Is it really possible to be a mass merchant and to have a store design that is in any way cutting edge?

On Thursday, Next reopened its store on the corner of Oxford Street and New Bond Street with a new shop-fit, an extra floor and the latest version of a store design that kicked off a couple of years ago in locations such as Meadowhall and, more recently, further along Oxford Street.

The point about what was unveiled last week is not that it was revolutionary, it was not, but that Next really does live the ‘evolution not revolution’ mantra. If you were to visit each of the stores that the retailer has opened since Meadowhall, it would be easy spot the original and how this has been carried forward with small, but generally significant tweaks to the original blueprint. The outcome, is that the latest version is a long way from where the design started and as a vehicle for mass merchandising, it looks pretty effective.

But here’s the thing. Is it really possible to be a mass merchant and to have a store design that is in any way cutting edge? There was a time, not so long ago, when it became apparent that value fashion operators such as New Look and to an extent Primark, were creating store environments that would put the mid-market under pressure. This was in fact relatively easy, as a decent graphics package and some creative layouts can go a long way towards improving perceptions of a retail space.

It was mooted that in an effort to put distance between themselves and these arriviste value playersthe mid-market response might be to move further upscale.

All well and good, but the problem is this. There comes a point in shop display and store layout when less is more - and that is the moment at which a brand seems happy to charge high prices and to have relatively little on show. For the middle-market, this just isn’t possible, as volume sales are the only way in which they can function meaningfully and turn a profit.

The question therefore is whether ultimately, as Tony Blair once claimed: “We are all middle class now”. Are the value and mid-market set to fuse, or is there is still some trick that retailers such as Next, River Island and Marks & Spencer might be able to play that will continue to separate them from the pursuing herd. On the evidence of the high street at the moment, the answer would seem to be no and it is hard to see how things could be any other way.