Lakeland’s new Stratford-upon-Avon store shows why the cookware retailer is thriving in a tough market. John Ryan goes to take a tour

Homewares is under the cosh at the moment and those involved in selling big-ticket items are coming under particular pressure.

Ostensibly, then, this would not appear to be the best part of the market in which to operate. And yet many retailers continue to battle in what might seem to be the triumph of hope over reality.

John Ryan visits Lakeland in Stratford-Upon-Avon

There are, however, exceptions to this general gloom and, among them, Lakeland stands as an example of not just getting it right, but doing so in a manner that speaks of optimism and a belief that this is an area of retail in which there is still everything to play for.

The chain, which keeps its headquarters in, perhaps unsurprisingly, Windermere in the Lake District has 40 stores. On Monday last week it opened a relocated branch at Stratford-upon-Avon in a former Argos branch.

However, first a few words about the home of the bard. This is heritage central for those on the Shakespeare trail and legions of day-trippers make the pilgrimage from London at this time of year to worship at the shrine.

Wherever you happen to look, references to English literature’s greatest are to be found in the names of shops and retail developments, ranging from the Bard’s Walk arcade to the As You Like It cafe. Both of these have their entrances on Henley Street, the thoroughfare that houses both Shakespeare’s birthplace and the single-floor 5,715 sq ft Lakeland store.

Stand outside the store and you are faced by a retailer that seems to be perfectly at ease with its surroundings. Lakeland’s modest royal blue frontage and the light beech displays that fill its windows blend with the pedestrianised street’s genteel atmosphere. And this low-key, but essentially practical, sense is echoed in the store.

Julian Rayner, one of the three brothers that founded, own and run Lakeland, says that the Durham store, from which Stratford is a progression, was an attempt to rein in the bright colours that had, over a period of years, become more prominent in its store design.

Rayner worked with Calum Lumsden, the designer who heads the retail arm of London consultancy Small Back Room and who has a long-term relationship with Lakeland, to create the Durham store blueprint. And what is on view is a fit-out that pays more than a passing nod to the sort of equipment that you might normally expect to find in a kitchen. This is no accident.

“What we’ve done in Stratford is a pared down version of the store design we used in Durham,” says Rayner. The cost of the Durham fit-out was about £100 a sq ft; in Stratford this
has been cut to close to £75. Do the math and this equates to a saving heading towards £150,000 – a lot of money at any time, but a real bonus in the present climate.

“We think we probably went a little over the top in Durham,” Rayner admits, mentioning the tiled slate floor and the wooden ceiling rafts, which are absent in Stratford. He adds there was a feeling that pre-Durham, things had got “a little Fisher Price” in terms of the in-store appearance. The Stratford model will be seen in the new store that is due to open in Reading this autumn, as well as the refit at Tunbridge Wells later this year and possibly Chelmsford if present negotiations bear fruit.

And the first thing that any visitor to the Stratford branch is likely to see is wood: wood on the floors, wood on the perimeter and wood in the mid-shop area, reinforcing the feeling that you have strayed into an oversized, upscale kitchen.

The layout is relatively straightforward, with long gondolas directing the eye deep into the shop, while, overhead, white light is delivered by recessed gimbal fixtures. At the back of the shop, lighting levels are lifted by the use of white tiling around the perimeter, helping shoppers find their way to the kitchen cleaning products.

Back to the front and to the right is ➤ the cash desk. This is framed by a wooden goalpost into which royal blue and turquoise graphics and shelved displays have been set. White cubes are used as lampshades overhead, while the counter itself has a beech-wood top and a panelled body that has been painted cream: an exercise in restraint and middle-class good taste.

There is also a form of queuing system that directs shoppers towards the cash tills. As in other stores with multi-till counters, this system has been merchandised with impulse purchase products, although Rayner is not happy yet. “You still see the hooks and not the stock,” he says. Clearly, work remains to be done.    

The middle-class bit is integral to Lakeland, according to Rayner. He says that he regards John Lewis as the chain’s competition “and what a great competitor to have,” he enthuses.

Rayner explains that service is a central part of the Lakeland proposition and that this means recruiting the right staff is vital. A quick trip to the staff room shows Lakeland must believe attracting good staff means providing good conditions. Rather than the usual low-cost tables and chairs that feature in many staff rooms, there is a long – you guessed it – wooden table with elegant high-backed chairs and the kind of wooden kitchen you would pay a lot for if you wanted it in your home.

Back on the shopfloor, there is a similar looking “central spine” unit that dominates the view in the middle of the shop. It is a floor-to-ceiling fixture that has been filled with kitchen handicraft items for jam-making and suchlike. Rayner says that until recently handicrafts “were as dead as darning socks”, but that a recent revival has led to this being given a central position in the Stratford store.

In terms of navigation, getting shoppers through the space is simple because of the linear layout and the central spine, which divides the interior in two, avoiding the danger that is ever present in long, deep single-floor shops of creating too large a space.

So what has shopper reaction been to Lakeland’s new store in historic Stratford? Certainly, there is no shortage of passing trade on Henley Street. Yet Rayner says the average transaction value is lower than in some of Lakeland’s other stores, because of the large proportion of tourists – particularly Japanese – whose spend on gifts is lower than that which might be achieved in other branches.

He says current trading has Lakeland at around -4 per cent like for like, but that sales are up because of new store openings. On the evidence of Lakeland Stratford-upon-Avon, in the difficult area of homewares, Rayner’s statement that he could see the chain doubling in size within five years does not look like a pipedream. Banana tree anybody?

Additional reporting and pictures by Alice Harvey.

Lakeland, Stratford-upon-Avon

Location Henley Street

Size 5,715 sq ft in a former Argos store

Store design Calum Lumsden at Small Back Room

Fit-out time two months  

The Lakeland banana tree

Success comes in unexpected shapes and sizes at Lakeland and there are few more obvious example of this than the banana tree.

Rayner says that four years ago one of his brothers turned up with a twisted piece of metal and told his fellow directors that this would be a good item to stock in the stores.The coathanger manqué was a twisted piece of wire on which to hang bananas to keep them separate from other fruit in the kitchen.

Bananas emit a gas while they ripen that causes other fruit in close proximity to rot.

The banana tree is an innovation to prevent this happening and since it was first stocked more than 150,000 units have been sold in Lakeland stores.

Best-sellers are not always obvious, but Lakeland, as Rayner remarks, is sufficiently agile to have systems in place to spot them.