A brief sojourn in the US’s northwest last week revealed that the problems and challenges faced by retailers in that part of the world are little different from those encountered here, but the solutions are not necessarily the same.
That was particularly evident at the budget end of the market, where the only solution to flagging sales seemed to be to shout about price. While there may be similarities in terms of pricing, if anything clothing prices seemed lower in the UK. There appeared little of the thought processes concerning the way items are displayed that characterise much of UK value retailing at present.
Ross Dress for Less, a discounter in the heart of Seattle’s downtown, seemed to typify the approach: cheap clothing that is unlikely to be snapped up by anyone with the slightest fashion sensibility is sold in cheap environments.
It provides a stark contrast with the way in which UK discount fashion outfits present their offers. Over here, the phenomenon of value retailers trading up as mid-market shoppers trade down is pretty well-established and has given rise to stores such as Primark on Oxford Street and New Look in Liverpool. These are places where you can feel pleased about the numbers of items you pick up for not much money, but also where you don’t feel soiled by walking around the store.
Of course, the US does have a discount outfit that pays more than a passing nod at fashion and it is called Old Navy. As the lower end of the Gap empire, you’d expect something special and, to an extent, you are not disappointed. The difficulty is that, while it certainly has a character that is all its own, there is a high degree of inflexibility about the fixturing, meaning that Old Navy stores may look good on a first visit, but on subsequent visits everything looks the same.
One of the more impressive things about New Look’s Liverpool store is how easily it can be transformed, how modular it is and, once the retailer pushes the roll-out switch, how quickly it can be made to appear in other locations. This is retailing that is light on its feet.
American store design and shopfitting has, for a long time, relied upon overspecified shop equipment. This should, in theory, be a good thing. Bombproof gondolas and rails will stand the test of time. But then, fortunately, not many bombs fall on Seattle’s shops. The UK has a distinct edge.