Bluewater faces more competition these days but it still merits a visit. John Ryan reports on what it has to offer.
It’s 14 years since Bluewater opened and in that time much has changed. Just across the Thames estuary, Lakeside has raised its game, and a little further afield the two Westfield giants offer a world of choice.
All of which might have meant this scheme, set in a former chalk pit in Kent, could have been superseded by newer and refurbished alternatives. Yet when shopping centres are listed by total sales, Bluewater tends to come close to the top of the table - it is fourth according to the latest data from retail researchers Trevor Wood Associates.
And a visit on the Thursday before Easter confirmed the continuing pull of this centre and, equally, that change continues to be an everyday occurrence as the tenant roster is adjusted. It also proved the lifetime and novelty value of a mall can be extended, providing canny asset management is ongoing.
Marks & Spencer
Bluewater was one of the first stores in the mid-market giant’s portfolio to receive a makeover when Sir Stuart Rose was in charge.
The prominent yellow-sided escalator, set in its own atrium at the heart of the store, is a reminder of what was done.
At present things are moving on, following the lead provided by the leviathan that is the Cheshire Oaks store, which opened last autumn.
A digital duvet and pillow selector, illuminated mannequin plinths and outsize touchscreens that look like iPhones, all found at Cheshire Oaks, are in place. To this a graphics package has been added, aimed at providing clearer segmentation and greater definition for shoppers in the store’s womenswear department.
At present this is a pilot ahead of a possible roll-out.
The two major new elements are the ‘classic’ and ‘tailoring’ departments, both with their own semi-discrete spaces thanks to freestanding walls that keep them apart from other parts of the women’s range.
In the classic department, faux wood panels have been put against part of the perimeter wall to which a mood photo and the word ‘classic’ have been added. That is complemented by circular plinths in the mid-shop that feature the same wooden finish and are occupied by mannequins sporting the product.
The tailoring area involves another graphic, set against a freestanding wall and a nest of low tables with a white finish, on which mannequins perch and the merchandise is displayed.
Nothing that has been done could be termed as revolutionary, but the tailoring area in particular has a freshness that would look good in other branches.
Bluewater is a large mall, but not so big that it’s impossible to spot two branches of the same retailer under the one roof. What this shopping centre succeeds in doing therefore is offering a slice of Clinton Cards history.
The older of the two branches is called Clinton Cards and has the recognisable EasyJet-orange logo coupled with the equally familiar slat wall on both of the perimeter walls. Lighting is uniform throughout and the store appears a mite old-fashioned when set against its sister, on the other side of this circular mall, which is simply called Clintons.
Both shops carry a very similar product range, but the newer one is the format that was first unveiled in Cheapside last year and features a cherry red logo, blue and cream walls and a dark wood floor. The effect is altogether more upscale and perhaps a little American, but the question remains why the retailer has allowed two versions of the same store to coexist here.
Branding a store so that it reflects its locality is something retailers from Budgens to Vodafone have been doing for a while now. Often though, ‘localisation’ amounts to little more than putting the name of the town or city in which the shop is located next to the logo.
And at first sight, that might appear to be the case with the clean, curved frontage of the Waterstones’ Bluewater branch. Look beyond the fascia however and it is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into making this store appropriate to the location with the inclusion of a bookcase just beyond the front door that contains ‘The Bluewater Chart’.
How the books on this list are compiled is a moot point, but it does focus attention on the volumes that are on show.
To this has been added the usual handwritten railcards with recommendations from the staff that are a feature of all Waterstones stores, but at the base of each are the words ‘Kent’s destination bookshop’.
Opened at the end of last month, the Triumph store is not without competition from the likes of Boux Avenue, La Senza and, of course, Marks & Spencer, all vying for a slice of the lingerie market. And although the fixtures and fittings do bear fairly close comparison to Boux Avenue, the finishes are completely different.
The same circular mid-shop units with drawers of knickers are evident in Triumph, but plain wood, rather than shiny white, is the dominant finish.
The overall tone is lower key with an emphasis being placed on the brand’s heritage, courtesy of a series of wood-framed museum-style cases that makes a display feature of the bras that are on offer around the shop.
What is missing, when compared with Boux Avenue, are the customer-facing digital elements, such as digital photo frames.
That said, much play is made of the ‘tailoress’ service - a bra-fitting offer. The name is picked up with the ‘tailoress wall’, a feature that is intended to celebrate the brand’s back catalogue with pieces from its 127-year history on loan from the archives in Heubach in Germany.
Worth noting too are the ‘Mirror Rooms’, where customers get fitted. Each is named after a Triumph best-seller of yesteryear.
For clean execution and a consistency of in-store approach, Swedish-owned lifestyle brand Gant is one of the better acts in Bluewater at present. This might be for the mature preppy type, it might feel US, in spite of its Scandi provenance, but a brief look through the door reveals the fact that the fresh promise of the window displays (the shorts and blazer crowd would feel at home in this shop) is fulfilled.
And while the props - silver cups of the type won by triumphant rowing teams, metal-fronted packing trunks and faux-vintage photographs - might come from the how to do college-style windows, there is no denying its appeal. Add to this the club-look plank floor and this is about making the consumer feel as if the confines of a large shopping centre have been replaced by a slice of New England chic.
There are a number of retailers that vie for a place in this particular niche, but Gant does it better than most.