The retailer has revamped its Ruislip store to include a Habitat shop-in-shop and a decoration inspiration area.

In DIY terms, Homebase is the perennial bridesmaid and never the bride. It’s position as second fiddle to B&Q is the result both of its rather ‘softer’ approach to the category and the fact that its stores do not tend to be on the scale of what its rival does.

And to an extent many of the branches in its 340-strong portfolio serve as local DIY drop in points, rather than major project destinations, purely because there always seems to be a Homebase just around the corner – you just go to pick something up. This is fine in principle, footfall is always good, but it does consign the retailer to its secondary role in the market.

However, this may not be a bad thing. Harder-end DIY is straightforward and is generally a volume game. Shoppers expect to find everything they need under one roof, no matter how esoteric the tool, widget or paint colour, and this requires very large sheds. If, however, the emphasis is upon ‘home improvement’ projects, then the compass shifts more in the direction of Homebase.

Ruislip, some way along the A40 as the charge out of London towards Oxford is made, provides one of the first pieces of evidence that there is fresh thinking under way at Homebase.

Managing director Paul Loft says: “This is the next step of the journey for Homebase. This store takes some of the learnings from a store we did in Maidenhead a year ago.”

The Maidenhead project was the outcome of arson on the store there, which meant a complete rebuild and the chance to start afresh. At the time, Homebase enlisted the help of design consultancy Dalziel + Pow to come up with a blueprint for a new interior that would help shoppers engage more closely with the retailer and make it a destination for home interior project shoppers.

Unlike Maidenhead, Ruislip has had a refit, and at £800,000 for a 40,000 sq ft space, it sounds relatively inexpensive, although doing something of the kind across a large estate does inevitably have substantial capex implications.

Walking around the store, the first thing that Loft is keen to emphasise is that, while there are still large elements of DIY as part of the overall mix, the proportion of space devoted to hammers, nails and suchlike has been reduced. He is also at pains to point out that while the space may be smaller, the merchandising is denser, meaning that the same number of product options are still available in-store.

The effect of slimming down the square footage given to DIY is that it gives the rest of the shop room to breathe and makes way for some of the newer elements in this store.

And there are two features that mark this branch out from many of the others in the Homebase estate – a raft of brands that have been given their own space and identity, and an ‘ideas and inspiration’ area where home improvers can discover their design talents.

Habitat shop-in-shop

Among the brands that have been given space, the most obvious is Habitat. There are only three Habitat stores left in the UK and the appearance of a shop-in-shop just inside the entrance is a surprise. Loft says: “It’s got 1,000 SKUs. A typical 30,000 sq ft Habitat would have had around 3,000 items, so we’ve really managed to get a lot in.”

The Habitat space, which has its own discrete fascia, is a relatively small area located along the right-hand perimeter wall, beneath the mezzanine. Loft says that the design team that works on the Habitat standalone stores has been responsible for the proposition in this instance, and that service forms a major part of ensuring that shoppers find this new venture appealing.

He adds that service has more generally been used to add to the reasons that shoppers might have for choosing Homebase in Ruislip ahead of its rivals.

And adjacent to the Habitat area, with shelves bearing posh Farrow & Ball paint, is the ‘ideas and inspiration’ space. This is designated by open-ended drums, acting as beacons and suspended overhead with different colours of faux brushstrokes painted on them. Above these, a much bigger open-ended drum bears the legend ‘Decorating ideas’. This may not be the most inspirational message, but it does serve as an effective piece of in-store navigation.

Ideas and inspiration area

There is a sense that this might not be entirely necessary however, as this part of the shop has low-level tables, rather than the long, high shelves that mean aisles elsewhere, and on each table there are computer monitors that serve as individual workstations.

This is where the design and inspiration happens and facilities are in place for shoppers to create interior mood boards and consider on-screen what a particular paint, wallpaper or layout might look like.

There is even an option for customers to bring in photos of their own homes and then digitally redecorate while they are in the store.

A member of staff says that at the moment this is open to anybody to take advantage of, but that increasingly shoppers are coming into the store – it has been open around five weeks – and then coming back after having secured more extended screen time.

Overall, this is simple stuff but it is well executed, and if Homebase could manage to do this elsewhere, it would certainly set it apart from harder-end competitors.

Finally, there is the mezzanine. Getting shoppers up a level in any store is always tricky and getting them to inspect a modestly sized mezzanine is a little more difficult again. In order to encourage customers to head upstairs, there is a static cardboard cutout of a person onto which film of a real person talking has been projected.

The effect is always a little unnerving (there is a good one of these in Luton airport advising travellers on what they need to do before security), but in Ruislip it has been combined with a large screen, on the wall behind the landing halfway up to the mezzanine. Loft says that shopper numbers heading upstairs have doubled.

As in other Homebase stores, the mezzanine is used to house roomsets, with a number of branded interiors on view, including Schreiber, a name that was the property of MFI prior to its demise. This is a reasonably aspirational brand and Loft notes that “some of the growth is coming from the mid and upper end”.

He also says that as Homebase is linked into the Nectar loyalty card programme, the segmentation of the various customer cohorts who walk through the door is becoming better, meaning more appropriately targeted products and marketing.

Solihull and Newbury are next on the Homebase list to receive a makeover, and following this Loft says that decisions will be taken on the scale of future investment and a roll-out.

For the moment at least, Ruislip is as good as it gets for Homebase and it is certainly an improvement on what was there before. It also sets a new benchmark for the retailer.

Homebase, Ruislip

Size 40,000 sq ft

Refurbishment cost £800,000

Design In-house and Dalziel + Pow

Target “The home and garden improver”

Highlights The idea and inspiration space and Habitat shop-in-shop