Marks & Spencer said today that its new concept store at Cheshire Oaks has delivered a sales performance that is 30% ahead of plan. John Ryan took a trip to the store shortly after it opened in August.

The retailer’s giant Cheshire Oaks store took years to complete but houses the latest technology to offer the best of bricks and clicks under one impressive roof.

Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger – may be the Olympic motto, but there is an argument that it could have been applied to an event in the world of retail last week.

The opening of Marks & Spencer’s second largest store was certainly an indication of a retailer that wants to move faster. It is debatable whether it is higher (although the high wooden ceiling above the mezzanine is a thing of rare beauty) and, given the turnout by board members for the debut, there was a strong showing.

But is this 151,000 sq ft store, the biggest that the retailer has ever opened in one go – Marble Arch is bigger, but its growth has been incremental and carried out in a piecemeal fashion – an example of big corporate hubris or a retailer that has a clear and defined vision of its future?

The answer to any accusation of an overblown Lifestore-like edifice is easily dealt with. It has taken two years to build this store and it has been about six years since the button was pressed on the whole enterprise. The shop therefore predates the Marc Bolland era and takes us swiftly back to the early days of M&S as eco-warrior, when Plan A was just getting under way.

Since that time there have been changes and the onward march of technology has meant the iPad, which was still a gleam in the eye of the late Steve Jobs, has become an increasingly common in-store feature and click-and-collect has become normal in UK stores.

To this can be added ‘Browse & Order’, a new feature from M&S and one that takes the business of browsing ranges that may not be available in a shop and separates it from click-and-collect, which is less “emotional”, according to Laura Wade-Gery, executive director of multichannel ecommerce.

There is also the matter of Plan A. The decisions that have led to the construction of this store are an example of a broadly movable feast in terms of the materials and technologies that have become available during the period, and M&S has kept pace with developments.

Time for technology

This is no ordinary store, then. This is an M&S behemoth and many of the features that are on show here are intended to point the way forward.

“It is the first store that we’ve built with the multichannel customer in mind,” says Wade-Gery. She adds, however, that “the most powerful combination [in a store] is technology and staff together”. Maintaining that for many retailers technology equates to “ a computer in the corner”, Wade-Gery says: “I don’t think it’s simple for a retailer to become truly multichannel.”

That may be the case, but while the average shopper arriving at the new Cheshire Oaks flagship may have been involved with the shop digitally prior to arriving in the car park, the reality that awaits is an enormous, two-floor glass, steel and wood structure. There is also a living wall on the exterior of the adjacent and connected car park and an interior that looks very different from other M&S branches.

A series of wooden louvres, not unlike a giant Venetian blind, covers much of the store frontage and leads the eye up to an undulating roof. The effect is high-tech and ‘green’ in the same moment and does serve as a curtain raiser to what is to follow.

Inside, the first thing that the visitor encounters is a store-high atrium that is flooded by external light and makes a feature of the external louvres. It also provides the first glimpse of the vast, timber-supported ceiling, only fully visible on the mezzanine floor, while the view ahead is of womenswear. The ground floor is dominated by this category, the food hall to the right is accessed by a couple of square, tiled arches, and it would be easy in a store of this size for such a large offer to overwhelm.

The womenswear space has been divided by a large number of freestanding walls that give the various in-house brands a chance to speak for themselves. This is combined with large walkways that allow shoppers to see from one end of the store to the other, as well as pause points that take the form of groups of mannequins on raised plinths (with some of these being internally illuminated white cubes).

A runway effect has been created by a suspended, dark ceiling that starts as a strip at the front and runs to the back with white lights and clusters of spots ensuring that what sits beneath it is reflected.

The outcome is a floor beneath a mezzanine level that feels higher than it is. The brand segmentation that has been central to much of M&S’s in-store efforts is still tricky, but it is much better than elsewhere.

The food hall follows the template set at Kensington High Street and Westfield Stratford City and adds a ‘pasta bar’ to the mix. This is glamour food retailing, where the products are used in the same manner as mannequins in womenswear – as tools to whet the appetite.

Plan A in action

Mention should also be made of the 1,800 sq ft beauty department, which, according to Bolland, mixes “science with nature”. As a department it does so in the same way as the store front, combining plain wood with a palette of light, contemporary materials.

Now head upstairs, via the large central atrium at the heart of the store, and suddenly the full majesty of the store’s construction is apparent.

Plan A director Richard Gillies says: “Plan A isn’t an accessory. It isn’t an add-on. It is a core part of what M&S does.” He goes on to list the fact that there are hemp-based walls in this store, that it is 35% more carbon efficient than other branches and that it uses 25% less water. All of which is good news, but the thing that the shopper will be aware of is the FSC-certified, wooden supported, cathedral-like ceiling. This is the modern equivalent of fan vaulting in somewhere such as King’s College chapel and is almost as impressive.

Below that sit a cafe, homewares and menswear and this is an instance of a store where the environment really works to enhance the stock. The homewares department is filled with roomsets created, once more, courtesy of freestanding mid-shop walls and there is a digital duvet and pillow selector at the rear of the floor. The latter combines examples of each product with a touchscreen that is intended to help shoppers choose the right item.

It is worth noting the front of the home department too, which features a massive sign stating ‘home’. It’s impossible to miss and this new shop-in-shop homewares format is being rolled out to 33 other stores before Christmas.

After all this, there is little else to do than head for the cafe, which, as in almost every other part of this store, feels nearly entirely naturally lit.

All well and good, but will free wi-fi, ‘Browse & Order’ terminals and a cutting-edge store design be enough to revitalise M&S? The answer, it would appear, is that it might, but it will be dependent on management’s ability to translate what has been achieved in Cheshire Oaks to other locations, and whether the will and the money to do  it is made available.

Bolland is bullish: “This is our latest thinking and, by the way, when I say ‘latest thinking’, you know it’s not going to stop.” It seems unlikely that M&S will build another store on this scale anytime soon, but for the moment, this is an impressive line in the sand.

M&S Cheshire Oaks

Opened August 29

Architecture Aukett Fitzroy Robinson

Built by Simons Group

Ambience Contemporary eco

Scale 151,000 sq ft