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Williams and Griffin in Colchester

Melissa Wheeler visits Williams and Griffin in Colchester to discover how the 50-year-old store is moving forward while still holding on to its past traditions

To those in the industry Williams and Griffin is an iconic example of an independent department store with great heritage. Founded in Colchester in 1963 as an amalgamation of different stores on the high street, the store was owned and developed by the Ireland family until 2008. Then, after securing two prestigious Drapers Fashion Awards, it became part of the Fenwick family.

I visit Williams and Griffin during the much-discussed £30 million re-development and in the days preceding the time-honoured unveiling of the Christmas windows, for which the store is famed. In spite of the industry’s largely lacklustre autumn season, the ground floor, which includes health and beauty, Christmas gifts and footwear, is busy and customers are actively embracing the spirit of Christmas. Seemingly unaware, they have no idea that the space in which they are shopping is formed of 27 pre-fabricated container buildings, each the size of an articulated lorry. These containers were transported from Hull by lorry and lifted onto site using a crane, during which time the high street was closed off.

Julie Hayward, merchandise director at the store, who has now served the business for 21 years, admits: “it was serious feat of engineering, the scale of which is hard to convey.” Indeed as MD Carl Milton explains: “The objective was to create additional space while we lost space during the redevelopment. This would enable us to continue trading and bring our customers with us on this journey and retain their favoured brands in the process.”

As it happens, the Williams and Griffin footprint resides on a prime archaeological site of Roman Britain and recent excavations (mandatory before building works began) uncovered some real treasure: “On the last day they found a lump of mud which was studied and found to contain some Roman jewels,” says Hayward. “In 61AD, a female had buried her wealth under the floor boards, while the town was under siege. Two replica pieces have been commissioned to celebrate the find.”

Under the ownership of the Ireland family, “the store evolved as far as it could within the financial limits set”, explains Hayward, who recalls: “we had a refurbishment of some kind every year.” However, since joining the Fenwick group, Williams and Griffin has continued to adapt and refresh while transposing itself and the staff to the Fenwick DNA under the leadership of Michael Rolls. Haywood explains: “The adaptation was more about understanding the culture of Fenwick: the way the buying hierarchy works, the budgeting modules, the way they drive and understand their business.”

Rolls retired in 2013 and Milton was brought in as MD in January 2014. His philosophy to the redevelopment and to independent retailing itself is refreshing. The involvement of the customer in this enormous project is clearly a priority: “In terms of myself, I bring another dimension to the store in terms of its readiness for the development,” says Milton. “Whether this was a pre-requisite to the timing of my appointment, I don’t know. But I do know that we have a strong buying team and a strong leadership team to take the store to the next level.”

It’s clear that Hayward and Milton feel the store has a duty to the people of Colchester and that they both appreciate the unique character of the business as an independent department store with a difference. “The managing director is a unique role here in that we have the retail dimension and the buying teams all working together under one roof,” explains Milton. “There are no hurdles, constraints or corporate frustrations to hinder that. The Fenwick approach encourages their managing directors to work autonomously and in my experience I find this very unique with department stores. Fenwick has not stifled that element of creativity, but has rather helped nurture it, as well as providing Williams and Griffin with the opportunity to realise those aspirations.”

On the subject of the redevelopment, the objectives are very clear: “In terms of the shopping experience, it’s going to be a lot more traditional and will be based around the central atrium and across four trading floors,” says Milton. “The ground floor will be in keeping with where we have come from, with health and beauty, menswear and accessories dominating that space. What we are also doing is increasing the ‘shopability’ of the womenswear fashions by bringing everything onto the first floor. Womenswear is currently fragmented across the entire store. The top floor will house the restaurant and home department. We have sought to create more logical spaces which provide a one stop shop on each floor.”

 

The romance of retail

While retail becomes increasingly functional and less about the visceral experience of shopping, it’s nothing short of revolutionary for a department store, which will ultimately cover 85,000 sq ft, to decline the online-bandwagon in favour of the in-store experience. As Milton sees it, “we have a brand that is trusted and well known and has an enormous amount of credibility. The people of Colchester are emotionally attached to the store and its connection with them spans several generations.

On the subject of online retailing, Milton is philosophical: “We don’t have a transactional website and neither does Fenwick. It’s certainly part of the development of the Fenwick business and is being rolled up at the moment. In terms of going forward, I think retail is in a bit of a cycle and is in something of a limbo. The web does a great job in what it does, but it’s taken that experience away from the shop floor. Personally, I think those retailers who are on their front foot will be looking at what that in store experience is going to be.”

