Birmingham city’s Bullring shopping centre and locality add up to an impressive offer and a retail destination.
The Bullring and nearby
Bullring and Selfridges Opened 2003
Dixons Black Opened late 2011
Mall strategy Expensive at one end, cheaper at the other
Shopping centres tend to be built for the long term and on occasions they may actually get better as they mature (think Lakeside and, to an extent, Bluewater). Yet it is in the nature of retail to move on to the next big thing, rather than looking at what’s already in place and considering how it may be faring.
Birmingham’s Bullring is a case in point. It has been up and running for a few years and, unlike many of its ilk, it has virtually no vacancies and continues to be thronged with shoppers. And on a bright, mid-week spring morning, the centre looked almost as pristine, and the hubcap-studded exterior of the Selfridges store nearly as astonishing, as the day it welcomed the first shoppers a decade ago. This is a shopping centre that manages to maintain a sense of newness, in spite of its relative age, when set against newcomers such as the Westfield schemes in London and, more recently, Trinity Leeds.
It is also worth looking at from a visual merchandising perspective as this is an arena in which retail’s middle and upper-middle markets come out to play in a manner apparent in few other places.
As a centre, the Bullring seems inordinately proud of the Bull part of its name. So much so that one of the mall’s entrances features a cast metal sculpture of one of the creatures with a tail that seems frozen in mid-thrash.
And the Bullring’s anchor store, Selfridges, seems determined to use the same icon to reinforce its confectionery department on the store’s lowest level.
When it first opened, this floor was a cornucopia of different eat-at-the-counter food offers. Now it seems tobe mostly about sweets and, at the heart of the department is the same bull - this time it is jelly bean-studded, although some of the original menace and all of the movement have been retained.
Much care and attention has been lavished on this and, as it is in the middle of the store’s main atrium, it acts to draw shoppers from the other levels down into the store’s depths.
It will not have been cheap to create and it occupies a lot of potential selling space, but as a means of attracting attention and helping to move shoppers through the store, it takes some beating.
The other element that is noteworthy in the store at present is the ‘colour clash’ case on one of the middle levels. It is a glass case with white wood surround that contains see-through plastic globes, each of which contains a brightly coloured pair of shoes. As an exercise in making a display interesting, without distracting from the merchandise, it is one of the best things in the centre.
PC World and Currys Black
Not actually in the Bullring, but a stone’s throw from it, the Black format from Dixons was, in retail terms, a sensation when it opened around 18 months ago. It was seen as a fusion of fashion and technology, taking the tenets and principles deployed by major clothing retailers and applying them to technology products.
Practically, that meant mannequins wearing cameras, MP3 players and suchlike, and a fetching soft-top vintage Fiat Cinquecento that was stuffed with tech goodies.
A lone mannequin remains in the window. That said, she is modishly dressed in a metallic evening dress and is next to a graphic that reads ‘Trending this season’. The message is picked up as the shopper walks into the store with a series of plinths bearing the same legend. And atop of each is a Currys/PC World product, ranging from a laptop to an iPad.
The more obvious, in-your-face fashion elements may have been removed, but the ethos has been retained.
Reiss is located in the ‘better’ end of the Bullring, with one of the entrances to Selfridges a few strides away. It is at the top-end of the mall’s offer and the triple-height, glazed frontage with a logo that stretches from one side of the shopfront to the other strikes an upscale note.
There are 10 stylishly attired headless mannequins in the window, but the chances are good that the shopper will feel inclined to look beyond into the store, drawn by the monochrome and full-colour graphic behind them. There is also the matter of the expensively minimal and low-lit interior with spotlights recessed into a suspended ceiling that covers part of the floor, and mid-shop equipment that is rigorously linear in arrangement. The whole thing is designed to ensure that the eye sweeps through the space to the back wall and the merchandise is sparingly organised so that the shopper looks at it, but also beyond it.
At the other end of the scale and at a different end of the mall is H&M. Located cheek by jowl with Forever 21, River Island and New Look, this is a store that is at the mass-market end of the Bullring. The windows have been kept simple and are, in their way, very traditional. One offers a mood photo depicting a group of preppily dressed children while the other is resolutely bare, allowing the stock to speak for itself. In contrast to Reiss, these are box windows that focus the gaze upon what’s just inside the glassline, rather than encouraging the shopper to look into the store.
Unusually, it is the floor of each window that does much of the work in terms of associations, with white planks creating the image of a New England oceanfront vista. That may actually be subliminal but, coupled with the graphic, it is surprisingly pervasive.
The merchandise here may be cheap, but the message is almost old-money in its feel - H&M plays with East Coast Americana to good effect.
There is sometimes a sense that when you leave Oxford Circus, you also leave the spirit of what Topshop/Topman is about behind you.
Yet the Bullring proves how misguided this is. Look at the large, frameless window to the right of the entrance and a zebra is backed by a monochrome frieze featuring black dots, of various sizes, on a white screen. In front of this, mannequins stand on mirrored cubes, with their clothes providing the splash of colour that contrasts with the rest of the window. There is also a window-line graphic alerting shoppers to Topshop.com and the retailer’s click-and-collect service.
Now look at the entrance itself and, in contrast to the female mannequins in the window, a row of skinny-suited mannequins stand in a line in front of a series of cut-out letters that spell ‘Topman’. It is almost impossible to pass this store without taking a look in and it stands perhaps as proof that the young fashion ambience that the Topshop/Topman brands stand for is entirely portable.