What were once online-only retailers such as Made.com are now opening physical locations across the UK. Ben Sillitoe reports
Words by Ben Sillitoe
UK-based designer furniture brand Made.com is one of several e-commerce businesses placing an increasing amount of attention on physical retailing – although the ‘retailing’ is in inverted commas. Over the past few years it has grown internationally by launching localised websites in France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, while also opening several showrooms in Europe to give customers a 360-degree view of items in its inventory.
As a direct-to-consumer player, Made’s ability to raise brand awareness, foster a sense of community among its shoppers, and open itself up to a wider customer demographic has necessitated a move into brick and mortar locations. At the same time, it is dispelling a commonly held notion that e-commerce is replacing traditional retail and, instead, it is proving the two can neatly work in harmony. As it does so, it is also bringing a technological mindset to the business of store design. Indeed, the organisation describes itself as a tech and design company that happens to sell furniture, so naturally that is reflected in its physical space. Made’s showroom on London’s Charing Cross Road, which opened in 2015 but underwent a major refit last year, acts as a benchmark for its wider European estate.
The architectural business Line was behind the store’s design
Store designed like a website
A fundamental difference between Made’s London showroom and traditional retailers – for example, the historic Foyles bookstore, which has stood in its current location on the opposite side of the busy London thoroughfare since 1929 – is that visitors cannot walk out with products in their hands, not even the smaller items such as bags, luggage and cushions now found among Made’s primarily furniture-focused product range. If a shopper decides to purchase an item, the transaction will take place via the Made website at several touchpoints spread throughout the space, or on the customer’s mobile device, with the product then delivered to their home. The location at 100 Charing Cross Road is a place for exploration, inspiration and clarification for online-first shoppers.
The ‘click to buy’ set-up is just one example of how the showroom has been designed to be like Made.com – or perhaps more accurately, to be an extension of the website. As head of showrooms, Jamie Bennett works closely with chief creative officer Jo Jackson, design director Ruth Wassermann, and head of visual merchandising Michael Sim to piece together the look and feel of the venue, which is tech-influenced.
‘In terms of the actual design of experience in the space we’re very involved with the user experience (UX) teams and the people who design our website,’ Bennett explains. ‘Fundamentally, as an online player, that is our customer experience (CX) and we want to reflect that in the showroom and make sure there’s a seamless connection between the website and our physical space.’
He adds: ‘In the room where design decisions are made are the people who design the app and the website. They are involved from the start in terms of mapping out the customer journey within the showroom – that is very important.’
So, what does that look like? If the floor-to-ceiling glass window front, which features the latest ranges in individual room displays, is the showroom’s ‘homepage’, then the rest of the space ticks off much of what has become part of everyday life online. QR codes are placed on all the items’ price tags, meaning visitors can tap their smartphones to trigger more in-depth information about the products. There’s also a big digital screen close to the shop’s frontage, acting like an online side banner ad displaying key brand messages, promotions and design examples.
The 12,000 sq ft space was brought to life by architectural firm Line, fitted out by Wedderburn, and project-managed by global design agency RPA Group. As visitors make their way around, they can stop off at one of two large plinth-mounted screens, giving access to an in-store version of Made.com. These two touchpoints arguably represent the engine room of the operation – they allow shoppers to watch product videos, view 3D renders of items, and find out their personal style by interacting with images posted by other customers on Instagram.
Bennett says: ‘We look on Instagram, our customer looks on Instagram, and so an inevitable part of building a physical location is that it would be shareable and “Instagrammable”, and have hashtags and handles on the walls, and offer a connection with Instagram on screens.’
He describes the use of Instagram in store as ‘just a natural part of our language’, adding that consumers will often enter the showroom with an image from the social media site on their phone saying ‘do you have this chair?’ That is the modern way, and today’s successful retail outlets are shaping their premises to facilitate this accordingly.
Meanwhile, at the back of the space, there is an everevolving area used by Made’s key influencers, where specific products or room displays preferred by wellknown bloggers or members of the design community can supplement what they have written or broadcast online in a physical shop environment.The ‘design studio’, also at the rear, where multiple Planar screens display the official Made.com website, acts as a checkout area. There is plenty of seating, and customers can take advantage of additional staff consultancy – live chat, if you prefer the online parlance – amid a backdrop of neutral colours and natural woods, all aimed at creating a calm environment where purchasing decisions can be made.
Bennett says of the showroom: ‘It’s a really great environment in which we can test and learn as you would with a website.
‘Our UX team visit and test features that might be set to be used on the website – it’s a great testing ground for them, and they can come and meet real customers as opposed to simply knowing them from their online behaviour.’
The store as a marketing channel
In a digitally influenced world, retailers are starting to measure success in new ways. Traditionally, retailers have measured sales per sq ft, aiming to run profitable stores in order to ensure a tidy bottom line, but the advent of e-commerce is contributing to businesses developing new key performance indicators (KPI).
