It’s not always the most reliable source, but when it comes to describing shopping in Kingston upon Thames, Wikipedia is spot on. “Well catered for and generally towards the upper end of expectations, with a good mixture of familiar high street chains and more select boutiques,” it says. Not a bad summary, particularly when you consider the alternatives around southwest London, which range from Croydon, with its doggedly mid-market offer, to Richmond, where a well-stacked wallet is pretty much a shopping prerequisite.
Kingston is a London satellite town with a long history and where as well as the retail offer being split between mass-market and luxury operators, the town’s commercial aspect is split physically, too.
On one side is The Bentall Centre, home to more than 75 retailers from Muji to Mothercare. On the other is the rest of town. An impressive John Lewis and upscale offers from retailers such as Hobbs, Heal’s and Habitat complete the offer this side and ensure that even in these straitened times, a walk around downtown Kingston entails dodging the four-wheel drive buggies sported by the yummy(ish) mummies.
Kingston is also the place where a number of new formats have been trialled, owing perhaps to its proximity to London – and therefore to head offices – as well as access to an affluent population. A stroll around its streets in the company of Echochamber head of research Matthew Brown reveals a broad range of retailers and formats.
Part of a five-strong chain founded in 2000 by former lawyers Simon and Helen Pattinson, Montezuma’s is a homage to chocolate in all its forms.
Brown is impressed by the product range and the packaging. “It’s not as designed [a store] as Hotel Chocolat, which is a pity because the packaging is very designed. It is, however, very well merchandised, with some good product cameos and strong story-telling to do with where things come from. It is obviously a brand that is passionate about its offer and that is important,” he says. “I grew up in Kingston and this kind of thing just wasn’t here when I was a kid.”
The first Montezuma’s store opened in Brighton and the Kingston outlet is the flagship.
Normally Retail Week would not cover a fast-food outlet as part of a town’s retail panorama, but as one of the new-look McDonald’s and given its location in the middle of The Bentall Centre, this branch of the golden arch merits inclusion.
Commenting on the design, Brown says: “Nobody asked it to do this. It’s part of the push for posh. At the bottom end of the market this is the kind of thing that is driving design. It looks generous, it looks like the sort of place where you could relax and spend some time. This is about not rushing in and out and in these recessionary times it is retailers that give slightly more that are going to get your custom. They are also doing better with their seasonal specials and simplifying the menus.”
“This store is almost completely set up for impulse purchasing,” says Brown. “Aesthetically, it is horrible, but it does make you want to buy stuff. This is not a place where you are going to browse, so it is possible that WHSmith is losing out. I wouldn’t buy a big book here, but this store does leverage the deal. If you are out with your kids, you will end up buying and this certainly does not feel like a retailer that is dying. Whenever you walk through the doors, you are not greeted by the same old things.”
However, he points out that there is “signage overload” and that it is hard to move without falling over stock.
WHSmith may not appeal to the design literate, but it does appeal.
Bentall Clearance Store
The department store that lends its name to The Bentall Centre has an offshoot clearance shop next to one of the main store entrances in the mall. It is as if Bentall is saying it always has leftovers and they should be looked at before visiting the main store.
The space boasts scratched floors, whitewashed walls and a black ceiling void; little attempt has been made to make the reduced product visually appealing. Brown says that this could be an interesting industrial-style interior, but that it succeeds in looking more like a bargain-basement warehouse.
There is certainly a need for retailers to have clearance outlets to rid themselves of unwanted inventory, but this does not mean they have to look like bring-and-buy sales, or they should be next to the main flagship shop.
The Bentall Centre web site claims that this Baby Gap branch has the highest sales per sq ft of any of the retail group’s stores in this format in the world. Whether this is the case or not, it is hard not be impressed by the way in which Gap takes its adult store interior and effectively scales it down to make it work as a children’s and baby shop.
“It is the American way of merchandising,” says Brown. “There are good deals on offer and it looks affordable. This is not the best Baby Gap I have seen – there is a great looking one in Denver – but it does work well. The windows are simple too. This is a mass-market brand that delivers. It even brands the store threshold really well. It makes you feel you are stepping into a different environment.”
“This is a sticky store,” says Brown. “It has been designed to keep people in. It is Friday morning; there are not many people about, but it is busy.” The young woman at the entrance is wearing an orange t-shirt bearing the legend: “Help is my middle name.” This proves to be the case when she is asked about iPhone availability: she knows the stock and what is in the store.
Brown says: “This has to be the ultimate electronics store and it sucks people in with its open shopfront. Apple adopts a modular approach that allows it to offer the same thing in different sized shops and locations.”
The product range can be flexed in terms of depth to fit almost any space without compromises being made to the way the brand presents itself.
“This is one of the few retailers where you can say that roll-outs really work,” says Brown. This is one of six Zara Home stores in the UK and it opened in September.
“When visual merchandising standards are this high, it sets the mark for all other retailers. The antique-looking table at the entrance and the more standard equipment around the store are all used to great effect. The lowered ceiling also works. It looks metallic with its back-lighting, but when you get up close, you realise it is just sprayed MDF. It is almost a trompe l’oeil,” says Brown.
“Even in the credit crunch, the retailers that stand out are the ones that have a style of their own. The products also happen to be unique to Zara and are great value.” Brown is clearly a fan.