A makeover of USC’s Buchanan Street store may have been cost-conscious but it shows off a big selection of brands.

It’s around 16 months since Sports Direct pounced and acquired casual fashion brands retailer USC. At the time, there was speculation that the move might mean that an outfit with a modestly sized store portfolio might emerge as a kind of TK Maxx manqué – brands for less, sold from stores in secondary locations. There was good reason for the suspicion. USC, which had been one of a number of retailers that sold mid-market fashion brands (think Bank and Republic), had increasingly been marginalised by its rivals. There was a sense that it had lost its way.

A destination for denim

Within the Sports Direct group however, plans for the fascia were different, and the first signs of this change in attitude are evident at the Buchanan Street flagship in Glasgow.

Emma Alexander, former Marks & Spencer Per Una head of buying and for the last two years brand-cum-managing director at USC, is at pains to emphasise that although the fashion retailer is part of Sports Direct, it functions very much as a business in its own right. “They [Sports Direct] have made huge changes to the back office – infrastructure, IT and warehousing – and all of it has been beneficial. But USC is a separate business,” she says.

Alexander is bullish about USC’s prospects, and says that the plan is to raise the store count from 40 at present to “between 60 and 100 in good locations over the next five years”.

To do that however, USC has to be a proposition shoppers want to frequent and its recent history has been such that it might not be the first destination that springs to mind when searching for branded clothing.

Stand outside the Buchanan Street shop though and it is evident that it is a store that shoppers might pause and give the once, or even twice, over.

It has just undergone a largely cosmetic makeover, and last week the major feature of the window was a group of mannequins backed by a deliberately aged sign bearing the message ‘Destination Denim The UK’s Largest Denim Selection’. For a two-floor store that covers 9,000 sq ft, of which the denim department is just one area, that is a bold claim.

Alexander says that a look at the market in the UK will show that, while there are plenty of large mono-brand denim offerings, there is no other retailer that stocks such a wide range of denim brands. That may well be the case with names such as Soviet, Diesel, Firetrap and Replay all forming part of the mix. But is it sufficient to draw shoppers through the door?

Differentiating the store

As always, the store’s the star and the reason that customers will enter. While the logo above the door is a bold white on black font that shouts USC with a sub-title that states Usc.co.uk, perhaps inferring that this is a digital as much as a terrestrial business, it will still be judged on the store interior. And the initial view from the front of the store allows shoppers to see right to the back.

This may sound simplistic, but several retailers operating in the same arena seem to have forgotten the importance of sightlines in terms of getting shoppers to move across the threshold.

Inside the door, to the left, the promise of the windows is made good with the same Destination Denim sign located on the perimeter amid a wall of brands. In front of this there are denim tables and then yet more jeans, suspended by their belt loops on mid-floor steel fixtures.

To lend a degree of ‘street’ to the whole affair, wallpaper has been applied to the area featuring dry-stone walls. This is obviously far cheaper  than applying real stone, as some retailers have done, but the overall effect does not fall short of the mark.

To the right is another feature that Alexander says she hopes to take to the other stores in the estate – the footwear department. There is little doubting that a wide range is proposed to the USC customer, but a glance along the perimeter shows that it is not an integrated whole. Ranging from the black and white chequerboard treatment that denotes the Vans offer to the blue and white that means Adidas, this side of the shop is well merchandised, but it does rather look as if each of the brands has taken over an area and made it its own. There may not be much wrong with doing this, and it will certainly have been cost-effective in terms of paying for the store makeover, but it does run the risk of making this a house of mid-market brands, rather than a USC branded house.

From here in, the central divide that takes the eye towards the back of the floor is filled with various casual clothing brands, including the curiously named Weekend Offender, which does sound worrying. It is a good-looking floor, if a mite lacking in USC definition, and upstairs women’s fashion and men’s sports await.

This floor is accessed either by an escalator towards the front left-hand side of the store, or via a staircase at the back. Both feature large mood graphics and shoppers approach the upper level with expectations already raised by the ground floor.

Creating a unique proposition

In truth, not much has been done to the first floor and, while the range is no doubt competent, it is not enhanced by a crowded floor and generally white walls. Alexander admits that this is a work in progress and that the focus has been on getting the ground floor right.

This seems a fair assessment and there can be little arguing when she says that the changes that have taken place since the Sports Direct takeover have resulted in “double-digit increases every week”. That may, of course, have meant that USC had reached its nadir and whatever was done, the only way was up, but that might be carping.

For the most part, the store on Buchanan Street is a contender and it also happens to be in the right place – on a busy pedestrianised shopping street where affluent Glasgow takes the air. The challenge now facing USC is to take what has been done on the ground floor and to make it more general across the group.

There is also the small matter of store locations. There are other USC stores in the Glasgow area – East Kilbride, Braehead shopping centre and nearby Sauchiehall Street all boast a branch.

The latter actually functions as a clearance shop and therefore probably doesn’t count, but USC needs to set up shop in more locations like Buchanan Street if it is to regain its former non-discount high street positioning.

“We needed to get across that we are not a shop selling discount brands and that we have the right, credible brands in our stores. We’re trying to have a unique proposition on the high street,” says Alexander.

USC may not have entirely got there yet, but the Buchanan Street flagship does look like a step in the right direction.

USC, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

Nature of work Refurbishment

Store design In-house

Number of USC stores 40

Store target within the next five years 60 to 100