How the layout of your store can offer the ultimate experience

We meet Lisa Watson, interiors designer for
John Lewis & Partners (JL&P).

Her biggest project to date, the new Cheltenham store, was the result of hard work and devotion. We find what was done to offer the best customer experience possible.

Lisa, first of all, how did you become interiors designer for John Lewis & Partners?

I studied architecture at the University of Plymouth and did my postgraduate degree at the University of East London. When I graduated in 2011, it was the height of the recession so I got a temp job at John Lewis at the Oxford Street branch in London. After I found out about some of the store design roles at Head Office, I did a number of different work experience stints.

I really enjoyed the way the JL Partnership was run and the company has always been really good at giving opportunities to developing it’s Partners so I knew I wanted to stay.

I eventually ended up working in the Store Design team where I’ve held a couple of roles over the last four and a half years. I’ve had my current role of Interiors Designer three and a half years which I still really love. I was open to all possibilities and JL&P encourages people to succeed so it all worked out!

You’ve just completed the fabulous brand new JL&P Cheltenham store how long was that entire process of design? Could you walk us through when you got involved and what you had to do to get it to the beautiful space we see today.

I started on the project in 2015 and where we worked closely with the landlords developers and architects to get the shell design as we wanted it including the building facade and main circulation points like escalators. Internally at that stage, it was really looking at feasibility studies for the design of the macro scale of space to create a clear direction for the project, rather than the level of practical stockholding and small details of interior.

The actual interior fit out design work started towards the end of 2016. The store was geared up to open in 2017 but was delayed for several months, however as a result we amended certain areas and I think it worked out better in the long run. For example, we were able to review the retail offer and include even more for customer experience, such as creating the Style Studio, which was something we hadn’t thought about including initially but has since become an important part of the project.

My role focuses on the internal architecture so I get to know the buildings inside out. I work with a diverse range of both internal specialists and external consultants to get it all done. We are lucky in that the internal design team all work well together, all with equally important specialisms.

From the shopfit designers and planners who work with me to create the whole look and feel of the store, to the Commercial and Space Planning teams who work with data. Ranging from local demographics through to the micro detail of product ranges and sales, and predict certain degrees of what’s selling and what’s not.

We alway look at other JL&P stores for referral but ultimately every shop has it’s unique differences. It’s always good practice to review what we’ve done and the best gauge is to come back to the store after opening and see for ourselves how the consumer is interacting and using the space plus we get feedback from colleagues working here on the shop floor as to how customers are using and feeling about the space.

What’s the most important area to focus on when you’re developing a store from scratch to encourage a great consumer experience? What advice would you give to others?

Each store we have at JL&P is different. From a variety of shapes and sizes of building to the demographic of customers who use our stores. There are so many variances it can be quite overwhelming to try and think about everything at once. I find it most helpful to take it back to basics and put myself in our different types of customers shoes and mentally walk the space through their eyes and potential interactions. For example, a parent with a small child could have a very different shopping experience to someone browsing with friends or someone dashing in to grab something they’ve bought online to Click & Collect

I like to think of the whole store as a landscape, and to try to break up the customer journey through the space with focal and pause points with varying heights to make it interesting. You also have to try not to overwhelm customers visually to allow them to shop comfortably, this can be done with the architecture and fixture layouts as well as the amount of stock you have on the shop floor to ensure a good product range without being overcrowded.

Another important thing is to allow customers to move through the store with enough room for them to navigate around the space. For example, we have to have the walkways wide enough from a health and safety perspective, but we try to have our main walkways larger so that customers are comfortable to see what’s available and move at their own pace.

How much research would you do locally to ensure that the store fits in with the community or have you found that’s not really relevant?

We do a lot of research locally. All JL&P stores have their own personalities and we always try to take inspiration from the local area into consideration and make ties with the community as well. From the physical design, for example the building’s high street facade which took cues from the amazing regency metalwork you see around town, to the inclusion of our Discovery Room which can be hired by local groups and our Community Matters scheme which ties in with local charities.

One of my favourite bits of our recent new stores is always the visual merchandising scheme which always takes inspiration from local cues. In Cheltenham for example, Karen, one of our Visual Merchandising Designers, took the theme of circus which has historic links to the town which she found out about after seeing a series of mosaics in a side street near our store. She unearthed a great story about one of the elephants getting loose and getting stuck in a pet store when it squeezed in to eat the food!

