Retail can be such a simple proposition: Build a large shed in a retail park; make sure it's next to a major motorway exit; and wait for the customers to roll in. So far, so average.
But in the northeast of England, Marks & Spencer has broken this particular mold with the opening of its first Lifestore, the British department store retailer's effort to become a leader in home retailing.
From the outside, there is little to mark this 70,000-square-foot edge-of-town shed as being much different from many of its co-tenants in the Metro Retail Park (which abuts the Metro Centre, the northeast's largest shopping development, with a well-established customer base from Gateshead and nearby Newcastle).
But step inside, and the first thing to hit you is a full-size two-story house in the middle of the store. The 30,000-square-foot house was designed by U.K. minimalist architect John Pawson (of Calvin Klein-on-Madison Avenue notoriety). This is a structure that chi-chi metropolitan individuals might look at with envy.
On one side, the house is blank with plain walls, the lower floor being white while the upper floor wall is red-cedar clad. On the other side of the house, both floors are glass-fronted, allowing the visitor the voyeuristic rush of stealing a glance into somebody's home.
Interior is as modern as exterior. Both floors have been styled with furniture and accessories from the 12,000-strong housewares SKUs the store carries. (In fact, all areas of the house can be shopped and everything on view is for sale.)
The ground floor has a living area and kitchen complete with fully stocked bar and Lichtenstein prints on the walls. The feeling is one of relaxed, modern living. Upstairs, walk into the bedroom with its provocatively discarded lingerie on the bed and a bottle of chocolate sauce in the wardrobe (yes, chocolate sauce!).
The bathroom has at its center an outsize square concrete bath that looks uncomfortable but is undeniably stylish. This is the soft face of hard-edged minimalist design, showing how it can be a realistic proposition for comfortable living.
Outside the house, the store has another 40,000 square feet of shopping, divided into the nine zones flagged up on the store directory: Relax, Rest, Renew, Celebrate, Cook, Organize, Play, Escape and Al Fresco. Each of the merchandise areas has a signature graphic helping shoppers to make sense of the area they are in.
This is an essentially pared-down retail environment in which lighting is recessed into tracks and signage is kept to a minimum, the idea being that the various parts of the store flow seamlessly one into another.
Up to a point, this works. And, providing you have sufficient browse-time, M&S predicts that shoppers will treat the store as a destination. As within the house within the house, the zones present M&S's customers with complete domestic vignettes, all styled by Elle Deco founder and former editor Ilse Crawford.
The stock does the talking in the areas beyond the house. All of the store fixturing is the handiwork of Vizona (of the Swiss-based Vitrashop Group) and everything is white. Each of the library-style bookcases that house the collections has been configured differently by London-based design consultants RFK. But nothing is allowed to distract from the main event, the merchandise.
M&S director of home Vittorio Radice says that in the 10 months since the Lifestore hit the drawing board, the M&S homewares range has grown from 80 to 350 suppliers. Two more Lifestores are slated to open in the U.K. over the next year and, if the format is successful, 17 further sites have been identified.
At £14 million (about $25 million), this has not been a cheap store to create, but it is likely to be the most innovative retail concept to open in the U.K. this year. As Radice comments: "I did my best and I hope the customer will perceive it."
Client: Marks & Spencer, London
Vittoria Radice, executive director
Paul Denham, program director
Carol Caplin, head, store development
Design: John Pawson, London
Architect: Lewis & Hickey, Edinburgh, U.K.
Outside Design Consultants: Michael Nash & Associates, London, graphic identity
Ilse Crawford, London, product styling
Bill Granger, London, restaurant consultant
Audio: DMX Inc., Keston, U.K.
Ceilings, Fabrics and Flooring: AMEC, London
Fixturing: Vizona, Slough, U.K.
Graphics: Michael Nash & Associates, London
Furniture: Plaza, London
Lighting: Isometrix, London
Props and Decoratives: Ilse Crawford, London
Signage: Mersons Signs Ltd., East Kilbridge, Scotland
Visual: DDC, London
Photography: Courtesy of Marks & Spencer, London