The newly opened DFS store on Tottenham Court Road shows how an edge-of-town format can be adapted for the city.
DFS is one of those assemblies of letters that probably means something to somebody as shorthand for three words. Ask the man on the Clapham Omnibus, however, and the answer will be that it signals a retail chain with edge-of-town stores selling sofas. The acronym in fact stands for Direct Furnishing Supplies, but like so many others of its kind, few enquire closely about its origins with the abbreviated form having, over time, become a name in its own right.
And the image of edge-of-town sheds filled with roomsets that have sofas as their raison d’être has in fact been broadly accurate until relatively recently. Towards the end of last year, the retailer opened an inner-city store on London’s Old Kent Road, although this part of the capital is, in many sections, not unlike a series of edge-of-town ribbon developments.
The right road
At the end of last month DFS journeyed deeper into town, planting its upholstered standard in the city centre with the opening of a store on Tottenham Court Road, on the site of the former Next Home store. In many ways this is an obvious move. The central and northern reaches of Tottenham Court Road are a destination for furniture retailers and shoppers alike and if you want to see most of the major UK players in the sector (with the obvious exception of Ikea), this is a good place to take a look.
DFS chief executive Ian Filby says: “In my opinion, it’s almost like a furniture retail park and as the country’s leading upholstery retailer, why wouldn’t we be there?” He adds: “When we opened the Old Kent Road store, nine months ago, we discovered that London’s very intense and people tend not to move around very much at the weekend. So providing there are sufficient chimney pots [in an area], we think there’s room for us.”
It’s a measure of how strong this thoroughfare remains as a furniture destination that following Habitat’s almost terminal downsizing in 2011, the Tottenham Court Road store was one of the three branches that was kept alive. The fact that the Next Home unit that became available earlier this year is on two floors and has a relatively large footprint by local standards must have sealed the deal for a retailer looking to appeal to a different audience from that found in its other stores.
Heart of the home
While it might not have the outsize logo that characterises so many of its other branches, it’s hard to miss this one whatever the mode of transport chosen to move along this half-mile of home furnishing delight. This is due, in part, to the multiple bus-stop-style signs along the store frontage, but principally owing to the large screen that occupies one of the windows and that makes it different from its rivals.
It also provides a clue about the nature of the store interior. DFS employed London-based design consultancy 20/20 to create an interior that would be different from what had preceded it and to use technology. Filby comments: “I’d wanted to open a new store by linking it with taking on a new creative agency. In the store we’re trying to move from a masculine, rational approach, to creating a store where the sofa is the emotional heart of the home.”
The outcome, for those poised on the threshold, is a very large screen set into the wall just inside the entrance. Filby says that this marks a recognition at DFS that “the world is changing” – the store is about multichannel shopping. In Tottenham Court Road, this means a store filled with screens, used, for the most part, as eye-catching backdrops to some of the many roomsets that fill the ground floor.
Yet in spite of the potentially distracting nature of moving images of this kind dotted around the perimeter, they serve as a useful way of ensuring that you take a look across the floor. Which is the point about this level and the basement.
In its previous incarnation, this store was remarkable for the number of free-standing partitions and small walls dividing up the space. These have been removed, as have the relatively high mid-shop equipment units, so it is simple to see from one side to the other.
There is also the matter of helping shoppers. There is frequently a reputation among retailers operating in this sector for salesmen to pounce as soon as shoppers enter the store. This can be off-putting and Filby says that the sales staff are there to help. Making this a reality in this instance means that every member of staff has been equipped with an iPad.
This may be a smart move as currently the normal modus operandi in stores that boast iPads is to sometimes let shoppers get on with it. For those who do engage with DFS’s Tottenham Court Road staff by contrast, a room can be planned on a screen and the colour of the furniture that it contains changed at the swipe of a finger. Filby says: “It’s a trial only, insofar as we think we’ve come up with a fantastic app. But there are many companies that think they have a fantastic app, so we’re test-driving it at this store.”
The other elements that form part of the Tottenham Court Road store blueprint are a series of pause points, in the shape of information graphics. As this is potentially a higher spend branch, there’s even a capsule collection aimed at those with less space to live in – a common trait in London, according to Filby.
Will this work and is it better than the other operators along London’s home furnishings highway? Whatever your views on DFS and its ranges, this is a well laid-out shop that makes the business of looking at a broad offer straightforward. And in spite of both floors being large, there is no sense of being swamped by the space or offer – the walkway on both floors is effective at getting shoppers around the store without making them feel they are being led by the nose.
A year ago, had DFS stated it was going to open a store in central London, there might have been a certain amount of head-scratching about the form an urban version of the edge-of-town format would take. Now we know and it’s easy to see that this is a store design that can be taken to other city centres. Given Filby’s ambitious expansion plans, it seems probable that this is not the only example of a metropolitan DFS likely to be encountered in the near future. And when set against much of the Tottenham Court Road competition, this one looks a runner.
DFS, Tottenham Court Road
Opened May 26
Number of floors Two
Store design 20/20
Ambience Technology-led open plan
Standout feature Use of in-store screens