The department store group has opened a temporary shop in Exeter as a precursor to a full-line store in October.

There is much to be said for being flexible. The ability to change as circumstances dictate is generally reckoned to be the hallmark of an organisation that understands that different times and environments require different responses. Yet, owing to the nature of much of big retail, there is sometimes a sense that flexibility is a word not much used at board meetings.

Retail has a reputation for being fast-moving, but in the world of new stores, once a modus operandi has been established, being flexible can be as easy as swimming through treacle. But, occasionally something happens that shows that retailers understand that in order to succeed they have to create something that can alter quickly and easily.

Exeter might not be the first place that would spring to mind when change of this kind is considered, but anyone visiting the ancient university city in the next month or so will be able to see the process at work. John Lewis is to open a 60,000 sq ft store in the city on October 12, but until then there is a pop-up shop, intended to provide consumers with a taste of what is to come. “It’s about starting the conversation,” says head of retail design Kim Morris.

This is, however, a pretty un-John Lewis-like ‘conversation’ when you stand outside this small, 1,200 sq ft, two-floor shop in the heart of the High Street and a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. From a distance, one might spot the John Lewis sign that occupies a modest part of the fascia on the left-hand side above the window. What would probably be noticeable, however, is the wooden chipboard sign that bears the words “pop-up” in high relief, created from the same material.

It would be hard to miss the windows as well, as they look like a work in progress. Consisting of merchandise that has been sited on top of breeze blocks and bags of cement, it looks almost as if, even allowing for the fact that this is a pop-up, the store has opened before it was actually finished. The addition of hazard tape and bollards to frame the display and separate it from the store interior only adds to the effect.

All of this is deliberate. “We’re trying to tell people that we’re building a new shop”, says Morris. Indeed, anyone glancing over their shoulder will catch a glimpse of the tall block that is to be the John Lewis department store next month. In the meantime, however, this is the retailer’s presence in Exeter and internally, as well as externally, it is quite unlike anything the retailer has done before.

“We have turned up the VM volume in this store,” Morris says. She adds that the bulk of what is on view, as far as the store design is concerned, is the outcome of several visits to a local builders’ merchant. And whether it’s the spirit levels, arranged to form a square frame on the wall in which products are highlighted, or the trestle tables with bright yellow legs, this is a make-do-and-mend sort of interior.

Departments represented

It is also very busy, but for those who take the time to have a look around and who are familiar with the John Lewis offer, it quickly becomes apparent that every one of the departments you’ll find in a full-line store are represented in some manner here. Practically, this means that home and all of the fashion departments have been given space. Menswear, for example, is symbolised by a few pairs of socks hung on a wire frame with a handwritten sign announcing “men’s fashion”, while kids’ footwear takes the form of a yellow wheelbarrow filled with boxes of Converse All Star sneakers.

Towards the back, there’s a homewares ‘gadget table’, filled with everything from a slick, shiny-looking DVD player to radios and models of Minis. This is proving popular, as is the denim-covered Smeg retro fridge next to it, which carries bottles of chilled water for those feeling the heat.

And at the rear of the ground floor there is the cash counter. This is constructed from chipboard and even the click-and-collect sign has been handwritten on this material (there are computers for those wishing to browse the full John Lewis offer just inside the door at the front of the shop). The wall behind the counter has been covered with wallpaper from the retailer’s range and looks like an old brick wall – nothing has been left to chance in creating this distressed finish.

And everywhere there are graphics around the walls reminding visitors that this store is the precursor to the department store that will open in a few weeks’ time – there’s even a full-size store directory detailing what will be on each of the five floors in the new emporium.

A place to relax

Now head upstairs, via the spiral staircase and, in contrast to the ground floor, which is crowded with shoppers and merchandise, you will find a sofa, some chairs and a table. This is the first floor, where shoppers can relax, enjoy a coffee and pick up a John Lewis brochure. Again, graphics are dotted around the walls, reminding shoppers that opening day is not far off.

In all, from the first knockings of an idea to the moment when the doors were opened, the pop-up took 11 weeks to create and build. And, as such, it’s pretty much the sort of timing you’d expect when thinking of pop-up lead times, but not at all what might be anticipated from a retailer more used to dealing with very large spaces.

This is a brand introduction that captures the spirit of what John Lewis is about, without recourse to the obvious route of taking a highly edited version of a big store and attempting to reproduce it all in a smaller form. Thought has gone into this and it shows perhaps that even the biggest retailers can demonstrate flexibility if the occasion arises and the in-house ‘creatives’ are given relatively free rein.

For Exeter’s shoppers it is something new. More generally, as a way of getting to know a little about what a brand means, this looks a highly effective vehicle. And as a means of melding relatively high-tech, omni­channel retailing with a temporary and reach-me-down environment, this is also an exercise in reconciling seeming opposites.

John Lewis pop-up, Exeter

Size 1,200 sq ft

Floors Two

Previously A menswear outlet

John Lewis department store opening October 12, 2012