Boots showcases fresh format in new Covent Garden flagship

Boots’ has said its new flagship store in London’s Covent Garden, open to the public from 27 June, provides a blueprint for change at the health and beauty retailer.

The two-storey shop features a fresh design and layout, including more brand-led beauty areas, reduced shelf height, and several new services the company hopes will become commonplace across its UK and Ireland estate.

The 2,650 sq m (28,524 sq ft) space – which is the latest site to open as part of Boots’ transformation programme – is described by managing director Seb James as kick-starting “a journey of reinventing Boots for the future”.

Following on from a store upgrade programme which started earlier this year, traditional beauty counters have been replaced with what the company describes as trending zones, discovery areas, and live demonstration spaces. The format, which encourages shoppers to try products prior to purchase, is supplemented with dedicated beauty specialists who are trained on all brands in stock.

Citing influences from US beauty stores such as Ulta and Sephora, James said the aim is to make shopping for beauty products “fun, glamourous, exciting, enticing, and tempting”, and he suggested the Covent Garden store takes Boots in a new direction.

“We’re focused on bringing new brands and doing it in an exciting glamourous way,” he explains, listing Fenty and Urban Decay as examples of modern brands on display.

Three-way design partnership

Boots’ internal design team worked alongside Dalziel and Pow (D&P) to bring the property to life. D&P has also driven the beauty concept refresh at 26 Boots stores across the UK this year.

Creative agency True Story worked on in-store customer communications, helping develop in-aisle and point of sale Boots brand messaging, in what Melanie Widdowson, head of in-store marketing and merchandising, calls a “three-way partnership”.

Widdowson, who is also leading Boots’ store of the future programme, says: “It’s all about learning to adapt and understanding what’s working for our customers and what isn’t.”

There are exposed brick walls upstairs by the front windows, which look out to Covent Garden and the nearby Underground station. There is a self-service prescription collection machine too, and plans are in place to put these units outside stores in urban areas so they are accessible 24 hours a day.

The new store features a ‘wellness hall’, stocking brands such as Beauty Kitchen and Equi, and with a dedicated focus on promoting healthier food and drink. An Innocent Drinks station will be in place until October, and a permanent ‘rehydration point’ is in situ to allow customers to refill their own water bottles.

The pharmacy and optician departments have been given a makeover, with a focus on fast-tracking prescription collections and providing more stylist advice, respectively.

Commenting on the latter, James notes: “We think the environment is more attractive, more pleasant, and more premium.”

Digital signage is located throughout the store, including smaller screens in the front windows and a large display for marketing purposes at the top of the escalator. A ‘selfie area’ exists downstairs for those keen on sharing their shopping experiences online.

Reimagination and reduction

James says the aim is to take aspects of what works in the flagship and build these features into other stores, although he acknowledges not all shops serve the same function.

“We are thinking about each of our categories and reimagining the model,” he says.

“We haven’t got that balance right in all of our stores – some of them are too like a community pharmacy and ought to be more retail, some are too retail and ought to be more community pharmacy.”

He promises to “sort that out” in the months ahead but says it takes time to reshape a 2,500-store estate.

James says there is a focus on consolidating stores in parts of the UK and Ireland where there are three or four Boots shops already in close proximity.

He hasn’t given an exact number of stores that will close, and even indicated additional stores may open if there is a government-led drive for more community pharmacies to alleviate pressure on the NHS.

Action to address the wider property estate comes amid challenging trading conditions, with parent Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) reporting lacklustre second quarter results in April.

Executive vice chairman and CEO of WBA, Stefano Pessina, said at the time it was “the most difficult quarter” the group had experienced since the alliance formed in 2014, with earnings down by 14.3% year-on-year to $1.2bn. International pharmacy sales were down by 7.1% to $3.1bn, mainly due to a 1.3% revenue decline at Boots.

Pessina promised “more aggressive” tactics in response to the fall in consumer sentiment which is impacting sales. The strategy will include accelerating the digitalisation and transformation of the business, and reducing its store footprint.

Third quarter earnings results announced at 7am Eastern time on 27 June are expected to reveal further transformation plans.

As for Boots’ Covent Garden store, it is a statement of intent for the wider UK estate. “The insight is clear – everyone likes shopping in a nice environment and that’s what we’ve tried to create here,” James says.

He says there has been “a radical shift” in the performance of premium beauty lines in the stores Boots has already revamped, adding: “That gives us confidence that this feels like a way forward.”