After 25 in years in the vibrant heart of London’s West end, design studio HMKM has just swapped its Soho postcode for Bankside, the picture-book London streets which lie in the shadows of the Shard, Tate Modern, St Paul’s. The daily buzz of bustling creatives has been replaced by a very different landscape: one where executive, white-collar London rubs shoulders with tourists buying plastic cups of roasted almonds, day seats, snapshots with floating statues.
Walking in, the view - all windows and sky - is certainly striking, and as we pass through the surprisingly generic office floor, managing director Alison Cardy admits that, while Soho felt like home, they now at least have daylight. She seems upbeat and relaxed as she offers coffee and, with no shortage of high profile clients including Breuninger, Fenwick, Galeries Lafayette and Selfridges, it’s hardly surprising.
“The way we approach department design is almost as if it’s a boutique,” Cardy explains. When HMKM came on the scene, for whatever reason (“sheer demand or a bit of complacency?”), department stores had started to become, in her words, “incredibly anonymous” - I’m sure we’ve all been lost in one of these at some point or another. Its contemporaries adopted the idea of what she pointedly terms “economies of scale” to cater to these vast service areas - essentially providing a cookie-cutter approach to the customer journey. Brands themselves began to steal the limelight, drawing in their own customers by adopting more adventurous and playful ways to shop.
When HMKM secured Harvey Nichols Leeds and then Riyadh in the mid-90s, its unique philosophy popped: “It was [about] having a strong language through the store - so you were buying into that brand. If you take this mindset, the department store becomes more of a curator rather than a brand dictating space.” She continues: “We were able to let that fly when we started working with Selfridges.”
“Mintel’s 2018 Department Stores UK report states that 49% of participants agree that department stores offer a better shopping experience than other retailers.”
The agency worked with the iconic department store to create a 10-year master plan focusing on the customer journey. “As a customer, you want to know where you are, where to go, see where you were going and feel at ease - ergo you spend more,” Cardy smiles. Having worked on these guidelines, they set about face-lifting the prestigious store, returning it to its former glory and allowing customers lines of sight across the length of the space. In reality that meant including exciting pause-points and stopways, introducing newness and experience, and providing order to brand entry and navigation.
Since then, the retail landscape has caught up and agencies like Dalziel and Pow, UXUS and David Collins are all fighting for a slice of the pie in today’s fiercely competitive environment. Mintel’s 2018 Department Stores UK report states that 49% of participants agree that they offer a better shopping experience than other retailers.
In addition to more savvy competition, Cardy admits that spend is getting more target. “There are fewer projects at the moment as retailers are having to be far more careful about their investment. But where they are investing is really exciting. A lot of our briefing now is around how do you build a closer relationship with the customer.”
New clients are coming from the e-tail sector and they have recently worked with Olivela, a luxury online retail platform with a difference - it donates 20% of every purchase to one of its cause partner including the Malala Fund and its pioneering outlook chimes well with Cardy. “It works in the same way as any other retailer but they are profit-sharing and we love that. Instead of monetising your purchase they say how many school days you are providing.”
Yet it’s a fine balance between getting the cause across and not making people feel uncomfortable, and HMKM accepted the challenge to translate Olivela’s message physically: it designed a series of pop-ups to “build brand notoriety” in high net worth areas in the US such as Aspen and Nantucket. “People say online is going to kill offline but I think the opposite is true,” she says. “I think the 3-D presence is so much more exciting...you don’t have to get the full inventory in-store, it’s curated...it’s transactional of course but you can play with your store more and drive your brand through different mediums.”
For Olivela these mediums included bespoke projections and technology embedded into the customer journey; timely given that, according to Mintel, shoppers consider in-store product displays to be the most important factor when shopping in such stores. The project was so successful the pop-ups were extended and have been recommissioned.
As we conclude, Cardy shares how she believes the sector is finally becoming reflective. ”It’s about retailers asking some hard questions. Like, how do I manage the need to upgrade, refresh or be more agile with my physical environment...and keep my customer happy? And, can I create a much closer connection with my online trading and my store portfolio trading? How can I make these elements come together more closely and how can I build a better relationship with my customer through all those touchpoints.” One way to answer seems pretty clear: when it comes to designing retail, mise-en-scene is everything.