How do you stop a store chain looking like a chain? Fashion retailer White Stuff’s quirky visual merchandising shows how flair can create unique shops. John Ryan visits its new branch in York

Up to a certain point, it’s relatively straightforward for a chain of shops to maintain the illusion that each of its branches is a one-off and that when visiting one, you are fortunate enough to have stumbled upon a select outpost. However, beyond, say, 20 or so units this becomes more of a problem as economies of scale kick in and a chain begins to look like, well, a chain.

To a large degree this has much to do with shopfitting and store design. Above a certain size, retailers begin to look seriously at store design and
this has a tendency to cost money. This in turn means that there is a pressing requirement for the store blueprint that has sprung from the designer’s silver-grey metal laptop to earn its corn and so a concept roll-out gets under way.

There are, however, exceptions to this series of generalities and one of the most obvious must be fashion retailer White Stuff. This is certainly a chain – it now has stores in more than 50 locations and continues to expand. Yet every store is different, in part because of the different buildings that are occupied, but to a greater degree because of the visual merchandising that is a hallmark of the brand.

Last Friday, the Kennington-based retailer opened its second largest store to date, in York. At 2,200 sq ft (205 sq m) and with two floors, this could hardly be termed a flagship and creative director Lee Cooper resists the temptation to apply the label. But as only the Cambridge branch is bigger, it is nonetheless an important store on which much is riding.

The first thing that any visitor to this store will notice is its location. Rather than mixing it with the familiar high street chains, the decision has been taken to take a unit on the city’s Stonegate, a historic street that leads directly to York Minster. This means its immediate neighbours are retailers such as Cath Kidston, Jigsaw and a cunningly toned down, olde worlde looking Next, all creating the impression of a street of select independent stores, rather than a thoroughfare overrun by big chains.

Colouring in

Stand outside the White Stuff store and you can’t help but enjoy the windows with their nodding cows’ heads and fake daisies pushing their way up through the Astroturf that lines the base of the display. Step inside and the idea that this is a one-off is immediately reinforced by everything from the wallpaper to the equipment used to display the stock.

White Stuff visual merchandising manager Louise Burnett has a tough job. She is charged with the layout of each store and fostering a sense of place.

Practically this means sourcing, as this store, like every other branch, is filled with visual merchandising articles that are unique to the location. The York branch also has a gender divide, with the ground floor housing womenswear, about 70 per cent of the offer, while menswear is upstairs.

The women’s floor is long and thin with oddities at almost every turn. Cooper says that a lot of the mid-floor fixturing is specific to this store. “We’ve made them out of standard lamps with a curtain rail strung between them,” he says. But to single this out for special mention would be to miss out on almost everything else, from the life-size model of a bulldog (“that’s Sandy”, says Burnett) wearing a navy-blue t-shirt with the word “Security” on it – guarding the front door – to the kitsch painting of the green lady who peers out from between the perimeter clothing rails.

It is also difficult not to notice the different wallpapers that have been used to decorate the various rooms that make up the ground floor. Burnett says that all of the wall coverings are original 1960s and 1970s designs and that she goes to wallpaper manufacturers and buys up odd rolls that may be sitting in their stockrooms. The outcome is that both floors in the store are completely different. Even within certain areas on the same floor, there may be a change of wallpaper where a particular roll has run out, although Burnett has been skilful in blending what at first sight might appear to be clashing patterns. Overall, the ground floor colour scheme is green(ish). “I was given free rein on the paint colours, so I’ve used the same ones as I have in my home,” says Burnett.

And then there are the ground floor fitting rooms. Each of these has its own set of green velvet curtains, created by two ladies, Ivy and Lil, aged 81 and 83 respectively, who travel up from Kent to the Oval on a daily basis to sew store curtains for White Stuff.

The chandeliers and light fixtures are also worthy of comment. Each of them is a one-off, acquired from junk shops, charity shops and suchlike. “What you have to do is when you see it, you buy it. For several months now, we’ve had a large space set aside with stuff for the York store that we’ve been collecting,”
she says.

When it came to merchandising the store, all of the visual merchandising elements were transported up to the shop in a white Luton van five days ahead of opening day last Friday and Burnett and team went to work. “We always bring a bit more up with us than we need. But we’ve done so many stores now that everything is pretty meticulously planned,” she says.

And so to the first floor. Cooper comments that White Stuff visual merchandising is very considered.

“We spend a lot of time and effort to make it look as if we hadn’t spent a lot of time and effort,” he says. Which is probably why the first floor has everything from exposed brickwork on the walls, to a salvaged ship’s cocktail bar and an antique pommel horse that belonged to an architect.

Pride of place on this level, however, must go to the cinema. This is an area at the far end of the first floor that contains a 12-seat boutique cinema. During the day, shoppers will be able to park their children in the stalls to watch 1970s classics such as The Clangers and The Magic Roundabout while they consider a new frock. The shop will also be up for private hire in the evenings when parties will be able to watch a movie, enjoy a makeover and maybe make a purchase.

This is the 56th store in the chain, but it still doesn’t feel like a chain. With a minimal number of personnel, White Stuff is a retailer that continues to create new spaces, all containing the same stock, but each feeling subtly different. And if roadkill’s your thing, check out the stuffed boar’s head on the first floor sporting a Viking helmet. Apparently it’s about creating a link with York’s history as a pivotal part of the Danelaw. Whatever. It still looks quirkily out of place and exists comfortably within this demonstration of how strong a part visual merchandising should play within the best retailing.

Caption: Fine features: offbeat additions such as fixtures created from lamps and curtain rails and kitsch paintings
add to the store’s personality