Home being among the biggest and conveniently placed on one of the arterial roads that lead into the city. Retail is, of course, international and if you want to see a branch of Debenhams or maybe The Body Shop, this is as good a place as any in which to do so. There are, however, a good few local acts that are also worthy of consideration.
Riga Central Market
Much is made in supermarket circles these days of the need to offer shoppers a market-style environment, but there are few urging retailers to create the ambiance of a Zeppelin hangar. The Central Market in Riga, however, not only claims to be the largest bazaar in Europe but is contained within five out of the nine remaining Zeppelin hangars in the world.
“The Central Market in Riga not only claims to be the largest bazaar in Europe but is contained within five out of the nine remaining Zeppelin hangars in the world”
In practice, this means immense indoor spaces, a lot of natural daylight and a vast quantity of smoked fish, sausage and honey, among other things. This really does feel like a traditional market and, even in somewhere as relatively far-flung (to UK eyes) as Riga, it still looms large on the tourist trail. It is, though, first and foremost a working market in the middle of the city, even allowing for the fact that prices on many items are remarkably uniform across the whole of the interior. Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco and Morrisons all strive to create ‘fresh’ departments that make shoppers feel as if they are in a market. They may not wish to recreate a hangar for the purpose, but in terms of a market environment this one takes a lot of beating.
Oddly, just around the corner from Central Market is department store Stockmann, which has a substantial food hall filled with many of the products available en masse less than 300m away. The Latvian outpost of the Finnish department store is a four-floor affair with the food hall on the ground, where Riga’s better-heeled shoppers can buy the same fish and pork products as at the market, but within an air-conditioned and attractively merchandised store. And one of the elements that makes this an interesting space to shop is the low-rise nature of the mid-shop equipment, affording shoppers views across most of this large department.
As is the case in many supermarkets, fresh is towards the front, with specialist areas, such as the bakery and fish counters, arranged around the perimeter. The food hall also boasts a well-stocked and winsome wine space, housed within a wood-clad sub-department.
This is the only Stockmann store in Latvia and, indeed, only one of two in the Baltic states (the other is in Estonia, just across the water from Helsinki, aka Stockmann central).
Fitness store Sportland is in the Spice shopping centre, on the edge of the city, and marks itself out by the faux running track that greets shoppers heading into it. The five-lane running track forms the walkway that takes customers on a circuit around the offer, much of which islocated in the space inside it or around the perimeter.
“In spite of the density of merchandising, this is an arresting shop and it is hard not to pause and take a look when walking through the mall”
To judge by the space afforded them, running and cycling are the two major preoccupations for sporty types in this neck of the woods. As well as a heavy use of branded point of sale, an attempt is made to entice shoppers through the use of screens either side of the entrance.
There is a sense that there is almost too much going on in this store. Yet, in spite of the density of the merchandising, something many sports retailers are guilty of, this is an arresting shop and it is hard not to pause and take a look when walking through the mall.
There is actually a branch of cheese shop Siera Karali in the Central Market, but this store is on the upper level of Spice. In essence, this is about as straightforward as retail in a shopping centre can get, short of setting up a market-style trestle table and pitching for customers.
Yet the big round cheeses on the right-hand perimeter wall, some cut and others offered in their entirety, have an appeal, thanks to their bright yellow rind. This is a retailer that has recognised its product is sufficiently distinctive not to worry unduly about either fancy display equipment or a mountain of point-of-sale; the product does all the work.
Just in case shoppers want some alcohol with their cheese, the top shelf has a small range of bottles that, presumably, complement what is on those beneath them. This store’s ‘shout’ is simplicity and a back-to-basics approach that marks it out as different from its neighbours in the centre.
Also in Spice is Imaginarium, the toy retailer whose point of difference is largely to be found at the entrance to the store. In place of a normal door, there are two arches – one big, one small – intended to provide ingress for adults and children. These are branded with the store name and ensure there is a feeling of fun when entering the store.
Once inside, this motif is repeated in the form of unfinished arches used to demarcate different product areas. Overhead, internally lit beacons offer further assistance with the business of finding your way around the shop.
Faced with the twin arches, it is actually quite easy to overlook the windows on either side of the entrance, but these are very simple in intent and execution, consisting of brightly coloured product set against a neutral background. Sometimes, a single interesting feature is sufficient to ensure that a shop is worth consideration.
Retail in Riga
- Luxury brands everywhere
- Shopping centres downtown and in edge-of-town locations
- Major mall: Spice and Spice Home
- Ambience: Nordic