In today’s market, the best value retailing compares with many of the mid-market’s big names. John Ryan heads to Pitsea in Essex to see how Indian-owned Store Twenty One is shaping up

High-profile, good-looking value stores are 10-a-penny these days. Or, more accurately perhaps, they sell 10 items for a penny and are as likely to be on Oxford Street as, say, Wallop-in-the-Mere, Upper Swadlingheath, or anywhere else for that matter.

It is certainly the case that anyone visiting the centre of a major city these days will be hard-pushed to avoid a Primark or a TK Maxx, but head out of town and the picture changes. The carefully crafted store designs of the large metropolises’ value retailers give way to a culture of decaying shopfits and stores that are little pieces of yesteryear. Cheap they may be, but many of them don’t look so good.

And it is in precisely this arena that Store Twenty One – the restyled version of value chain QS – is located. To understand why, a little history is required. In 2006, QS group chief executive and chairman Findlay Caldwell took a hard look at the failing QS and Bewise value chains and promptly closed 140 shops. This done, he set about restoring the fortunes of the remaining 200 or so stores, giving them all the QS fascia in the process.

A little more than a year later, Store Twenty One was born as a value concept that would involve refitting a number of existing QS stores, in an effort to appeal to a broader market.

Caldwell says that the name emerged from an internal brainstorming session, in which one of the proposed names was Zest. “It was perfect, but we found out that there was already a health magazine with that name, so we couldn’t do it,” he says. Store Twenty One it was, then. But even this name has undergone a process of subtle metamorphosis. When the first shop opened in October last year, it was dubbed Store 21.

24 more branches followed in the same month and then, in January, Caldwell called in design consultancy Dalziel + Pow to create a more aspirational environment. “We didn’t feel that the experience had gone far enough [with Store 21] so we started talking to David [Dalziel, creative director at Dalziel + Pow]. We wanted a design that would still be good value for money, but that would be more contemporary,” he says. “In the value sector, a lot of the players are quite masculine. There’s a lot of black and white out there, so we wanted something different.”

The result was Store Twenty One. There are three of these pilot stores at present, which opened in May at Pitsea in Essex, Great Yarmouth and Solihull. At 7,500 sq ft (695 sq m), the Pitsea store is the largest of the trio and is a pleasant surprise for those taking the short walk under a motorway flyover from the railway station to downtown Pitsea.

Pitsea is, as Caldwell remarks, a destination peopled principally by “C1s, C2s and Ds”. It is not affluent-looking by any standards, but neither is it run down. This is just estuarial Essex and should, in theory, be fertile ground for a value retailer when one considers the surrounding competition.

This branch of Store Twenty One is, in fact, on a small, edge-of-town retail park sandwiched between frozen food specialist Farmfoods and a new-look Pets at Home store. It is the only one of the three stores at this location that has windows. Caldwell says that, when the store was looked at originally, planning permission for windows was not in place. “Before we signed the lease, we had to have this sorted out and we had quite a battle,” he says.

The skirmishing paid off and Store Twenty One has two large windows either side of the entrance and a large gable to which the three-deck white logo has been attached, set against a royal-blue background. The shop is nearing the end of a summer clearance and the windows are in Sale mode, with three white mannequins in each, in front of the usual promotional backdrop.

Step inside and the first thing that is apparent is that, despite the lofty external gable, the ceiling seems quite low. It isn’t, but Dalziel + Pow and the retailer have conspired to lower the ceiling with a slatted, white screen that is suspended from it. The ceiling is high, but more or less vanishes through the simple trick of painting it a matt black-grey, diverting the eye towards the screen, which also serves as a lighting rig.

This is a straightforward design strategy, but one that often falls apart and looks garish because of retailers’ propensity to paint voids in an almost gloss black – an execution that focuses attention on empty space and makes it obvious that the shopper is in a retail shed.

Caldwell also says that, by keeping shoppers’ gaze low, the stock on the many different types of rail comes into prominence. And, looking at the rest of the interior, it is clear that a system of departmental colour-coding is at work and that equipment heights have been kept relatively low, so that shoppers can identify the part of the shop that they need to get to easily.

The store is divided into three long departments, running from front to back. Womenswear is positioned to the left and across part of the central area. Homewares occupies the bulk of the central area and to the right is childrenswear, followed by menswear. The cash desk sits against the perimeter wall on the right-hand side and has been kept simple and uncluttered.

Caldwell says that womenswear accounts for about half of the turnover, menswear about 20 per cent, and childrenswear and home for 15 per cent each. Broadly, this accords with the in-store division of space at the Pitsea store.

This simple scheme is reinforced by the use of colour. The perimeter wall of womenswear is identified by a series of pastel-purple panels, childrenswear by pastel-green panels, menswear by pastel-blue and homewares by freestanding walls covered in a dark-wood veneer. Mood graphics have been incorporated, in both colour and black and white, and the overall impression is of a soft retail environment.

It is worth noting that the temptation to mark out the lingerie department by some kind of pastel-pink has been resisted. Instead, the panels for this area at the back of the shop have been fashioned from a lighter wood than has been used for homewares and a lightbox is suspended immediately above the space.

Beyond this are the spacious and well-specified fitting rooms, which are one of the store’s highlights and use the graphics from the sales floor for the individual fitting-room doors. All in all, these rooms do not make you feel as though you are in a cut-price environment.

But you are. And anybody who has visited Primark on Oxford Street will recognise that this springs from the same stable. It really isn’t much of an issue, though. This is a perfectly respectable iteration of what good value retailing is all about these days and its location among what can only be described as secondary retailing, in a distinctly secondary location, adds to its manifest appeal.

Caldwell says that the Pitsea store cost about£70 per sq ft (£753 per sq m) to design and fit out, but he hopes to cut this in half with a bit of judicious value engineering. Expect more, pay less – the value promise is made whole at Store Twenty One and there will be more to come.