What we stand for in the community really matters to everyone at JL&P, and Martin, the Branch Manager and his team have forged some great local links already to carry this through now the store is open

What makes Cheltenham different to other JLP stores around the UK?

The Cheltenham branch is different from a practical point of view because we worked with an existing building shell which gives it a very unique look and feel.

The majority of our new stores would normally be built completely from scratch. It was really important to work with this architecture so that our fit out wasn’t fighting against it. This took a lot of care and attention to the detail to get the space we needed and wanted

Which features of the Cheltenham store are you most proud?

I think it has to be the feature wall in the atrium space. It constantly changes with the sun and never looks the same. I’ve had really positive comments from the minute it was installed, even the building contractors working on site were fascinated by it. The overall store has to have the appearance that aligns with the JL&P brand look and feel, but we always try to get some big features in with the wow factor and give additional theatre when customers walk in. The design was a risk as we didn’t know what it was truly going to look like until it was installed in place. It was a massive relief when it even exceeded my expectations.

If a new retailer was investing in their store, what would you say was the best use of time and money with regards to getting it right on a practical level but also for customers to want to come in.

Firstly I would say spend time on research to see what people are doing locally and also across the world - there’s a wealth of information about shopping and design and what the latest trends are on the internet but equally try not to be blindsided with the ton of information there is. Use that information to help inform a strong image of what your store could be.

To stand out be prepared to take yourself out of your comfort zone - take a leap and then be sure to review it. If you need to then look at getting external knowledge such as speaking to local networks and find people who have already done something similar to what you want to do. It’s always good to start by learning lessons from others. The process of setting up takes time and money but if you ask for help, particularly from those with retail experience, you’ll save in the long term.

How important do you think a window display and external area of the shop is nowadays? What does JLP do to get customers into the shop?

External displays are very important. There are two areas to look at which is first looking at the facade of the shop in isolation and then in its surrounding areas as store windows add to the look and feel of High Street or area.

Your windows and first few steps into a shop are vital because it’s the first impression of your brand and what a customer will remember. The window sells your brand, which may sound obvious, but there’s no point in spending time and effort on the interior if the exterior doesn’t encourage people to come inside. Be sure that the window demonstrates the store’s personality, tries to give a flavour of all that is inside (without cramming the space of course) and see how the window fits in to the general flow of the high street.

Make sure that the window display is changed regularly and features brands that you know are popular and you would like to show off.

Simple things like getting the lighting right both inside and outside of the shop. It offers the right ambiance for what you’re trying to convey (actual types of light fittings do this as well as the level of brightness) and good lights also let the customers see the product really clearly such as labelling, fabric, colour and price.

How has shopping evolved for JLP over the last ten years and what has the group done to incorporate that into its stores?

We never stop evolving, I think it’s really important to the success of the Partnership and I like to think every single one of our Partners keep an eye on what people are doing with regards to general lifestyle and shopping so that we can always innovate.

There are so many strands to consider - new products, new experiences and we need to incorporate the different ways that people are actually buying - for example using online and coming in store to shop.

At the moment technology is being used by customers in different ways such as our JL&P app - where they’ve found a product through the app and they bring their phone into the store so that they can find more details and see the actual product with help from with one of our team members.

We try lots of different ideas, with store design and layouts and also using technology, some work, some don’t so we take the knowledge from one store and be sure to share it with other stores so that we eliminate replicating mistakes.

What’s your favourite part of the new Cheltenham store?

I’m so proud of what we’ve delivered as an in-house design team at Cheltenham so it’s really difficult to choose a favourite. I really love the new customer experience elements of the shop that work alongside the more “traditional” retail offer and elements of JL&P. It feels like a completely new offer for Cheltenham and it’s really exciting to see their popularity already.

We’ve given quite a lot of retail space to the customer experience and service offer in Cheltenham - such as the Experience Desk, Personal Shopping Services, Discovery Room, Home Design Studio - and the new Style Studio and we’ve seen sales uplifts thanks to these features across our estate already so hopefully they’ll be as successful here.

They were calculated risks but we all make sure we keep an eye on any new idea to see that it continues to work well once it’s initially landed and whether these concepts can be rolled out to other stores in our estate.

Photos: Tony Buckingham