Grounded in the middle

Once something to aspire to, being part of retail’s ‘middle market’ is now a tag to avoid. However, the right image and design can help to guard against this happening. By Richenda Wilson

Being “in the middle” used to imply that you had attained what was generally regarded as a level of respectability, conformity or normality. However, these days, the terms middle class, middle-of-the-road and middle England have all become rather pejorative. Middle is now associated with the meaningless, inoffensive and forgettable.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the retail sector, believes Fitch managing partner Tim Greenhalgh. “There was a time when being a staple inclusion on everyone’s shopping list was the ‘to die for’ position,” he says. “Boots and WH Smith seemed to be the ultimate destination for every shopper leaving the house – that was until Tesco and Asda performed the ultimate sleight of hand trick. These large and dynamic retailers stole the middle ground.”

Aside from the one-stop successes, the retail market is becoming increasingly polarised. At one end the value-driven stores are extending low pricing into more categories. At the other end, visionary, specialist stores are offering value beyond price through enhanced retail experiences.

Aim away from the middle

This has made it difficult for the majority of brands and retailers that occupy the mass middle market to stand out or offer something different.

“The middle market is boring,” says Stefan Zachary, managing partner at retail design specialists Zachary Design, “and even middle-market shoppers are bored.” He suggests that retailers need to move up or down the scale to regenerate interest in their brands as shoppers are prepared to splash out to get a really exciting item.

“The bottom of the market is also stimulating – look at Asda, Matalan and New Look,” Zachary adds. “Why pay £35 for a skirt at Marks & Spencer when you can pay £5?”

While retail design can help to revitalise the middle market, he says, it is only part of the story. He suggests a retailer’s success is based on four factors: brand image, retail environment, products and the style and quality of service. “We can help with the first two,” says Zachary, “but the retailer is responsible for the products and service.”

Yellowdoor creative director Mary Portas agrees that service is often overlooked. “A knowledgeable sales team that delivers considered advice and sales follow- through are major attributes, especially for time-starved consumers. Clear and enticing visual merchandising makes shopping an enjoyable experience. Customers love information, guidance and inspiration.”

Zachary adds that it is important for the four elements to work together: “You have to make sure that when customers visit the store, what they see matches what they are hoping for.”

When clothing chain Principles first launched, its image was upmarket but its stock was not, and the chain floundered. With Zachary’s help, Sir Ralph Halpern decided to raise the product quality and bring the design down to meet it, making the stores much more successful.

Differentiate or be damned

Other experts also emphasise the importance of having a consistent brand image. “The key for retailers is to build a clear and distinctive brand positioning for each part of the business (such as formats, brands and even departments) in the areas that are most important to their target customers and to monitor how they compare to their competitors,” says Andy Myring, partner and retail director at design and strategy consultancy The Brewery. “Design is key to ensuring that a brand is different from that of the competition and that it is consistent through all its manifestations.”

Anita Caulfield, brand strategist at brand designers WPA Pinfold, suggests that brand managers should ask themselves three questions: “Does my store reflect my brand’s personality – from the outside and the inside? Does my store visually suit our pricing and product positioning? And what is going to attract customers into my store and compel them to buy?

“If a store or retail outlet is true to its brand’s origins (positioning, personality and essence) it can create an up-to-date and successful retail environment,” she adds. “Many high street stores are lacking consistency with their brand image or don’t convey it at all. It is time retail marketers understood that they have to get their store image right before they invest heavily in major marketing campaigns.”

Caulfield suggests retailers should update the look and feel of their stores every three to five years. “Marketers wouldn’t let their advertising image last this long, so why should it be any different with point of purchase?”

Myring points to another reason why brand consistency is so important: the rise of internet shopping. “Retailers must harness digital media to engage customers in a productive dialogue and to give consumers the same ‘brand beacons’ that they recognise in the stores,” he says.

Gordon Bethell, joint managing director at retail marketing specialist Gratterpalm Group, agrees that retail groups need a clear consumer proposition that appeals to both new and existing customers. The design team must ensure that every consumer interacting with the retail environment understands exactly what is being communicated at every stage of the retail “journey”.

Bethell offers several tips to unlock the potential of retail environments. “Ensure the design team fully understands the values and objectives of the business. Ensure they understand the effect of communication at different, influential stages of the retail environment and the roles of theming versus value cut-through and range versus corporate communication.”

A little understanding

He adds: “Understand the consumer: effective retail design recognises the way consumers shop across each category, acknowledging that they have little time or energy to put into a complex purchase. Draw them in: whether using an everyday low pricing offer or multi-promotional offers, ensure you understand the promotional mechanics available.

“Be consistent in your communications: appoint gatekeepers or custodians of the brand to enforce its design rules, guidelines and inherent attributes, ensuring that it is consistently delivered and that in-store communication and external advertising go hand in hand.

“Create a reliable format through store planning and space allocation: if a particular product being promoted appears in store when and where it is expected to, the likelihood is that point-of-sale material will fit, will be accurate and will make best use of its format, in layout and design terms.

However, Bethell warns that good design will enhance an offer but won’t make a non-relevant product become what consumers need.

Adam Brinkworth, director of interior design and architecture practice Brinkworth, emphasises the importance of having the right product at the right price. He points out that good design won’t help an ailing retailer without these elements being in place. His prime concern is then to understand how the space functions in terms of consumer movements and congestion spots. Only then you can manipulate customers around the store, entertaining them along the way.

Brinkworth recently worked on the design of clothing store All Saints in Market Place in the West End. “We had restricted signage outside,” Brinkworth explains, “so we needed something bold inside. We used fairground bulbs, which twinkle all day, to draw people in.”

What do you mean?

British clothing brand Aquascutum has just refitted its flagship Regent Street store, but first it conducted some soul-searching to get a clear perspective of what the brand represented, explains marketing manager Scott Williams. Having established a clear understanding of its identity and values – finest quality materials, integrity, modern authenticity – it called in Fitch to redesign the shop.

The result is intimate and classical but also innovative and striking. Brand heritage is emphasised through its archive room, showing old patterns, garments and advertising, with whole rooms devoted to iconic products such as raincoats. The fitting rooms are lavish and there is a great emphasis on service throughout.

Rising above the rest

The overall look is distinctive, which helps in a market saturated with retail, says Fitch’s Greenhalgh, setting Aquascutum above those stores that stock products of questionable quality or have a weak brand proposition.

Greenhalgh suggests retailers that are “stuck in the middle” have to work harder at being distinctive, or at least be lighter on their feet with a personality that draws people in. “It would be hard to say what position easyJet occupies,” he says. “It is a brand that has a broad appeal and is distinctive. It seems to care little for the position it occupies and more for the messages it can communicate.”

He suggests that Amazon, John Lewis, Pret A Manger and Selfridges occupy a similar position, having a democratic quality that has broad appeal. He describes these brands as kinetic and connected – “kinetic in terms of how they can move up and down a scale, offering products and price points, which is attractive and compelling to a wide audience, and connected in terms of the personality and tone of voice used”.

Tesco has proved it can do this, drawing in shoppers across the board with its range of products stretching from Value to Finest. The challenge for the rest of the middle-market retailers is to decide where in the market they want to be and to find a tone of voice and look that suits their proposition.v

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