The new women’s shoe department in House of Fraser’s Oxford Street flagship will leave some footwear retailers wondering how they can compete.

Selfridges, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer – if it’s department stores you’re looking for and you’re on Oxford Street, there’s a lot to choose from.

From the beginning of this month, if you narrow this choice to women’s footwear, the competition has become particularly fierce, since House of Fraser unveiled its new footwear department, occupying the whole of the store’s basement.

In the normal run of things, a single department might not be worthy of comment, but when it is on this scale, 25,000 sq ft, it demands a visit. This is bigger than many standalone shops. And the size of the footprint means that in the UK only Selfridges eclipses the store in terms of space devoted to the category. It is also a very different experience from its rival, just along the street.

Selfridges is a “premium footwear department”, as David Blakeney, HoF’s director of store development, puts it, “and we are about the better end of the mid-market up to premium”.

Selfridges’ department is organised around a series of large rooms with some of the brands, such as Jimmy Choo and Christian Dior, occupying spaces off them. The effect is a kind of upscale mystery footwear tour and it’s hard to know what’s coming next.

Branded house

At HoF the shopper descends from street level via the dedicated external escalator (having been attracted by the large street-facing LED screen next to it) and not only is she in the thick of things, but the view is extensive across the very long floor. This has two effects. As the vista is predominantly uniform across the whole of the space, it means that it belongs to House of Fraser, rather than it being dominated by brands. Blakeney says: “The aim was to create a corporate space that would be recognisably ours, but to allow the brands to shout with their shopfits.”

This, then, like Selfridges, is a ‘branded house’, whose design also gives the retailer control over both the manner in which the branded spaces are used and absolute control of the room as a whole.

Display dream

Back to basics, however, and perhaps the most challenging feature involved in creating the new floor was punching a hole measuring roughly 10m by 7m, to create space for a new escalator well and to link the ground floor meaningfully with the basement. Blakeney says that this was a major exercise, if only for “the number of steels that we had to put in there. We had to dig down roughly 16m beneath the level we’re at”.

The outcome is a glamorous and almost cavalier use of space, when the cost of trading per sq ft on Oxford Street is considered. It does mean, however, that you can stare down into the basement from a plain glazed balustrade that surrounds the void on the ground floor.

And when you do so, it’s impossible to miss the main feature in the basement. Blakeney says that when consultancy Kinnersley Kent Design was asked to create the blueprint for this floor, the brief was to “create an amazing shoe department”. This is a fairly wide-ranging assignment, but the escalator that confronts visitors is simple and appealing in equal measure. A semi-forest of galvanised metal poles, reaching from the basement to the ceiling of the ground floor, are used to support internally lit faux-onyx shelves on which hero accessories and shoes are displayed. It’s a visual merchandiser’s display dream, and the odd thing about it is that almost anything that is put on the shelves immediately looks worth taking a second glance at.

For those who access the floor from the external escalator, there is a cluster of mid-shop display plinths, also formed of faux onyx and similarly lit. These, too, are a vehicle for further mannequin displays. And this lends character to the department entrance at the front end of the floor, providing another visual feature, this time in the middle of the Office concession.

The left-hand side of the department is raised and the lower three-quarters of the floor is reached by descending three steps. The danger of creating a long, undifferentiated platform has been avoided by inserting three display blocks on which further mannequins lounge.

Positive results

Finally, the cash desks are put to work as another unifying feature. These have walls backed by the selfsame faux onyx and ensure that things remain firmly within HoF’s controlled branded house environment.

But what of the brands themselves? Whether it’s Kurt Geiger’s signature shoe chandelier or Karen Millen’s mirrored mid-shop fixtures, the character of each of the brands on this floor is apparent and familiar. And this is a big enough floor to give each of them space without feeling the pressure of having to fit everything in. In fact, one of the department’s most appealing elements is that there is room to move.

It’s worth noting, too, that the high lighting levels and generally white fit-out means that the sense of space is reinforced – helped by the cream ceramic tiles. This is, more or less, a complete remodelling of a floor and early results are positive – the company says that like-for-likes are about 75% higher than last year.

All of which must surely cost a lot. Blakeney says: “Don and John [McCarthy and King, HoF’s chairman and chief executive, respectively] set their ambitions up here [he raises his hand high] and put their budgets here [he lowers it again].” This has meant that HoF has worked to a figure of about £100 per sq ft to get the floor to its current state. This excludes, naturally, the ‘contribution’ that will have been stumped up by the brands to help with this – £2.5m would be an extremely conservative guesstimate for such a large space.

And, all in all, it looks worth it. The revamp is one part of a more general refurbishment that is taking place in the store, with the ground floor due to be completed by the beginning of September. Meanwhile, shoe retailers on the rest of Oxford Street will have a new reason to be taking a look at what they offer and how they compete.

House of Fraser women’s shoe department, Oxford Street

Size 25,000 sq ft

Scheme A ‘branded house’ department

Design Kinnersley Kent Design

Shopfitting Vinci Construction

Standout feature The escalator well and ‘pole forest’