Store success is no longer the be all and end all of a retailer’s operation. Research published in September 2019 by PwC, a consultancy, and Local Data Company (LDC), a retail industry analyst group, shows 2,868 stores closed in the first half of 2019 – the highest number in five years and up by more than 6.5% year on year.
Retailers, in general, need fewer shops than they did in the pre-internet era. And now shops that remain are not always judged solely by sales through the tills. Shops now can be measured on the impact they have on local online orders, and the convenience they offer customers in terms of providing a place to return unwanted items purchased online, or how they facilitate buy-online/collect in-store services. Fashion retailer Joules is one example of a fast-growing business measuring store performance in such a way. Jack Stratten, senior trends consultant at Insider Trends, a company that tracks innovation in retail, describes it as ‘stores as a marketing channel’.
‘Brands that have lots of physical shops struggle with experimentation because they see sales per sq ft as their main KPI,’ he notes.
‘They struggle to think of the “Instagram effect” or how store actions affect social media followers because they have managers breathing down their necks to make sure they shift goods. Online players don’t have that issue when they launch in a physical space.’
Stratten argues that businesses of this nature, such as Made, which are often known as digitally native vertical brands, see the world much differently to their retail forefathers.
‘The store as marketing trend is going to be influenced further by online-to-offline brands – they don’t have the same mindset as traditional retailers.’
Made’s Bennett says: ‘We measure the success of our showrooms in multiple ways – it’s not purely based on revenue.
‘We track engagement on social and the experience we have here and we don’t necessarily look at it in a traditional retail profit-and-loss fashion – it’s from a brand perspective. These showrooms give us a home in big cities where we can host brand and customer events, and there’s so much value beyond just sales.’
QR codes are on all the items’ price tags, meaning visitors can tap their smartphones to find out more about the products
Man and machine side by side
Bennett says that for the showrooms to function as they do, ‘hyper-fast internet and an amazing network’ is a prerequisite. Made works with Beaver Group, a digital agency specialising in the food, retail and cinema sectors, to source and optimise the technology deployed in showrooms. Bennett also notes that electricians are ‘very involved in the store design’ from day one of the build to help ensure the space can scale from a technological perspective. ‘Part of the tech side of things was about making it as ageless as possible,’ Bennett says of the London showroom.
‘Screens are adaptable, we can change the UX, and we can increase functionality of the in-showroom app to have a “design the room” feature, for example.’ He adds: ‘The tech-enabled experience at Charing Cross Road continues to evolve and needs to be adaptable to any category we move into in the future.’
Made has also identified that there would be little point operating permanent, prime commercial property rental space that simply offers what a retailer can provide online. Despite the technological features and digital edge to the showroom, the human touch and opportunity for visitors to see, touch and feel fabrics in person is crucial for many people shopping for big-ticket items such as furniture. Multiple staff are on hand to provide as much guidance as individual customers require, from the host situated just inside the front doorway who welcomes everyone entering the premises, to the shop floor staff who gauge the level of support visitors need.
The design of the central London location’s non-digital aspects reflects the compartmentalisation of online shopping. For example, the fabric samples are neatly stored in a cupboard in the far corner of the store, which consumers can effectively ‘click open to peruse the options available before shutting them away again. Even the two large touchscreens that stand in the central aisles of the London store provide customers with an opportunity to tap for help and call a member of staff for assistance. Bennett says Made’s showroom team monitor how people are interacting with the screens, and they will then use instant messaging platforms to communicate with one another, ensuring customers are approached by the most suitable staff member.
‘When we designed the London showroom we wanted to think about all the people who might visit with the space,’ he comments.
‘There are those who don’t want to interact with anybody – they’re on a lunchbreak, in a rush, and want info and to get out as quickly as possible. They can scan QR codes, look at screens, print out the picture without speaking to another human being.’
Bennett adds that furniture shoppers are often reticent about buying online without additional consultation or the ability to touch and feel fabrics, so the space needed to reflect that.
‘At no point do you have to look at a screen if you don’t want to. Made’s showrooms cater for the two extremes, and we service everything in between.’
While since 2000, traditional retailers have been spending more capital on IT and digital platforms to develop websites, new home-delivery strategies, et al., the past five years have seen online-only businesses move the other way. Companies such as Made, clothing retailers Boden and Joe Browns, and US beauty brand Glossier are identifying significant return on investment in brick and mortar.
There is a meeting in the middle of both worlds as opposed to ‘the death of the store’ that so many analysts predicted at the start of the millennium as e-commerce titan Amazon, bidding site eBay, and many others gained traction and began changing retail forever. True, store numbers are declining, as the PwC-LDC figures illustrate, but rumours of the death of the brick and mortar-based retail are greatly exaggerated – it is very much alive and kicking. Increasingly, though, it is dressed up very differently to before, and Made’s Charing Cross Road showroom is a prime example of retail’s redesign.
Project management and QS
12,000 sq ft