Crunch time at the House of Fraser. A successful last minute rescue played out by Mike Ashley. In such a volatile retail market, this will offer little comfort for its employees.
The metaphorical ‘House of Sports Direct’ is an intriguing but awkward proposition on paper; Ashley is quoted as seeking to turn the chain into “the Harrods of the high street”.
Sizable ambition. But perhaps, just perhaps, the two retail brands have something to learn from each other; charm and youthfulness.
The Birmingham flagship store is of strategic spatial importance; it adjoins the Colmore CBD and is close to Snow Hill and New Street Stations. Its significant floor area, spread across seven cavernous levels, is set within a striking building of arguably listable architectural form. The City’s last true C20th ‘department store’ format; escalators glide, lift bells ding, shoppers shop in modernity. The building also provides strong permeability; important informal links to the surrounding streets, offering a welcome ‘cut through’ on slate-grey-rain-filled days.
However, this is a world away from Selfridges’ youthful vibrancy, or John Lewis’ structured calm, both benefiting from the glitz of the Bull Ring and Grand Central.
The House of Fraser can still be relevant to Birmingham, but Birmingham needs to become relevant to the House of Fraser once more.
There’s the big challenge to Ashley. If the store has a future in the City, it’s one needing a considerable overhaul of offer and appearance.
That doesn’t mean demolition, but how a great building can work with Ashley’s future format. Youth as a target demographic will be pivotal to revitalisation as the unthinkable has happened; the brand’s loyal customer base from previous decades learnt to love on-line shopping. Yes, your parents and grandparents. Youth on the other hand, spurred by the rise of the fashion blogger, has fallen back in love with the high street, but is primarily drawn to the homogeneous culture of the modern shopping centre.
An early small works programme will work wonders, seeking to enhance access and shop floor visibility from the street. So, bring on the replacement of its dated weighty doors, the opening up of small apologetic main entrances and the removal of the shop front display backdrops, allowing the store’s internal activity to be viewed and for light to flood out onto the pavement. It’s about challenging the complacency that has set in and once more creating a shopping destination you just simply must be drawn into. In time, any identified surplus floor levels could work well for residential conversion above the revitalised retail floors, although this will clearly be challenging due to the floorplate depth.
Ashley’s strategy should seek to mesh into the many exciting changes happening in Birmingham; the recent centralisation of further and higher education into the city, the positive spin-offs from the Commonwealth Games in 2022, HS2’s arrival in 2026, Hammerson’s future Martineau Galleries project at Dale End, the programmed public realm improvements at Snow Hill Station etc. But above all, Ashley will need to start to understand and respond to New Birmingham; a fast paced youthful and creative multicultural C21st city.
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Retail, House of Fraser, Sports Direct, Birmingham, Planning