A tour of Boots’ ‘store of the future’ with CEO Seb James

Walking into the newly refitted Boots flagship store in Meadowhall, Sheffield, there are all the signs of a shop trying to grab the attention of the passing consumers. For a quiet Wednesday afternoon, it has a DJ blasting music over the glittering beauty playground by the entrance, and an army of Boots employees – from shirted pharmacists to beauticians in all-black, showcasing their daring eye make-up.

I’m greeted by CEO, Seb James, and the brains behind the ‘store of the future’ design Melanie Widdowson, head of in-store marketing. They take their time showing me the second iteration of this new store concept, full of interactive features and thoughtful store design.

The first store in Covent Garden opened to much fanfare over the summer, but Meadowhall is a larger store and does not have the benefit of two floors. Yet the retailer has managed to detach the high-energy beauty department from the calmer approach to health and wellness set further into the store, and as you walk through the aisles the acoustics naturally lower and the products and signage create a more serene shopping experience.

Thoughtful design for health and wellness
Thoughtful design for health and wellness

Boots Meadowhall never closed during the 20-week refit, instead it cut off different parts of the store to allow for the work. James boasts the store took less than a 20% hit during the disturbance, and thinks the retailer could halve the time for the next store.  

You can’t help but admire the tenacity of the team. “Last November, we didn’t even have an idea, apart from we’d like to have a new shop. We picked Covent Garden because no matter what, we were opening.”

James describes how the plans for Covent Garden had already been drawn to the old specifications and had to be scrapped, which saw Widdowson step in to lead the ambitious project for a completely new look and feel.

Fun not functional

James admits a traditional Boots is less fun and more functional: “We were treating beauty a bit like it’s a health problem, and in this shop we’re treating beauty like it’s fun.”

Warm and welcoming and full of energy, I quickly realise that James is assessing the store for the first time himself. Several times during the tour he interjected to his team with his thoughts for improvements – moving sustainable products more centre stage – “Is this the right place for them? They’re too good to hide away here” – and giving his congratulations to Widdowson for a job well done – “I tell you what this baby department is really not bad!” he tells her, turning to me and saying “I hate the baby department in our normal stores”.

“We were treating beauty a bit like a health problem, and in this shop we’re treating beauty like it’s fun.”Seb James, CEO, Boots

The biggest change is the vast amount of digital signage, 90 pieces in total, the majority of which are planned, managed and controlled centrally. From beauty and fragrance, all the way through to the informative screens behind the pharmacy counter, which inform patients of last-minute appointments or prescription waiting times. This customer-led approach will soon be appearing in beauty also.

James estimates there is around twenty times more digital signage in its new stores. “As we move around the store there’s always movement and colour.”

Magic mirror on the wall

There are also the expected augmented reality magic mirrors scattered around the various brand concessions, which allow customers to virtually try make-up. Meanwhile, a ‘Beauty Studio’ sits centre stage, providing in-house Boots beauticians the option to sit down with customers and test out new looks. Shoppers can attach their phone to a dedicated holder, set at the perfect height for selfies, while buttons on the mirror change the lighting to suit your mood.

A big win for Boots was to begin stocking Rihanna's Fenty beauty products earlier this year
A big win for Boots was to begin stocking Rihanna's Fenty beauty products earlier this year

When I pass a dedicated facemask bar, I feel we have reached peak-Sephora, but James says Boots is more accessible than the famous US beauty brand. “Sephora is, roughly speaking, posh stuff only. We have all the posh stuff which is at the front end of the store, but we’ve also got all the mass brands.” James believes Boots is a hybrid of Sephora and another US beauty powerhouse, Ulta. “We’re more glamorous than Ulta and more democratic than Sephora – we’re trying not to be haughty.”

Even the health and beauty magazine has been revamped, in what James says is a more “contemporary”, a model with bold make-up on the front cover, but, like with much of the rest of the store, James says the retailer has to be mindful of not alienating its traditional customers for the sake of the new modern millennial shopper.

