The Conran Shop in Chelsea has traded for 25 years, but has been refurbished to give it greater relevance. John Ryan reports.
Head west from Harrods, turn left at the second set of lights and you move from designer clothing to designer furniture land.
This is the part of London where South Kensington almost collides with Chelsea and where if you fancy a coffee and a chocolate croissant, expect to part with upwards of a fiver (while sitting admiring the street scene, naturally).
And at the heart of it all is The Conran Shop, just at the point where the Fulham Road begins and prefaced by the beautiful Michelin building – the former garage turned Conran eaterie. This is what the retailer refers to as the The Conran Shop Chelsea. It is the flagship for the 11-store strong chain and used to be the place you went to in search of domestic interior design inspiration and then headed off to somewhere else where you could afford the prices.
This is the legacy that managing director Nick Moore has been striving to deal with since he took the reins three years ago. “When I arrived [The Conran Shop] was a bit confused and a bit too expensive,” he says. “I knew it was losing money but I didn’t know it was losing as much money as it was.”
There is also the additional problem for shops operating in what is known as Brompton Cross that footfall tends to decline drastically beyond Harrods on the nearby Brompton Road.
Tourist traffic does not find its way down here and therefore the challenge facing Moore and his team has been to make The Conran Shop more of a destination for shoppers from beyond the immediate environs and to reposition elements of the ranges. The latter part was achieved fairly rapidly after Moore’s arrival with a new offer that was dubbed the ‘Well considered’ collection, which translated as more affordable merchandise without sacrificing design intent. Moore says that “entry level” products in the store now account for about 20% of the total, up from 5% when he arrived.
As well as the product, the other challenge was to give greater clarity to the store in terms of layout and product display. “One of the things was that we still felt like a department store when everybody else had more or less caught up,” says Moore. There was also the fact that this is a building where the floor at one end is 50cms higher than at the other – deliberately, as it was intended to make the business of rolling tyres more straightforward when it was a garage.
Look closely today – and you do have to look quite closely – and it gradually becomes apparent that the tiled floor is mildly uneven in parts, purely as a result of the slanting nature of the underlying floor.
A difficult space to contend with then, but it does possess one obvious advantage as far as a big internal overhaul is concerned – both of the floors from which it trades are composed of rooms. This means that rather than a large open space, there are areas that can be closed off while a makeover is undertaken without compromising the overall look and feel of the store.
Tricks of the trade
At this point, it would be tempting to say that this all sounds like a job for the design consultants, but Moore is quick to point out that what has been done is the result of in-house work: “We’ve got enough experience between us to deal with this,” he says.
The outcome is a store where a whole series of visual tricks have been played. On the ground floor, the one that slants, there is no sense of a grid layout: “You learn not to merchandise anything straight on because that accentuates the angles,” says Moore. He also point out that there are a lot of groups of pendant lights on this floor – the result of a conscious decision to keep the eye focused at a low level – in order that the floor’s irregularities are not too apparent.
And again, if you look closely at the single display unit in the mid-shop that rises up from the floor to any height worth mentioning, you will notice that it is just not quite level.
Made in Chelsea
What you will remark upon, however, is that this is rather more a store where shoppers are encouraged to browse and test-drive the stock. “This is probably the only place in the country where you can look at well-designed pieces and see them placed in the kind of interior environment which you’d expect to find in a home,” says Moore.
Maybe this is the case if you happen to be a Chelsea denizen, but for the bulk of those who come from beyond Brompton Cross and its environs, this is a place where you will come and probably spend a considerable amount of time before a purchase is considered.
And to make this a little more relaxing, the room to the right of the main floor is labelled the ‘library’ and ‘gallery’. Walk in here and you’ll find a bookshelf, books and chairs and if you feel so minded you can “chill”, as Moore puts it, before putting money where your mouth may be.
This room even provides entry to the cafe area of Bibendum, the restaurant in the garage building, so if the charms of the library prove insufficient, perhaps a glass of white or a shot of coffee will do the trick.
Downstairs, there are more rooms with areas for lighting, table football, kitchen implements and the ‘play zone’. The latter is where you go if you’re in search of Moore’s “cool stuff” and if you want a red turntable for your vinyl at just over £300, look no further.
But it is rather less the merchandise, although this has obvious appeal, and more the visual merchandising that will probably persuade shoppers to dig deep. In the play zone, for instance, a series of featureless wooden heads on shelves are the tasteful way of showing off the range of headphones that is on offer.
Indeed, overall it is the merchandise displays that really beguile from the moment you enter the store, where a tree constructed from geometrically linked lights makes you stop, to the child-size Bugatti racing car (a snip at more than £5,000).
The Conran Shop is still the place where you go to get yourself a piece of fine design, whatever the category, but in its new form it is also somewhere that feels more accessible and less Chelsea. This may be metropolitan chic, but it is open to anyone and since the makeover has been completed a little under three months ago, conversion rates have risen from 18% to 25%, according to Moore.
This is still a luxury store, but it is one that does not now require the constant financial support of owner Sir Terence Conran and which should, in due course and recessions permitting, turn in a tidy profit at some point in the not too distant future.
Conran shop, Fulham Road
Location Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London
Number of floors Two, with many rooms
Reason for visiting Design that is easy on the eye
Managing director Nick Moore