John Ryan visits the relaunched Williams & Griffin deparment store, now under the Fenwick name, having owned it since 2008.

Fenwick is one of those retailers that most people, shoppers and retail watchers alike, will know and will probably have visited, but will still be unfamiliar with how it works, much less who owns it or where it is headquartered.

It should come as little surprise therefore, that the appearance of a new Fenwick’s department store has not been trumpeted around the streets of Colchester, where a store bearing the name was launched last week.

“In terms of layout, the exterior of this store may be something of an architectural adventure, but within it is a solid and traditional, in a good way, department store”

Fenwick’s has in fact owned Williams & Griffin – formerly a single store indy – since 2008, but it was not until quite recently that the store was rebadged to bring it in line with the rest of the 11-store portfolio (with the exception of Fenwick’s-owned Bentalls in Kingston, which still bears its founder’s name).

Managing director of the ‘new’ Fenwick’s store Carl Milton says that the time was ripe for a change: “We’re being sympathetic to the market.

“We announced the name change a year ago. Internally, it’s about clarity and making sure the store is consistent with the brand’s online presence.”

Milton relates how he arrived at the store in January 2014, the month in which the company “began knocking the walls down”. The aim was to expand the store and to continue trading throughout the process.

Practically, this has meant that the store has gone from 66,000 sq ft to 88,000 sq ft, but Milton points out that at one stage during the rebuild and refurbishment it actually shrunk to 47,000 sq ft.

Some £35m later this four-floor department store looks as if it has a fighting chance of halting local customers heading off along the A12 to Lakeside, Stratford and even central London, rather than shopping in Colchester.

Milton says: “They [Colchester shoppers] wanted to shop with us, but we weren’t really able to satisfy their desires and aspirations because of the size of the store and the product mix.”

The store in its new shape, following a design created by consultancy HMKM, has been trading since August 27th, although the rebadging took place this month.

And what has been done is more or less a root and branch remodelling of both interior and exterior.

Modernising its appearance

Stand across the street from the very modern-looking frontage, with an atrium and a mezzanine level both visible as the shopper looks in, and this looks very different from the rest of the high street.

If the eye strays to the right however, there is a mock Tudor building, followed by a pair of smaller buildings, all of which are also part of the store, as an additional logo indicates. What is apparent is that this is a store that has been created from a hotchpotch of spaces on the high street, added to the main body of the store.

“This is a new focal point for shoppers and its offer is finely honed to the local market”

In the usual run of things this would probably mean a thoroughly disjointed interior where shoppers might find their way around more by accident than design.

As such it would be like many UK second tier department stores and might be a somewhat dispiriting exercise to shop.

Yet head for the door at the right-hand extremity of this long, jumbled frontage and step inside “The Handbag Courtyard”, a new space that has been created at this end of the building, and there is little sense of anything other than a contiguous whole.

In terms of layout, the exterior of this store may be something of an architectural adventure, but within it is a solid and traditional, in a good way, department store.

Beauty and accessories are on the ground floor alongside menswear and men’s shoes, women’s fashion is on the first floor, homewares and a Carluccio’s café at the top of the store, and toys and kidswear in the basement.

Note should also be made of the Caffè Nero on the first floor, which follows the coffee chain’s Terminal 2 lead at Heathrow – this is about bringing a little panache to a town that statistics indicate will be the UK’s fastest-growing over the next two years, according to Milton.

Revitalising the tenants

Since the expansion, a lot of new brands have been brought into the store – with the likes of Paul Smith and a brace of new beauty brands – giving it additional heft as far as its 35-50 year old, predominantly female, customer base is concerned.

All that remains for the project to be complete is for the lower ground (the basement) to be given a makeover.

Visiting the basement provides an insight into how things were when this was a pre-refurbishment Williams & Griffin. It is adequate, even allowing for “George”, the acrobatic toy monkey who has been gyrating in the toy department for 20 years, but little more than that, and Milton says the aim is to “bring some theatre into the space”.

There is a branch of Debenhams in the town that underwent some modifications a few years ago, but as far as department stores are concerned, that’s it.

This is a new focal point for shoppers and its offer is finely honed to the local market thanks to Fenwick’s highly unusual operational set-up, where the store’s managing director is also the man responsible for overseeing the brand mix and the buying for the shop.

As Milton remarks: “We report to the board on our performance four times a year and other than that, we are given autonomy.

“We could have filled another 15,000 sq ft of space with the brands that wanted to come and be part of what we have done here.”

Quite so, but meanwhile, Colchester shoppers have a refurbished department store that stands considerably above the rest of the offer in Britain’s oldest town.

It will also probably serve as a kick-starter for further regeneration in the town centre. Fenwick has revealed its branded hand in Colchester, and Williams & Griffin is no more.

No bad thing, unless you happen to be a department store operator in one of the nearby towns or shopping centres.

Fenwick, Colchester

Size
88,000 sq ft

Previous size
66,000 sq ft

Expansion and refurb cost
£35m

Store design
HMKM

Ambiance
Aspirational department store

Typical shopper
Female, aged 30-55