Luxury department store Harvey Nichols has re-opened its Birmingham branch following a radical makeover that has seen it double in size.
Harvey Nichols has had a branch in Birmingham for not far off a decade and a half. An anchor for shopping and restaurant complex The Mailbox, Harvey Nichols has long played second fiddle in the city to Selfridges, which caused an international stir when it opened in 2003, owing to its unique golf ball shape.
The Mailbox has been home to a number of luxury brands and it is fair to say that although the food and beverage provision has always been upscale and successful, its fortunes have been mixed as far as retail is concerned.
However, 2015 is a year of change in the UK’s second city and Grand Central – the new development above New Street station and home to a full-line John Lewis with a glass exterior – is about to open.
For The Mailbox it has therefore been a case of how to compete and what to do about yet another shopping scheme, in addition to the 1,000 shops in the town centre only a short walk away, as well as The Bullring.
The same has been true for Harvey Nichols, which has previously struggled to position itself as the default choice for shoppers in search of glam and top-end fashion in the city.
Now, however, the darling of the Ab Fab set has stepped up to the plate, having just undergone a radical makeover.
After acquiring additional space from a former sorting depot for the Post Office, the size of the store has doubled to 47,000 sq ft across a single floor.
A lot of money has been thrown at the interior in terms of materials and layout and the result is completely different from what was there before.
Part of the brief given to Virgile + Partners, the design company that won the job of reimagining the interior, was to create an environment that would have something of the ambience of a five-star hotel.
Carlos Virgile, director of the design outfit, says that this idea has determined some of the store’s revamped appearance, which is unlike a traditional department store.
For starters, there are no store windows which, given the propensity for operators in this sector to create a wow factor at street level, is unusual.
In part this has been the outcome of the store geography, but it does also mean that all of the visual merchandising effort is focused on the interior.
At present the main entrance to the store is shrouded in polythene, owing to the fact that the refurbishment The Mailbox as a whole is receiving is incomplete.
When this is removed shoppers will enter the store through a high-ceilinged corridor that boasts more than 2,500 LED lights and really does give the impression of walking into a Hollywood shindig – minus the red carpet and starlets.
Beyond that there is the ‘Style Concierge’.
This is a long desk with a dull copper-coloured wall behind it into which a series of screens have been set. Collectively, these form a moving fashion wall across which brands are paraded.
For shoppers, three waist-high plinths with inset screens on top mean that they can take a look at what is on offer before heading into the main body of the store.
“This really does give the impression of walking into a Hollywood shindig – minus the red carpet”
This is a digital introduction to what lies beyond, but Virgile is clear that tech is not an end in itself: “Everything that the store should have [digitally], we have. But we believe the experience is not driven by digital. It’s just there when you need it.”
The theme is picked up by Paul Finucane, group stores director, who comments: “Sometimes tech can be a bit intrusive. The idea is that the Style Concierge should cover your every whim.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that by putting a concierge desk at the front of the store, instead of burying it deep in its recesses, this does feel like entering a rather grand boutique hotel.
Boutique is in fact something of a watchword as far as the interior is concerned and there is nothing department store standard about what has been done in this space.
Ewald Damen, partner at Virgile + Partners, says: “One of the challenges was looking at materials which were different from those that would normally be used in a department store. Lots of indies do this, but on a department store scale it’s more difficult.”
“There is nothing department store standard about what has been done in this space”
Practically that means that as shoppers wander around – and it is difficult to do anything else as this is a store without walkways – almost every piece of equipment is different.
The dark grey masculinity of the menswear department, which features a lot of linear elements, gives way to more rounded fixtures with higher levels of light in the beauty and womenswear areas.
And if the mood takes the shopper, there is food. This takes the form of a small, gift-led “food market” followed by a 60-cover restaurant that is open throughout the store’s trading hours. When the store is shut, the restaurant can also be accessed by a curved staircase.
Mention should also be made of the wine department, which backs onto the restaurant and which has the feel of “curation” rather than trying to cover all the bases.
This provides a clue about the store strategy as a whole. There are more than 200 brands in this emporium and the intention is that it should be a branded house, rather than a series of concessions. This is evident at every turn and the sense is very much one of an editor’s choice.
Selfridges Manchester has also recently received a makeover, but what has been done in Harvey Nichols clearly puts it on more than equal terms with its much larger Bullring rival.
It is also the template for what is to come in Harvey Nichols’ world. Work is under way on refurbishing the Knightsbridge flagship and elements of Birmingham will be taken south as part of this.
Meanwhile, those with money, lots of it, to spend in Brum could do very much worse than beating a path to this one.