It’s clear that Williams and Griffin sits at the forefront of that group of retailers. From a pragmatic point of view: “I think that all of the qualities that make Fenwick unique (notably its 11 identical stores which function independently) would equally make it difficult to create a Fenwick website,” says Haywood. “Because all of our stock is held in 11 different places and bought by 11 different people. Trying to meet the local market on that platform would be very hard.” On this discussion, Milton interjects: “Equally, most retailers who have an online presence alongside a bricks and mortar business still have 60-70 per cent of their turnover take place in-store. What we plan to do is to continue to absolutely focus on our bricks and mortar experience. We want to bring to life the three-dimensional aspect of our business proposition rather than become distracted by the slightly faceless online platform.”

 

The art of buying

The effort and time invested by the buying team is indicative of the attention to detail paid throughout the store, which is especially salient in the redevelopment. For them, shopping is an activity that is not rushed but which requires research, time and collaboration. Just as customers will go shopping with a friend to enjoy the experience and receive advice and opinions, so too do the Fenwick buying teams research, collaborate but ultimately buy independently while feeding each other with they have gleaned from the marketplace. Milton explains: “The consumer isn’t shopping by season now, so the buying season is lengthening. People aren’t shopping by need but rather as an activity. We find that it’s a much more fluid buying cycle, which reflects in our buying schedule.”

For a business this size with a buying team of eight, the process is bound to be extensive and significant. “A lot of our showrooms are in London but we also visit Paris, Milan, Florence, Birmingham and Harrogate”, says Hayward. In London we attend Pure and Scoop. Given our size, we don’t go to the American shows, since we can always feed off the other Fenwick stores. Asked whether the timing of the shows suit their schedule, the merchandise director reasons: “In the main, the timings of the trade shows are fine with us. While some shows are far later in the buying season than others, equally they don’t carry the brands that the other shows carry, so there’s very little crossover to speak of.”

For the Williams and Griffin womenswear customer, a major benefit of the redevelopment will be the introduction of a luxury personal shopping offering. Hayward makes no secret that she is excited about this: “Our customer enjoys the leisure of shopping. It’s about spending some enjoyable time doing something nice rather than making a distressed, purely functional purchase. Our customer, by and large, enjoys the activity of shopping either by herself or with friends. Hopefully the redevelopment will make this an even better experience. Updating the changing rooms and redesigning the entire floor is a central part of the department’s’ redevelopment strategy going forward. As such, we will be implementing a luxury ‘personal shopping experience’. We will be introducing a suite with a settee and plush surroundings in addition to the stylist consultation.”

Milton confirms the thinking behind the new in-store atmosphere: “Part of the ‘retail experience’ we talk of is to encourage that dwell time and to replace an impulsive distressed purchase with a planned, leisurely one. We envisage customers enjoying some quality time while shopping and have located the coffee shop on the womenswear floor for this reason. Shopping will become a leisure experience rather than a functional one.”

From an industry perspective, it is always tempting to ask retailers ‘who is your customer?’ Predictably, I pose this question to Hayward in the full knowledge that, with a customer base as broad as Williams and Griffin’s and a duty to such a diverse demographic, the answer is unlikely to be straightforward. And so it is: “Yes, the customer we attract is very different to the customer we served 21 years ago and we shall be taking her on this journey with us. It is an exciting period of change. Our customer is and always has been very important to us and we will be making sure that all of her needs are met. I remember once, our Menswear redevelopment, someone from the trade asked: ‘Julie, you’ve got to decide where you want to be, demographic wise.’ I replied: ‘We are a provincial store and we need to cater for them all. We have to create an environment where they are all happy.’ And I can honestly say that, to this date, we have done that very well.”

As it stands, Williams and Griffin serves various female customer groups that include teenage fashion through to directional young fashion in the Quest department. Consequently, the store attracts young mothers who will often visit with their daughters or friends and also the fashion-savvy women who may well commute to London and have a fluent knowledge of the marketplace. “For the customer who has bought her Mulberry handbag from us in the past, we will have a larger offering,” says Milton. “The premium department will certainly be developing.”

Staying true to their values, Hayward is keen to point out that they will not be alienating their loyal, traditional customer who may have been shopping with them for 40 to 50 years. “We have the older 50-plus woman and also a slightly older customer who seeks more traditional styles, which allow her to remain smart and stylish as she ages.”

From the era of the Ireland family to the Fenwick redevelopment that continues today, Williams and Griffin is notably nimble in its ability to adapt and evolve, while remaining true to its core values. The fact that the shopping experience will be central to the new store is testament to the team’s understanding of what matters to their customer.

Carl Milton is MD for Williams and Griffin department store in Colchester while Julie Hayward is merchandise director. Williams and Griffin and the Fenwick group are members of the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB). For more information visit Fashionassociationofbritain.co.uk