Can ICON live up to its name?
The new ICON Outlet at the O2 opened its doors to the public last weekend (20 October 2018).
As a Greenwich resident it’s difficult to be impartial about the arrival of the capital’s newest retail destination. Taking up the rear side of the millennium dome, it’s a section that is long overdue development – having been empty since it re-opened as an entertainment venue.
This opening had been notably absent in both local and national press, not a single neighbour I asked had heard about it. Curious for a project within such an iconic landmark. Visiting on opening day, it was apparent that word had definitely not spread far. Expecting to fight past crowds of eager shoppers, instead I walked into stores with more staff than customers.
Admittedly this is only Phase 1; the lower mall is lined with empty units that have yet to be let. But the effect of this (and the building site at the back of the dome) was that it didn’t feel ready for the public eye. Perhaps that explains the lack of promotion?
Upstairs an elegantly sculpted roof forms the entrance and the yellow pylons that support the dome are made a feature. The look is striking but also surprisingly gloomy. Many malls have no natural light but with the dome canvas above, this felt like a weird dystopia where you were shopping at night, even though it was a beautiful sunny day outside.
Outlet product has moved on dramatically in the last few years
That the mall is filled with ‘outlet’ stores is not apparent, despite the centre’s name. Perfect for those who don’t like the manic atmosphere of outlet villages (and certainly there’s a desire for high end outlet stores in London). There was no evidence of red ticketing or ubiquitous promotional banners. Instead, many brands had attempted to encourage the ‘Instagram effect’ with customised products and large selfie boards outside.
The main noticeable difference was in the product offer; most stores seemed to be filled with core, basic items rather than any showstoppers.
Outlet product has moved on dramatically in the last few years with retailers producing ranges specifically for this business model. Gone are the days of left-overs or end-of-lines leaving outlet shops looking messy. All of the fashion stores here feature ranges that had been carefully selected and presented in displays that had been strategically thought out. It’s just that few have any impact.
The most engaging store was not actually in the newly opened mall
Windows were lacklustre, some with just vinyl wraps, and mannequin product fails to stand out. With the likes of Westfield continually raising the bar in terms of overall customer experience and, more specifically, visual merchandising implementation within the stores themselves, ICON Outlet simply does not compare.
For me, G-Star and Pepe were the stand out stores on opening day. Product in both was logically placed but interrupted with impactful displays to keep it interesting and easy to shop.
But the most engaging store was not actually in the newly opened mall. The O2 store at the entrance to the dome is a great example of a brand identifying with its surroundings and as the venue sponsor it needs to have ‘wow factor’. A music zone and nods to local themes within the decor encourage product exploration and longer customer dwell times inside.
Despite my criticisms, a mall in the O2 venue makes absolute sense. Outside of concert times the dome is a soulless, empty place to visit. But locally the infrastructure just isn’t there to support it. As the only east London route across the river, the Blackwall tunnel is long past breaking point and with this and a new IKEA imminent on the peninsula, roads in the area will be perpetually gridlocked. Is there enough reason for shoppers to venture south of the river? Adding shops here is a great use of space, makes an iconic venue more appealing and will give visitors a reason to make a day of it. But the ‘outlet’ USP has not been made the most of and for those that solely want a shopping experience there are far better destinations with more exciting store formats both within central London and locally.