Today is a day of celebration: Retail is back. At retailer Next, it’s a day of even greater significance – one that marks more than simply the re-opening of stores, but the official opening of six new ‘statement of intent’ stores that will carry its hopes for the future.
Within this one retailer at least, the rhetoric of a “Retail Apocalypse” seems far removed from reality. With the opening of the new stores, which include Liverpool city centre, Bedford’s Interchange Retail Park and Leicester’s new Fosse Park extension – the closest to the brands HQ and spiritual home – Next is nailing its colours (and investment) to the flag of physical retail. Perhaps even allowing us to use the word ‘unprecedented’ in more positive terms, for the first time in a long while.
“Next must reposition itself to seize on future opportunities and find its own more profitable place in this very changed shopping environment”. Those were my words back in 2017, when I raised the issue of ‘What next, for Next?’. Then I asked whether, having spent decades perfecting its own formula, the retailer had become ‘Next-blind’.
It’s no coincidence that the next phase of Next’s evolution comes in the same year that Ford has announced it will end production of the Mondeo. In many ways, the rise of Next was intertwined with that of “Mondeo man”. The mass-produced, middle class heyday was a time when wallpapering your life with the Next brand in clothing, furniture… and actual wallpaper… seemingly elevated social standing.
In the heady days of the 1980’s retail boom Next stood out.
The story of Next began a decade earlier, in February 1982. When Next Retail launched it led an exciting decade of UK High Street transformation. Months earlier in 1981, parent company of Next, Hepworth & Sons bought out the 78 strong Kendall’s shop chain from Combined English Stores and plotted to revolutionise fashion retail. With a revolutionary approach, Next was set up – deliberately – to do things differently. With smart store design, stylish visual merchandising and marketing, the British public had not experienced anything like it before.
Designed by Conran and Partners (Terrence Conran being a non-executive chairman of Hepworth’s at the time), Next’s stores were opened using a novel ‘out of the box’ retail concept format, which enabled Next to launch rapidly. Every store was fitted out and opened within one week. Within six weeks Next had secured a nationwide presence on Britain’s high streets. More than just impressive, it was truly pioneering – paradigm shifting.
With the financial muscle of its parent company and the insight, energy and vision of its executive team, the success of Next was both instantaneous and headline-making. Shoppers queued to visit a Next store, openings became a local event, and Next’s well-made, colour coordinated, quality clothing sold out within hours. Next was new.
In the heady days of the 1980’s retail boom Next stood out. Over time, its stores became bigger, with all departments, and established the model of Next stores today. It has steadily and progressively evolved to be a much admired, and copied retail brand – a praiseworthy success story of UK retail.
What Next do here will be noted. But Flannels will be talked about more.
It’s perhaps fitting that, after a year in lockdown, Next will be staying close to home today as it opens its new store on the site of a former brewery in Leicestershire. This spring, all eyes will be on this site, which is set to become one of the hottest places for UK retail. But it is another retailer on the same development that many will be looking at. Frasers Group will be arriving too, with the opening of a bold new concept Flannels department store – said to be a ‘test and learn’ model for how the fleet of House of Fraser stores are refashioned in future. What Next do here will be noted. What Flannels do will be talked about more.
This is a retailer that is increasingly providing a breath of fresh air in the sector – refined and absolutely relevant for the modern customer, it avoids all the predictable retail clichés. As a result, Flannels continues to add a much-needed new dimension to the increasingly tired iterations of others. It’s the reason that I shortlisted it to feature in ‘Brilliant’, Visual Thinking’s inspirational new review of global stores that are ripping up the rulebook (you can download for free here.
I for one am looking forward to watching these two retailers face off in the most unremarkable of out-of-town locations—both with landmark investments in physical retail space. With each of these store openings, they will vie for shoppers, design supremacy and experience highs; seeking to be the local ‘go-to avant-garde’ for clothing and other goods.
And while this exciting story plays out, close by one of the biggest Marks and Spencer stores continues to languish in a tired 1990’s built store that has only been partially ‘refreshed’ in piecemeal stages in the years that have followed. Like many M&S outlets, it’s past its best. Over in Bedford – the location of Next’s other store opening today – a former M&S store waits patiently to be ‘reinvigorated’… as B&M comes to town. It’s a telling example of the contrasting fortunes and gap that continues to widen between M&S and Next.
Next year, the latter will turn forty: Next officially hitting middle-age. Typically this is a time marked by mid-life crisis. But this is retailer that has become synonymous with brand innovation, ecommerce leadership and stable management – a company with only three CEO’s in 40 years. While other former retail powerhouses have overseen their demise by sleepwalking into failure, Next continues to invest to maintain relevance. It is as pioneering as it once was? No. But like anyone approaching forty; it recognises that standing still is not an option when there are others who are younger waiting to replace you. And right now, Flannels is well and truly snapping at its heels. Watch this space…