The Chinese city may have many familiar retailers but the stores take things to a new level.
Shanghai is quite a long way from the UK, about 5,700 miles, which means you might be forgiven for imagining that it would be somewhat different. And to a large extent, this assumption would be warranted. This is a city with a Maglev train that whizzes travellers from the airport to the city centre in seven minutes at speeds of up to 400km an hour (the world’s fastest train). It is a place where elevated roads dissect the city centre and where architects come to play in a skyscraper world.
Yet, when it comes to retail, Shanghai looks remarkably familiar. The city has 10 Marks & Spencer stores, there is every luxury brand you might care to shake a stick at, and if you want to see what every US mid-market fashion retailer, from Gap to American Eagle, is up to, look no further. There is a big difference, however: the scale of investment. The big luxury stores look bigger and glossier, because in most cases they are. And if you want to examine the latest formats, this is a good place to start.
And curiously, while China is hardly a Christocentric culture, it is hard to go anywhere in the country’s commercial capital in the run-up to Christmas without being reminded of Santa and his elves.
But more than anything perhaps, there is the sense that this is a city that offers a glimpse of how things might become in Europe, although perhaps without the smog, if only the money were available.
A day spent walking the streets and sidewalks with old Shanghai hand Paul Brooks, managing director of
visual merchandiser SFD, was an educational experience.
Balenciaga, Nanjing Road West
Forming part of the same luxury mall as the Moncler store, the Balenciaga shop is an exercise in telling customers exactly what they need to know - this is an exclusive store, and shoppers will be seductively parted from large amounts of cash if they make a purchase. From the outside, with its window filled with 3D holes that each appear geometric in shape but are also different from their neighbours, to an interior that picks up on this around the perimeter, this is an interesting departure from store design norms.
As well as the holes being asymmetrical in form, the interior landscape is also lacking a rigid shape. The architects have opted instead to create a free-form contemporary series of mid-shop plinths and tables using straight lines and upscale materials.
Moncler, Nanjing Road West
The private equity-owned Italian luxury brand, perhaps best known for its down-filled jackets, comes up trumps at this store on the central Nanjing Road, one of the city’s main retail arteries.
Moncler has one of the more eye-catching windows along the strip. While Shanghai may get chilly, the choice of stylised outsized sleds in the window, coupled with identically dressed figures in white, all set against a dark wood background is both traditional and futuristic at the same time and nothing to do with the local climate.
The display also does what a good window should - it communicates Christmas without needing to resort to holly, bells, reindeer et al, and yet the onlooker understands the seasonal intent at a glance.
Marks & Spencer, Golden Bell Plaza, Huaihai Road
There are 10 M&S branches in China, all of them in the Shanghai area. The store on Huaihai Road is the biggest. Opened in June and boasting what the retailer refers to as a Concept 11 shopfit (more or less the newest of the M&S interiors), it would be quite easy to think you were in the UK, so close is the resemblance to what has been done in the retailer’s new stores here.
There is, however, one very big difference - the food hall is on the first floor, something that would pretty much be anathema in the home market. In part, this has much to do with the store’s geography as it is very long and relatively narrow. As such, the whole of the ground floor is devoted to womenswear, with pillars used to segment the various in-house brands.
Everything else is upstairs, which means shoppers can enjoy buying fresh bread from the in-store bakery while just across the aisle is the men’s suit offer. That may not sound like a layout calculated to appeal, but on the day of Retail Week’s visit, the whole store was busy and there were plenty of M&S bags at street level.
American Eagle, Nanjing Road West
Authentic is an overused term in both visual merchandising and store design, but walk into a branch of Pittsburgh-headquartered American Eagle and the chances are that this might be the adjective that would be used. The Shanghai branch is no exception, and if you want a slice of down-home Americana, this is probably as good as it gets. From the plain wood fixtures used to create the mid-shop equipment to the open wardrobes around the perimeter, the sense is an open-fire log cabin on the prairie.
The look is, of course, assisted by the fact that a combination of checked shirts and denim continues to be the retailer’s default fashion position. It is the manner in which the colours are paired and stories are told that makes this store appealing however, and it is probably the most overtly American fashion store in the city, Gap notwithstanding.
Alfred Dunhill Home, Huaihai Road
Visiting this ‘store’ is not a matter of walking up, taking a look at the windows and then pushing the door. Access to the Alfred Dunhill Home is instead a question of coming off the main drag and being allowed (visits are by appointment only) into the courtyard where the store is situated.
The underlying idea is that the interior of this building should look and feel as if it could be the home of Alfred Dunhill, the luxury-loving gent who travelled a lot and established the well-known brand. And if shoppers do manage to get past the uniformed sentries, then the interior view is of a jumble of things that create a potpourri interior, ranging from half an aluminium plane wing to a section of vintage Jaguar, attached to the wall upstairs.
This is rather more club than shop, and being a member does confer privileges (there are more than 1,500 apparently), including concessionary rates on the merchandise, as well as access to the bar and restaurant on the first floor.
This is as much a visual merchandising construct of colonial life as Ralph Lauren is a picture of the polo-playing class’ existence, but it is a must-visit if you are in the city.