How to mix the old and the new in store design

The recent revamp at Asprey delivered a clever mix of historical and modern fittings in response to a design brief that surmised the store design struggles of many a watch retailer. Gregor Jackson of Gpstudio tells Rachael Taylor how he approached the project and gives his tips on blending the old with the new.

Achieving a perfect blend of traditional and modern is a challenge for every watch retailer, and one that proved particularly complex for Asprey.

The heritage English brand recently revamped its store on London’s Bond Street, including its watch department, as part of a wider repositioning at the luxury brand. With three generations of fixtures in the building, which Asprey has occupied for 160 years, it was a balancing act of some serious finesse.

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Heading up the project on behalf of Asprey was Gregor Jackson, a partner at design consultancy Gpstudio. The agency’s client list is an impressive roll call of influential luxury houses: Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Theo Fennell, Harrods, De Beers, Lane Crawford, and more.

“It took us years,” says Jackson of the Asprey store revamp. “We have been working with Asprey for a while, looking at how the brand moves forward and evolves and is projected internationally. The store is a small part of that and is described as an eyewash rather than a full refurbishment.”

The use of the term eyewash somewhat undermines the efforts put in to modernising both a historic brand and shop. Gpstudio was tasked with amalgamating three generations of fixtures including rich timber veneers, bronze detailing, leather work and carpets hand-embroidered with the brand’s fern motif.

LOOK BACK, MOVE FORWARD
So where on earth do you start? “Heritage and tradition is exceptionally important as that’s what gives brands a DNA and point of difference,” says Jackson. “We delve into the history books to find out who started it and what was the aim of their business. You often find that that person was ahead of their time.”

Asprey was founded in 1781 by William Asprey and with a little research Gpstudio found him to be a “dynamic and forward-thinking character”. Capturing this pioneering spirit is important when translating heritage into a modern business as no store design should ever exclusively look backwards.

“It’s a bit of looking back to look forward but projecting it in a way that is relevant,” explains Jackson. “It is an interesting dichotomy with watch brands as they all like to rely on tradition and heritage and often forget that they need to be relevant for the consumer of today.”

LIGHTING THE WHOLE FLOOR
To bring Apsrey up to date one of the most important changes was to upgrade the lighting system in partnership with Office of Light, which has provided illumination in stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Burberry.

A conscious effort was made to correct the lighting in the whole store, not just the watch cabinets.

“The whole space was very dimly lit,” says Jackson. “We’ve made it lighter and the colour of the light is now much more suitable, the product really sparkles, and when the product comes out of the cabinet it sparkles. You don’t want it to fall into darkness.”

As for the cabinets, the refresh called for some new bespoke creations – unit trays and wall cabinets – but the rest remain the original antique cabinets and some installed by Foster + Partners in 2004 when the three townhouses occupied by Asprey were knocked into one. “What we’ve tried to do is blur the contact between the three,” says Jackson. “It was important that the ones we designed have got their own personality but pay respect to antique pieces.”

The design dilemma that Gpstudio faced when installing this so-called eyewash is a common one facing watch retailers. The craft of watchmaking is steeped in history and this must be communicated, but the shopper is modern and wants a retail environment that is reflective of today.

“With Asprey there are a lot of workshops on the premises, lots of craftsmanship and detail, they are not a mass luxury brand, they are a super luxury brand,” says Jackson. “We try to present all these wonderful things in a relevant way. There was a period that I felt that the life and soul had been drained out of Asprey and we’ve tried to bring that spirit back to the design. The product is the hero but now you can see that it is lit beautifully and presented using quality and handmade fittings.”

EXPLAIN THE MECHANICS
Outside of Asprey, Jackson feels that the heritage associated with watchmaking is often lost in favour of things like celebrity brand ambassadors or sponsorships of motorsports. “There are a number of watch brands that you could cover up the name and you wouldn’t know who it was,” argues Jackson. “There is a lot of association with other quality brands and the visual merchandising is often about celebrity endorsement or supercars. The props are quite obvious.”

One watch brand Jackson does admire is Hublot, and calls the brand’s visual merchandising efforts “superb”. “You get an understanding of the movement that goes into the piece as they are very good at storytelling and explaining the manufacture,” he says, adding that Hublot does so in an ambient modern environment.

One way Hublot does this is through video screens, which Jackson says will be a key store design trend in watches going forward, adding that the introduction of such modern fittings don’t have to compromise a traditional storefit. “It opens up a whole new world,” he says. “You might have just a small boutique but through technology you can open it up to a much wider world.”

CUSTOMER BEHAVIOUR
For those retailers that have the space, a blend of functional areas is important, according to Jackson. “In a lot of watch stores you cross the threshold and feel forced to sit down at a desk and often you don’t want to,” says Jackson. “Someone might just come into browse, they might just have five minutes and don’t want to get into that forced sales environment. There has to be space to browse and for customers to perch and not be fully committed, and areas for the ones who do want to sit down and have a glass of champagne. You should cater for all these.”

Bars have become a popular feature in retail store design and while Jackson is all in favour of the idea, he says that discretion is key and where possible drinks cabinets or coffee machines should be hidden, such as the new bar in the jewellery department at Fortnum & Mason, which is hidden inside a wardrobe. “The idea that someone can just prop up a bar in the store and have an espresso is good, it’s part of the service and builds a dialogue but you mustn’t think that everyone wants that,” he advises.

Regardless of whether your shoppers are the in-and-out type or like to hang around, what they all do want is an experience, and Jackson’s parting advice is to give shoppers a reason to leave the iPad at home and come into a real shop. “Particularly with something like watches that is tactile with incredible detail and engineering, it’s an opportunity to emphasise that,” he says. “It is about the opportunity to engage and provide service, which needs played up with watches. After all, it’s often about marking very magical moments in one’s life.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read a digital version of the magazine in full online, click here.

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