BHS has followed the blueprint it revealed in Uxbridge almost a year ago with a series of new shops and modernisations, with the latest being in Swindon. John Ryan visits to assess the roll-out

BHS, Swindon

Size 27,000 sq ft
Number of floors Two
Design In-house based on the Dalziel + Pow blueprint from Uxbridge last year
Noteworthy feature The store-front

It’s a year since Arcadia chief executive Ian Grabiner escorted Retail Week around the newly opened BHS store in Uxbridge and at the time he was all smiles. The store, designed by consultancy Dalziel + Pow, looked radically different from a run-of-the-mill branch and, perhaps more than anything else, it looked modern. It looked, in fact, unlike a BHS, and it is amazing how views of the products on offer change when the environment does.

At the time, the big question mark had to be whether Sir Philip Green would feel minded to dig into the coffers and hit the roll-out button and, equally, whether the concept could be value-engineered to make this a practicable proposition. The Uxbridge store cost £1.5m, according to Grabiner, for a store of 27,000 sq ft. Or put another way, the cost per square foot came in at £55.50, which does seem pretty low considering what was done.

Since Uxbridge, a brace of new stores, modernisations and resites have hit high streets and the latest is in Swindon. To an extent, Swindon lives up to its reputation for being somewhat less than glamorous, and coming in from a car park in the “town centre west”, it’s hard not to notice the preponderance of empty units, bookies and pawnbrokers. This may have been boomtown at one stage, but that appears to have been some time ago.

Faded glamour

Now the focus is on regeneration, and rounding the corner you suddenly find yourself in downtown Swindon: The Parade. This is Swindon’s more acceptable face and as well as some reasonably new-looking shopfronts, including a branch of Lush that has abandoned the familiar green and yellow logo in favour of straightforward black and white, there is a run of several brand new units. One of these is a Topshop/Topman store, there is a new model River Island and, finally, there’s BHS.

All of these have high, glazed shopfronts that take the eye skywards and which demand attention in a way that all of the other shops along the street do not. And curiously, this two-floor BHS - ground and a long, deep mezzanine - also happens to have 27,000 sq ft of selling space, according to creative director Jacquie Gray, making it identical to the measurement of the Uxbridge store. The difference here is that while Uxbridge was a mall-based branch, this BHS is located on a pedestrianised high street.

It is perhaps also worth noting that while Dalziel + Pow was retained to work on the first few branches following Uxbridge, this is the first store in which BHS has gone it alone.

The mix of departments in this store is different. Gray says that space is flexible in this store allowing other Arcadia brands to be inserted as required - this store does not have the Miss Selfridge and Wallis areas that made Uxbridge look like a possible new route for the retailer. Instead this is, for the moment at least, a monobrand BHS store and the huge window that offer views to both floors pose a visual merchandising challenge from the outset.

A clean sweep

For the opening, which was just over two weeks ago, a confection composed of ladders and planks in which the predominant colour was yellow provided an eye-catcher for passing shoppers. Had they looked a little longer, they would also have seen the balcony formed by the end of the mezzanine and a blue and white display to the right of the window. And overall, the impression of clean and white was almost everywhere.

But what would have been most noticeable would have been the logo across the shopfront. Here the paprika highlight colour of Uxbridge has been retained, coupled with white and a sober grey background. This is a very grown-up frontage with more than a touch of the designerly about it and the almost complete banishment of the BHS that will be familiar to many elsewhere.

Internally, the layout is simple with women’s and kids’ on the ground floor and men’s, home and a cafe on the first. The whole offer is significantly segmented with space and internal walls being provided for each of the brands that are spread across the departments.

There also appears to be inspiration from elsewhere, with what look like outsize harps with a few strings missing being the focal point for the various in-store displays around which mannequins are clustered. Anyone who has been to a recently modernised branch of John Lewis in the past year or so will have seen something of the kind on the women’s floor, but you can’t blame BHS for cherry-picking one of the better-looking elements from a competitor, if that is indeed what has been done.

Set for change

The other point is that as well as the stores that have already had the Uxbridge treatment this year, there is more to come, according to managing director Mike Goring. “We’re really pleased with the way things have gone and these stores are making a difference,” he says. Chesterfield, Cambridge, Reading and Cheltenham are all set for modernisation this year and a resite is taking place in Newcastle.

Goring and Gray reel off a raft of other stores and it does look as if the experiment that began at the end of the Metropolitan line in 2010 is gaining momentum in 2011. No word yet, however, about what should be done with the Oxford Street behemoth or, indeed, what can be done with some of the more obvious also-rans in the portfolio.

That said, things do seem to be progressing well and, presumably, now that costs have been brought down from the Uxbridge prototype, a full-scale roll-out may be a realistic possibility.

For the moment at least this is without doubt the best shop in Swindon - this in a town where House of Fraser and Debenhams both give the appearance of being elderly retail dowagers.

If the way to the heart of regeneration is through modern retailing, then BHS is certainly a good example of what can be done if the will is there.