The department store group has opened its first smaller format shop in Exeter, showing off a little bit of everything.

A little over six weeks ago, John Lewis opened a store in Exeter. It was on two floors, was very small and fitted out to look totally unlike what you might expect of a John Lewis department store.

This was, in fact, a pop-up and was intended to function as a precursor to the main event – the opening of a John Lewis department store about 300 yards away, along the city’s principal shopping street. Now the bigger store is open and Exeter can be added to the select group of UK towns and cities that boast a branch of Middle England’s preferred shop. But like the pop-up, this shiny new emporium is not a standard John Lewis.

Or rather it is – it’s just that it’s smaller. This is the first of about 10 smaller footprint branches planned by the department store operator and is the same as its larger sisters, yet different. That means that where a standard, full-line John Lewis store such as Cardiff or Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway measures about 140,000 sq ft, this one is comparatively a half-pint-sized 64,000 sq ft. And to make the matter of getting the offer into the space slightly more problematic, it is spread across five floors, or six if you count the cafe that provides a view towards the cathedral.

Right range

Head of retail design Kim Morris says that the temptation when there is limited space is to thumb through the best-sellers list and make sure that everything that appears on it is represented on the floor. She cautions, however, that this form of editing can lead to a lacklustre offer: “If you do this, you lose a lot of the inspiration and the drama if you’re not careful. The danger is that you end up with a china department, for instance, full of white, because that’s what sells best.”

Morris says that the first task therefore, as well as considering how to divide up the floors, was to ensure that all of the departments found in a full-line store would still have space in the smaller footprint shop and that drama would be maintained. Prior to starting work on the project, Morris and her team worked with consultancy Dalziel + Pow on “defining what a smaller store would look like”.

The outcome is a multi-level store that is recognisably part of the John Lewis stable, but in place of the usual square footplates (and each floor is indeed square), the spaces have been broken up with “nooks and crannies”, as Morris puts it – meaning more of a meander for shoppers. One of the things that really sets this store apart is the number of screens attached to pillars and walls, so that if something is not on display, shoppers can access the full range online. These are present in full-line stores but with nothing like the prominence they are afforded here.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is to increase the [stock] density without making it feel crowded,” says Morris. This has involved rationalising the number of hanging display rails from 21 variants down to five. Morris comments that while this kind of thing helps with “long-term flexibility and cost” it does carry with it the potential risk of creating a boring in-store landscape.

To counter that, John Lewis has worked with visual merchandising consultancy RFK and created a box system in which variably sized open-fronted plywood boxes can be fitted into a frame, providing both diversity and interest for the shopper. Each floor also has a series of “hot spots” where products are clustered to create eye-catching pause points.

This can be seen to advantage on the lower ground floor, home to menswear and consumer electronics, where one of the corners has wallpaper that looks like wooden planks, creating a shed-like environment for the merchandise. The thinking behind putting consumer electronics next to menswear is straightforward – boys’ toys – but it is hard to understand why it has been done by so few other retailers.

Allowing stock to shine

The consumer electronics department (one of the highlights of John Lewis’ almost stellar performance during 2012 so far) is also noteworthy for the manner in which the high-tech merchandise has been coupled with display tables that feature plain, unvarnished wooden signposts on which the product areas are indicated. This low-tech/high-tech approach allows the stock to shine and also offers a pleasing simplicity at the same time.

In the best traditions of department store retailing, the beauty department is at the front of the ground floor with fashion accessories (mostly handbags) behind. Here, a fair number of the cues have been taken from the makeover that was given to the Oxford Street beauty department earlier this year, but once more, this is about condensation and representation.

And the beauty department is located cheek by jowl with the escalator, which runs up the store’s tower-like glazed front elevation. This makes what could have been a fairly ordinary piece of late 20th century architecture rather more of a talking point than when it was a Debenhams (the previous tenant).

The first floor is womenswear and John Lewis’ move towards giving branded merchandise room to breathe is evident in the signs for each label. They might be uniform in size and use of materials but, as the latter are neutral, it does mean that the brand logos assume a greater prominence than in other branches. The own-brand offer is also afforded more of a central role, although menswear appears to have the edge in this respect.

The second and third floors are about furniture and furnishings and, once more, this is a visual merchandising story rather than a commodity presentation. And so to the cafe, which has a sufficiently elevated aspect to make the journey to the top of the shop worthwhile.

Medium-sized town

On the short hop to the store from Exeter St David’s station last week, a council worker was putting up a sign that read John Lewis Princesshay. There were also posters detailing the opening (which took place last Friday) – this is a big event for the city.

Exeter is well-known for its university and a fine cathedral. It is not, however, a sprawling metropolis and the decision to bring a smaller John Lewis to the city seems the right one, because the return on investment from a full-line version would seem uncertain. If this one works well, then John Lewis has an entrée into medium-sized towns that it might otherwise not have considered.

The pop-up store was in place for six weeks and having broken shoppers gently into the idea of another department store in the city (House of Fraser and Debenhams are already there), the right size John Lewis is now a reality. Exeter is a better place to shop and York in 2013 and Chelmsford in 2014 are both set to benefit from this new format.

And the cost of it all? Rather more than the sum that might have been involved had the building been knocked down and John Lewis had started over, according to that most reliable of sources, a local taxi driver – Morris does not disagree.

John Lewis, Exeter

Opened October 12

Size 64,000 sq ft

Design In-house and Dalziel + Pow

Visual merchandising box system RFK

Next stores of this kind York (2013), Chelmsford (2014)