• American inspiration
  • Should auld retailers be forgot


    Neil Whitehead, takes a walk down memory lane and give us an insight into today's retailing.

    Walking along Oxford Street, I found myself wondering about all the Christmases these store windows have seen. What trends and important presences have filled such streets? How have the cultural and social needs of the customer changed? And at the end of another year, what does the current decade hold for them?

    Back in the 80s, the high street was focusing on fashion (how can we forget?). There was an emergence of stores that made everything accessible for everyone, with the likes of Top Shop, Burton’s and Next dominating the space. A shift from austere purchasing in department stores saw a fashion revival, where men and women from all backgrounds could buy affordable stylish clothes. This drive towards accessibility extended to home products too, most notably through Sir Terence Conran and Habitat.

    The 80s were a time of unification: products and stores were becoming consistent, where previously consistency had been the reserve of the larger department stores, such as Debenhams.  It was also a time of segmentation of fashion offers for different audiences; Top Shop for the younger generations, then Principles, and Country Casuals for the over fifties.

    Somewhere between the 80s and 90s, consumers’ interest in food and drink grew and diversified. An important feature of this was the coffee shop. In a move towards US and continental ways, Coffe Republics, Café Neros and Starbucks developed a strong presence on the high street. Consumers were educated on the qualities of coffee and purchasing went from sporadic 30p instant Nescafes to queues for £2 caramel machiatos and skinny lattes.

    The concept behind the influx was that the coffee shop provided the ‘third place’, somewhere between office and home, somewhere to relax and read the paper. Generally retailers had picked up on tailoring offers for busy people in transit. M&S brought into the pre-prepared food market, and the Tesco empire was burgeoning. Traditional grocery stores had all but disappeared due to the big supermarkets’ dominance, particularly with the introduction of home delivery and city express stores.

    And now? What appetites does Oxford Street, and indeed any typical high street, represent? Well, fashion is polarising between factory outlets and high experience, the morning commuter queue inside Starbucks has become common place and Tesco Metro at a garage in Maida Vale is the most profitable food store per sq ft in Europe.

    But when the tinsel comes down once more, what lies ahead?  2005, like most years, will start with the post-Christmas health kick that lasts until February or March! But beyond this, heath is becoming a very important mood.

    Life expectancy is continuing to increase. Fundamentally, people are now staying younger longer. There is a new wave of agile, trendy, active grandparents. There is a concentration on longevity of life and enjoying life. As such, the retail stores of the future will be centred on wellbeing – looking and feeling younger.  The mix of stores going forward will include dentistry, chiropractics, alternative medicine, laser surgery and minor cosmetic surgery. There will also be huge sales in anti-ageing creams and vitamins. Health spas will come into the high street. Health clubs, supportive to health products, will see growth in secondary locations. This will all take time of course, but it’s on the horizon, and I can see environments of coffee and Botox dawning.

    But there is a devil/angel paradox in modern living. Being concerned with youthfulness and health lies at one extreme with hedonism at the other end. Modern people have a conscience but they want to have fun. A healthy week is followed by a weekend blast out.

    The future for retailers and designers is to balance all this, to make people feel healthy and good about themselves, but also to recognise that they also want to have a good night out. Customers want to see innovation – multi-taste offers, new ideas and new product co-ordination.

    Moving forward, the concepts used in retail design need to be bolder, brighter and to combine all the elements of modern living. 2005, bring this on!

    December - January, 2005