Asda’s George brand has opened stores on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey as part of its international expansion plans. John Ryan reports on its evolution from supermarket to standalone.

It’s one thing to stock clothing in a supermarket, another to take the offer and turn it into a semi-discrete or standalone format, and yet another to take what has been done and export it offshore.

Yet that is what George, the Asda clothing brand, is in the process of doing, and the first offshore evidence can be found on the Channel Islands, or Jersey and Guernsey, to be more specific.

Jersey was the location for the first George standalone outside the UK when it opened two months ago and last week it was joined by a second store across the water on the outskirts of Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port. And in spite of massive differences in terms of the buildings, the similarities between the two stores are greater than what sets them apart – surely the best sign of a format that has been thought about prior to breaking ground.

Growing pains

George international director Kevin Rusling says that the two stores have presented almost entirely different challenges in terms of getting things up and running. Both, however, have been about setting up shop in locations where sites have a tendency to be expensive and hard to come by.

It is worth bearing in mind that a small, semi-detached house on Guernsey costs north of £300,000 and an average property on the island is worth about £500,000. This makes setting up a value-led clothing proposition something that requires careful consideration.

However, the task has been made rather more straightforward on both islands by George opting to open with local franchise partner SandpiperCI, which operates more than 40 franchised stores in Guernsey and Jersey for an array of UK retailers including Iceland and Marks & Spencer.

SandpiperCI business development director Nick Steel says that at the Guernsey store, it was a matter of taking a site that had been a car showroom and then applying for change of use to turn it into a shop.

The outcome is a 6,300 sq ft store with a remarkably low ceiling and which, in terms of layout, is a difficult shape to merchandise.

Nevertheless, on opening day on Tuesday last week, more than 200 shoppers – mostly female – were waiting for the ribbon to be cut, an indication of the demand on the island for what George offers.

Steel says that in spite of the Channel Island’s extreme proximity to both Normandy and Brittany, most islanders head back to the UK to shop, and the arrival of a value retailer is therefore inevitably going to be something of a boon for locals. This perhaps is the point about the Guernsey store. This will not be a shop for affluent visitors, but the local population seeking a value proposition.

On arrival at the store, the car showroom heritage is pretty clear – it’s a white, modern, two-storey building. George occupies the ground floor which, unlike its mainland presence, has windows on all sides. Each of them has been boxed in and merchandised – a bespoke response to the problem of dealing with the volume of windows.

Access to the store is via a car park behind a main road-facing petrol station and, according to Steel, parking is a rare commodity on the island because of a zealous planning regime. Inside, the low ceiling presents another challenge because it makes the store feel almost crowded.

This in turn means that lighting is an issue. Rusling says that the desire to illuminate the whole of the interior has had to be balanced against the need to stop the interior becoming too hot. Nonetheless, it is relatively easy to find your way around. Womenswear has been given pride of place, just inside the entrance, followed by kidswear, with menswear and a cash desk at the back of the shop.

On the mainland, the ‘George 21’ in-store format – revealed in Asda Bolton at the end of 2011, and so called because George is now 21 – has a lot more of a shop-in-shop feel than the standard supermarket clothing offer. Even so, the Guernsey in-store team’s focus on visual merchandising has improved navigation and made the interior more engaging than might be expected of a store environment that has its origins in a supermarket.

George retail and international director Jo Whitfield says that, as this is a value interior, the visual merchandisers have had to work harder to create an appealing context for the stock. This means, among other things, 3D signs on top of mid-floor units, measuring charts and on-the-floor footprint decals in the kids’ area, as well as four-way mid-shop displays – something not seen in other George stores – in men’s and womenswear.

All aboard to Jersey

Now step aboard the 10-seater light aircraft to Jersey – a 10-minute flight away. This branch is housed in a former abattoir that had lain empty for 40 years, along with an M&S Home store and a Costa coffee, both also operated by SandpiperCI. The George store is a few hundred square feet larger than Guernsey, but feels massive in comparison, thanks to its high ceiling and exposed brick walls. Light comes through the glass windows in its ceiling, making the branch feel like a ballroom – grand, spacious and interesting.

Rusling points out that almost everything on display can be found in the Guernsey store, but the Jersey store feels completely different. And as the space is divided by brick arches, it has been a relatively straightforward matter to differentiate the various departments, with menswear, in particular, outperforming the 20% of space that has been allocated to it.

Unlike Guernsey, however, this store has no external windows and it is not until you are inside the complex that you encounter the glazed frontage of the George store.

Like the Guernsey store, this one was packed out on opening day and since then has traded way above expectations and, indeed, retargeted sales figures, according to Steel.

The final point that should be made about both stores is the logistics of the operation. SandpiperCI operates a bonded warehouse in the docks at Southampton, which means that the George stock never actually enters the UK officially and shipments are made from there to the islands around four times a week.

The Jersey store in particular is a model for the retailer’s international expansion plans – a standalone store will be opening in Dubai later this year. And this is a higher spec than would be found in a supermarket but, as can be seen in Bolton, it has its antecedents firmly rooted in that arena.

Meanwhile, Channel Islands shoppers can enjoy their first value fashion offer and the indications are that pent-up demand for this is finally being satisfied.

Store facts

Jersey Opened June 2012

Guernsey Opened August 2012

Franchisee SandpiperCI

Stores A template for international expansion

Route to profit A margin is added to the cost price of merchandise supplied to SandpiperCI, in exchange for shopfit and brand care. Franchising will be the model in the Middle East