Three trial stores are designed to change the face of Halfords by clarifying the offer. John Ryan catches a glimpse of the future.

The bad weather that has dogged the UK this summer has led anyone keeping half an eye on retail to assume that one of the worst places to be is fashion. With many summer styles having had the red pen put through them, this might seem to be the case, but there are other sectors that have been just as affected by the unseasonal weather.

One is cycling and, as Andrew Findlay, finance director of Halfords, says, if you’re in the business of supplying families with bikes, then poor weather is hardly going to persuade shoppers that now is the time to invest in new wheels. That has, in part, been responsible for less-than-flattering notes from City analysts about the retailer’s outlook ahead of next week’s interim management statement.

In the short term, the predictions may prove to be correct. But Halfords is doing many things that retailers should do when faced with adverse circumstances, and it’s about a good deal more than rearranging the deck chairs, much as that may matter. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Nuneaton, Cheltenham and Uxbridge, the trio of ‘Lab’ stores in which the retailer is playing with new layouts, graphics and assortment, as it looks towards the future.

The experiments in the three shops are all based on a tripartite strategy. This consists of being a “friend of the motorist”, being “the best cycle shop in town” and being the “starting point for great getaways”, says Findlay.

“Last year, we did a lot of work on what needs to be done for the future,” he says, adding: “We have the most bike shops in the UK, but we’re not the best. Our aim is to use the online multichannel operation to expand that piece.”

Findlay says that the trial stores are about making this a reality, clarifying the offer, becoming destinations of choice for specific categories and moving away from what he admits has been a generally masculine shopping experience. These are all laudable aims and do provide a series of easily understood mantras for management and staff alike, but how are the ambitions translated on the ground?

Minimalist offer

In Nuneaton, the first obvious difference is the store exterior. Visit a Halfords in most places (and there are a little over 460 from which to choose) and you are confronted by brick walls, a logo over the door and some kind of lobby that frequently serves as an ad- hoc promotional area. What you do not generally see are windows. The refurbished Nuneaton store, by contrast, has windows either side of the entrance, serving both as a display medium and a means by which shoppers can peer into the 12,000 sq ft of selling space. The main display features Halfords’ Boardman road bikes.

All of which sets the tone for what is to follow. This branch simplifies the offer, according to brand manager Tina Manning, both in terms of stock and the manner in which it is displayed.

Stand at the store entrance and the view is white and uncluttered. Pride of place in the first five or so metres is given to a table of computer monitors. Manning says this is an information point intended to enable shoppers to work out the store’s layout, find particular items via the terminals (rather than leafing through endless flip-pads in the car maintenance area, for example) and then head off to where they need to be in-store. Just behind the monitor table is the cash desk.

All of which is different from the normal modus operandi in a Halfords store, where rather more point-of-sale material than is good for the operation has been the order of the day. The other point is that with the exception of the Halfords burnt orange, used in a variety of forms around the shop, there is no colour – all is white.

This serves to foreground the departmental graphics overhead. And even these veer towards the minimalist, showing product against a white background, rather than the more usual lifestyled approach adopted in emporia of this kind. There are also suspended white circles, hung above the mid-shop, which are intended to act as additional way-finding aids. The fact that this is a shed is mitigated by white suspended rafts with lights in them that help to maintain the gaze at stock level and to enhance the generally higher lux levels.

In Nuneaton, and in the best traditions of retailing, the more arresting parts of the offer have been put at the front of the shop, meaning that interactive satellite navigation displays are to the right, while travel accoutrements are to the left of the cash desk. The latter has additional drama provided by mounting Boardman bikes on top of car roof-racks, allowing them to act as departmental beacons.

The back of the floor is reserved for the core Halfords offer: motor care and maintenance. Here, there is a staffed service desk where you can get car paints mixed, number plates made and also be advised on what might be necessary to keep your motor looking just so. Considerable visual merchandising thought has gone into what could be a somewhat mundane area, with the motor oils in particular, along the back wall, colour-blocked and with the same packing throughout, giving even the perimeter an eye-catching quality.

Independent thinking

It is tempting, however, to wonder why bicycles – surely a growth area – have not been given more prominence at the front of the shop.  Findlay points to the 5% growth in adult cycle sales between 2006 and 2010 and says there are sub-sectors, such as commuters and sports and fitness cyclists, that represent opportunities for Halfords, although the die-hard enthusiast does not really feature. Nonetheless, to an extent, the location of the bike department in this store has been governed by geography, with the mezzanine – on the right-hand side and at the back of the shop – being set aside for the purpose.

Head for this and it’s a question of “worlds” as project manager Colin Morgan puts it. These take the form of kids, BMX, road bikes and so on. Each area is backed by a graphic showing the great outdoors and the whole is reminiscent of some of the better-end independent cycle shops. And close to the entrance to this department is the repair shop, another area that Halfords views as a potential money-spinner.

In total, there is less stock in this store than in a comparably sized branch, but Morgan points out that this makes it more straightforward to “gap check” and for the filling-up operation to be maintained.    

Travel south and west, and the Cheltenham store does have bikes at the front of the store, but this is the outcome of removing the mezzanine and putting the cycle repair space in a freestanding hut mid-shop. The bike department in this branch occupies close to 40% of the space against Nuneaton’s 25%.

Layouts and space allocation are all up for grabs. Findlay, Morgan and Manning are at pains to emphasise that these are trial stores, but with their higher lighting levels, more straightforward in-store navigation and simplified ranging, the approach looks a good road forward. All three shops were launched at the end of May and have been carefully designed to link with the retailer’s online presence. At present, they have cost more to create than equivalent-sized branches, but value engineering is underway. Providing this process does not compromise the look and feel of the new stores, then the sooner other branches can be like these, the better.

Halfords ‘Lab’ stores

Where Nuneaton, Cheltenham, Uxbridge

When All opened at the end of May

Why Offer clarification and sales growth

Design Harrison Fraser, London