Is this the end of the flagship?

Fashion beats sports hands down in the future store retail stakes.

This month’s travels took me past the new flagship stores of Asics and New Balance on Regent Street and Oxford Street respectively, as well as the latest iteration of 18montrose at Kings Cross. Each store delivers experiential retail; two of them, at first glance at least, present what shoppers now expect from a global sports flagship. The other brings something different; an intriguing, chameleon-like space, that’s full of surprises.

A photo finish for second place.

London’s Oxford Street and Regent Street are now well and truly the shopping mecca for sport. Nike, Adidas, JD Sports, Sports Direct all have a flagship presence in the vicinity. And now Asics and New Balance have joined the fray, opening flagships in prime locations a short distance from each other. To some extent, it’s risk-free territory. The flagship experience is why shoppers flock to these two shopping streets; they expect to be treated to the best their favourite sports brands can offer. For Asics and New Balance, received wisdom says it’s a chance to connect directly with their consumers and gain ultimate control of the retail environment. But what’s the real benefit of these store experiences for shoppers? And do they make a success of meeting shoppers’ core needs around both ease and entertainment?

Unfortunately, both Asics and New Balance stop short of delivering anything beyond the conventional flagship formula: tech-filled, high-octane, elevated experiences that shoppers to this part of town have come to expect. But that isn’t the worst crime these stores commit. Overall, the heavy use of technology and screens in both stores, whilst initially impactful, does little to connect the shoppers’ journey or connect shoppers to the brand’s cause in any meaningful, useful way.

Asics’s new store is its largest to date with just over 9,000 square feet spread across two floors. The space in general is clean and sharp with clearly designated areas for the various product ranges (the store brings Asics’s four brands together, under the same roof, for the first time in the UK). The lighting installation lives up to its hype, changing colour and moving rhythmically, an engaging way to bring the brand’s ‘enabling movement’ message to life.

Beyond this, the store starts to make less sense. A large cash desk and waiting area occupies the bulk of the mid-store, ground floor level – a hugely valuable area fully optimised by most retailers. Unless there is a plan for running clubs to meet here (and there was no evidence of this apart from free juice and water), it’s not clear what’s behind this use of space. Connecting the brand’s Instagram feed into the area is a nice idea but the execution was a bit static and uninspiring and not connected into the store’s product.

And this is my main grievance with the store. It’s stuffed with technology that, apart from the fantastic MotionID gait analysis, fundamentally fails to meet shoppers’ needs and connect into the store’s product. A robotic stockroom solution for footwear provides an element of theatre but has limited visibility and is only able to deliver sizes 6, 7 and 8. Pity Asics didn’t look to South Korean eyewear brand, Gentle Monster, for some robotics inspiration. The brand’s beautifully designed robot is strangely human, and both mesmerising and functional.

New Balance edges in front.

There are some real highlights in the New Balance store that give it a slight edge over Asics. These are mostly to do with how it uses visual merchandising to tie the store experience into the brand’s core sport – running. Overall, however, and just like its rival Asics, it fails to optimise technology so that the store is truly integrated into the New Balance customer experience. Both New Balance and Asics stores are disconnected from their online experiences, whether it’s their ecommerce sites or Instagram content.

Visual merchandising has great impact and is at least connected to the brand’s marketing. Digital signage along the core product walls is relevant and well considered. More digital signage behind the till works well to embed the brand and its runners into London. There is also an interactive screen that invites shoppers to join the New Balance Run Club, (its virtual running club powered by Strava). A strong installation promoting the upcoming New York Marathon further anchors the brand into running

Other areas are disappointing. Digital signage up the main stairway looks impressive but the spacing between the screens completely spoils the effect; failing to deliver the content effectively (a visit to 18montrose will show you how mulitscreens should be done). A tablet kiosk provides nothing more than the usual link to the brand’s ecommerce site. The tie-in with its Run Club is not prominent enough in the store; a missed opportunity to actively use the environment to build a London community around the New Balance brand as well as a support network for runners (this is the brand’s only high street store in the UK).

A clear winner.

All in all, both New Balance and Asics are runners up compared to the latest store from 18montrose in the Coal Drops Yard development behind Kings Cross. Much anticipated, Coals Drop Yard is described as carefully curated collection of shops, cafes, open spaces and venues. The aim is for selected brands to rub shoulders with small artisan producers and for the area to be have a genuine community vibe. It’s an interesting and apt location for 18montrose – a destination for people wanting a day out with their friends rather than just shopping for stuff.

Described by FourMarketing, the fashion agency behind 18montrose, as ‘a unique event space’, the store concept is designed to ‘transcend the borders between fashion store, gallery and visual art’. Pared back, the store is a far cry from the sensory overload offered by New Balance and Asics. This is a designer fashion store, not a sports store, but it still provides an enlightening comparison for how to optimise content; 18montrose’s digital signage and content execution is exceptional and ties into the brand’s ecommerce offer.

Part-store, part-gallery, huge multi-screens feature heavily and are like an art installation, displaying dynamic, abstract imagery that animates the store. They hint at the chameleon-like nature of the concept: the screens can instantly change its whole look and feel, with content to promote a featured designer’s collection, for example, or to inject atmosphere into an event. Product changes regularly, constantly renewing shoppers’ reasons to visit. Fixtures can be moved to allow the store to seamlessly transform into exhibition and event space, leaving plenty of room for visitors, according to the brand. For its launch party the store became a club for the night with DJ taking centre stage.

Minimal and functional, the store has an industrial feel in keeping with the heritage of the Kings Cross area it’s in. Large white storage and merchandising units divide the space into three catwalk-like aisles. Mannequins, fully kitted out in designer gear, stand on eerie ceremony in a line down each one. The overall effect is striking, atmospheric and memorable, leaving me wanting to visit again to see how the store can evolve.

The future flagship experience?

Seeing the New Balance and Asics flagship experiences together reinforces the idea that these tech-filled, high-experience stores are not, as many would think, the future of physical retail. There seems to be a ‘flagship formula’ for sports brands now, that has grown out of the need to emulate Niketown or adidas. Each store has its own version of NikeID, each has a version of gait analysis technology, running tracks and tie-ins to high profile sport events and personalities. Beyond this, and despite all the latest technology, New Balance and Asics are both conventional flagship experiences with little to differentiate them in shoppers’ minds from their neighbours.

18montrose has taken a different approach with its latest store. Location, function and content seem to be aimed at enticing people to experience a designer’s vibe within the store environment – an antidote to clicking through images of clothes online. Asics and New Balance use the store experience to focus on their brands, and a desire to connect their brand’s core message with shoppers. 18montrose uses it to focus on getting shoppers – or visitors – to connect with each other, rather than just the brand. A versatile concept that can flex depending on customers’ interests. In doing so, it succeeds in bringing the spirit of its brand to life.

Flagships have long been an essential part of a brand’s store format strategy. Originally there to make the ultimate statement about what and who a brand is and have a halo effect on the rest of the store estate. But perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate their role, content and format – or even their existence. Surely store format needs to be designed around shopper need and the problems that must be solved in their customer journey? Starting from here will mean that a flagship store may not be the answer.

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Kevin Gill Retail Director, Start