European value retailer C&A has created a new format for its stores that has been trialled at the Cologne flagship. John Ryan reports

Regular followers of Retail Week’s store design coverage may have noted that value retailer C&A unveiled a most unC&A-like store in Sao Paolo last year. It was the handiwork of the South American arm of this Dutch-German retailer in collaboration with US design consultancy Chute Gerdeman. Sao Paolo is quite a long way however – not just geographically – from what C&A provides to its customers across multiple borders in its European heartland.

Things are now changing in the Old World as well. C&A in the UK (pre-2000) used to mean a (very) value-led environment where the main experience was the relief of not having parted with a large amount of cash when you exited the door clutching bags of fab gear. Since its departure from these shores at the beginning of the last decade, new players have arrived such as Primark, which is beginning to make substantial Continental inroads and in Germany (which still accounts for the lion’s share of the retailer’s revenues), value operators such as New Yorker have also been making their mark.

The need for change was therefore pressing and towards the end of last year, C&A proved that it had been working on the future with the complete revamping of its largest store anywhere: in downtown Cologne. According to Hermann Jörg, unit leader visual merchandising at C&A, the decision to work on the largest store rather than following the normal pilot branch and roll-out path was simple; it would be easy to gauge success in a store where every department is represented.

And this is a big shop. It covers just short of 140,000 sq ft and there are seven floors. Fashion retail on this scale poses something of a problem. There is a general rule of thumb that says the amount of turnover to be gleaned from a floor within a multi- level shop is indirectly proportional to its distance from the ground floor. Or in other words, making a success of the highest floor in C&A Cologne is never going to be straightforward.

In many stores, the top floor is whereyou’ll find a restaurant. There is a restaurant in this store too, but it’s not on the top floor. Instead, it’s an in-store branch of McDonald’s in the basement. And judging by the number of teenagers in this fast food restaurant, it’s hard not to wonder why there isn’t a cafe somewhere else in the store, but perhaps this is nitpicking.

It would appear that Jörg and his colleagues have staked a lot on the ability of new store design and visual merchandising to persuade shoppers that it’s worth venturing up to the highest part of the shop, irrespective of the provision made for hungry and weary shoppers.

Worlds apart

So what makes this C&A store different from the norm? Jörg says the task from the board was to create a flexible format that would provide a specific ambiance across a broad range of branches from small stores to the Cologne flagship. That was in April 2009 and since that time, as well as the German flagship, trials have got underway in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, France and Spain.

And what they all have in common is a design solution that allows a sense of difference from pure commodity retailing, but still permits mass merchandising. Jörg comments: “We are a commodity-driven business.” What this means in Cologne is that the store has been divided up into a number of style worlds where new merchandising methods have been tried, although “certain areas were left to commodity”, Jörg notes.

The bulk of what is on view, however, consists of the style worlds where there are more dedicated visual merchandising elements. In many departments this means that the mid-shop is dominated by a rail system that is suspended from the ceiling.

In the middle of this, there is a lifestyle graphic in front of which mannequins are positioned. It’s a simple design and has the benefit of being highly adaptable owing to the tracks on the ceiling, which mean that it can be quickly remerchandised.

Closer to the perimeter, open-fronted wardrobes provide space for forward hung stock, in front of which a mix of tabled and side-hung merchandise are given a modicum of glamour using graphicsand mannequins.  

With variations, the model holds good for all of the style worlds in the store. The most striking department is the lingerie area on the second floor where silver mannequins and white spotlight-studded suspended ceiling rafts add drama to the floor. Other areas worthy of note are the kids’ departmentand shoe shop on the fifth and first floor respectively.  

The basement is dedicated to young fashion and it is here that the visual merchandising comes into its own with the escalator well clad in used wooden planks and covered with framed pictures. In front of this are silver and gold club chairs and a DJ desk, manned at peak times apparently. The jeans department, in particular, is worthy of comment with garments draped over packing crates and body shapes clearly displayed. This is a major departure from the side-hung presentation that tends to mark out jeans retailing at the value end of the market.

The fitting rooms are also worth a mention – spacious and with a large seating area between the two banks of curtained cubicles.

The store has successfully struck a balance between creating an attractive interior and getting a suitable volume of stock on the floor to permit self-service and for choice to be a reality. “It did take a bit of time for the customers to get used to it,” says Jörg, but he is clearly enthusiastic about what has been achieved.

And in value retailing terms this kind of change does not come cheap. Jörg says about e5m (£4.45m) has been spent on this store and that all future store openings will follow this model. This means that between 60 and 80 stores will receive the treatment this year. C&A has had a reputation in some quarters for innate conservatism, but if it manages to change on this scale, then that perception may be altered.

C&A

Schildergasse, Cologne

Size 140,000 sq ft

Number of floors Seven

Major feature “Style worlds”

Shop fixtures Visplay

Visual merchandising consultant Liganova