To create award-winning retail architecture you need an empowered team, says John Lewis’ Jeremy Thornton
The key to success with retail architecture is setting a realistic brief, working with an empowered team, working to clear design and delivery parameters, setting and adhering to retail-specific design fixes (mapped to RIBA work stages) and proactively managing change – an inevitability I’ve come to appreciate in the drive to deliver the very latest retail thinking, innovation and point of difference when a shop or scheme opens.
John Lewis benefits from the type of long-term strategic thinking possible in a co-owned organisation. So, while other retailers slowed down after the 2008 economic crash, we continued to develop physical space, often taking redundant existing retail park space and creating the much smaller format ‘at home’ shops – simple, elegant, grey-clad units.
More recently, we have trialled travel hub opportunities, with their high footfall and a captive audience with propensity to spend. In 2014, John Lewis opened small units at Heathrow T2 and at St Pancras. And this year a full-line department store opens, anchoring the Haskoll-designed Grand Central shopping centre and forming an integrated part of a reimagined Birmingham New Street station, the busiest railway station outside London.
As well as aiming for commercial success, John Lewis tries to create shops that are stylish and confident, with a personality representative of both the brand and the stores’ locations. They also aim to be the commercial heart of the community, with the stores reaching out beyond their physical boundaries through public realm, pop-up curated events and other initiatives.
Architecture can create a permanent sense of place through choice of materials and attention to scale and detailing. There can be opportunities to connect with the brand’s heritage, or DNA. At John Lewis in Leicester in 2008, Foreign Office Architects sourced fragments of a pattern dating back to 1803 in the partnership textile archive and from it developed the mirror-finish ‘swirls and curls’ pattern that was applied to the glazed double-skin curtain wall, referencing the city’s fabric and lace-making industries.
Today, about 70 per cent of retail transactions involve interaction –both in-store and on online or mobile devices – and a shop’s physical space plays a different, more nuanced role than heretofore. Rather than just selling products and services, it provides an emotional experience and a source of inspiration. The shop becomes a backdrop for the inspirational display of product, visual merchandising and, potentially, digital media, with much more emphasis on in-store catering, services and events – all creating more reasons to visit and to linger.
We encourage access to daylight, vistas and views outside to reinforce a sense of place. The intention is to entice and delight. Rooftop space, once populated only by M&E plant, is exploited to create an opportunity for a terrace and seasonal activity. This new flexible-format department store was trialled in Exeter 2012 with the shell designed by Glenn Howells Architects and interior concept design by brand consultant Dalziel and Pow.
The key to successful retail architecture remains flexibility. In an uncertain retail world, you can be sure of one thing: change is inevitable.
Jeremy Thornton is an architect and architecture manager at John Lewis
RIBA Award winners
Foyles, London by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
Contract value £9 million
Gross internal area 4,963m²
Previously home to Central St Martins School of Art, the new Foyles is more than just a bookshop. Behind the restored 1930s facade, it is a mixed-use block, a bookshop, café, gallery, event space, with much-needed central London residences on the top floors.
The architect’s skill has been in exploiting the old college’s split levels and lightwell to produce a building whose section entices the shopper in and through the store. The practice has designed everything down to the bookcases, some of which were inspired by Alvar Aalto. This is an exemplary light-filled refurbishment and a welcome addition to a West End still trying to respond to the threats of online shopping, the mega-bookshop chains and out-of-town retail malls.