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Formats Have Peaked. Product Is The Focus.

Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson once wrote that – in his opinion – engineering had probably peaked and that the huge leaps in such areas as aeroplane and motorcar design that mankind had enjoyed in the twentieth century were now either being refined or reformed. It is an interesting viewpoint on the effects of government intervention and modern social pressure.

I am in the fortunate position of being able to travel internationally every year and while travelling, to have the time to study retail in all its guises at both domestic and international levels. Once you get beyond the endless propaganda and study what’s really going on you could easily argue that much of what is claimed is smoke and mirrors. In my opinion, most retail formats peaked in the last ten years.

What we now see is endless refinement and – more importantly – a change of focus.

Globally the spotlight is now back on product. As always this is most obviously seen in Europe but is evident everywhere when you look. If we need to halt price deflation and margin erosion and blunt the commoditisation effect of the ‘virtual’ world, it would seem self evident that this had to be the case.

A couple of interesting examples I came across recently in apparel and footwear – while not being mass market – illustrate some of the exciting new product ideas starting to bubble up around the world.

The first was a store I came across in Paris called Sports DeEpoque ( www.sports-depoque.com ). This fascinating store has developed a product range based on historical sporting uniforms, faithfully reproduced in limited editions and signed and authorised by the appropriate bodies. The authenticity of the product is fantastic. The sales assistant that served me made a point of showing me the 1908 Australian Rugby Union jersey that was worn by the team at the very first world cup we competed at. It turned out to be the early forerunner of the NSW Waratahs jersey. A brilliant retail concept packed with very unique and extremely engaging product.

Another example is United Nude ( www.unitednude.com ), a wonderful shoe store in London’s Covent Garden area. This store uses avant-garde production techniques, CAD technology and aeronautical inspiration to create wonderfully imaginative shoe designs for men and women. The designer is often in the store (he was on the day we visited), is engagingly eccentric and the store is simple but very impactful.

If the product really is the ultimate repeat purchase device, it is extremely satisfying to see the retail renaissance coming to life and being led firmly by product. The cynical exploitation of me too retail creating mediocre offerings surviving on cheap prices and sourcing is coming to an overdue end. In its place the magic is returning. Customers are now actively looking for uniqueness, great stories, quality, attention to detail and engagement.

Great retail is most attractive when it is product led. And that is the era we are now confronting. Long live the new era!