Learnings from Covent Garden

Clearly Boots has learnt a lot from its Covent Garden refit and there is a similar feel. But what does he feel didn’t work? James points to a feature at the front of the store called the ‘Discovery Table’ – a small circular unit with products in shallow bins, where customers can ‘pick n mix’ items supported by another large digital sign, currently showcasing Halloween-inspired looks. James says this didn’t work as expected in Covent Garden store, calling it “a bit sad” but the team had to order features for two stores so Meadowhall is stuck with one for now.

The new-look fragrance counter
The new-look fragrance counter

Widdowson also admits the brand needs to work harder with its fragrance area.

As we walk through skincare – the brief given to designers Dalziel & Pow for this area was French pharmacy with beautiful brass accents – James explains how the high-brow beauty brands now feel comfortable being next to skincare. “We don’t have the slightly uncomfortable juncture of Dior next to nappies.”

It’s much easier to see where you are going in this new design, lower display units allow the majority of shoppers to see across the store, with lit-up directional signage set above the displays themselves, rather than hanging from the ceiling.

I ask how the store’s mobile app complements the new design, at which point James whips out his own smartphone to demonstrate how the Boots app surfaces in-store promotions as you walk around the store – for the record, he has a fair few Boots Advantage Points to his name! It is also poised to release an update so customers coming in for a No 7 beauty consultation can save their preferences within the app, so beauticians will know their skin tone and their favourite products.

One area which has gone down a storm with customers is its sustainable products range - arguably due to a change in consumer habits, rather than a newly-designed store. It sits next to a water station, where customers can refill their reusable bottles, and purchase flavoured infusers if they so wish. The store can’t restock products quick enough.

Boots can't restock the shelves of its sustainable ranges quick enough
Boots can't restock the shelves of its sustainable ranges quick enough

Passing a pop-up Fitbit exercise bike to demonstrate activity trackers in action, we wander through to pharmacy with its warm, wood panelling. As we walk past the waiting area with grey soft furnishings next to large potted plant, I remind James of something he said during his time as boss at Dixons Carphone – that consumers don’t want a new washing machine, they just want clean clothes. I wonder whether this attitude works for health – shoppers don’t want a prescription or vitamins, they just want to stay healthy?

“I think it’s even more applicable here, but there’s a little bit of subscription fatigue in the UK…” What is key is managing a quick and efficient service in health, unlike the rest of the store which encourages dwell time by its very nature.

“You don’t blunder into a health store. You’ve cut your finger, your tummy is sore, your feet are hurting – the idea is you are able to come in here quickly …and find out what you need to do,” he says. “It’s about solving problems easily and doing it in a way that’s profitable, because the more we can guide people to what they’re after, the more we can spend time helping people that don’t know what they need.”

Grey furnishings and wood panels give pharmacy a modern twist
Grey furnishings and wood panels give pharmacy a modern twist

Keeping things profitable

Clearly Boots needs to ensure the return on investment from these store refits is profitable. Like the rest of the high street, Boots has struggled in recent years, with annual profits tumbling £71 million from £388 million in its annual results in May, along with head office job cuts and high-street store closures.

The plan is to refit its large-scale flagship stores “in some way, shape or form” as quickly as possible, so that every major town in Britain has one ‘store of the future’. But what about the 2,000-plus remaining stores? Some 1,500 of those are small local pharmacies providing communities with medical services which James admits is difficult to see the ROI from refitting: “We’re thinking about what they might look like and how we do it cost effectively, because they’re not very profitable and therefore to invest a lot of money in them is very difficult.”

The sweet spot are the stores in-between the local pharmacies and flagships, what James calls the “real life blood” in every high street in every town. He plans to have a few of these refitted this year, but each store has to be thought about differently: “Brentford in Essex, what that community wants is probably different than those in Washington in the North East.

“You don’t blunder into a health store. You’ve cut your finger, your tummy is sore, your feet are hurting – the idea is you are able to come in here quickly …and find out what you need to do."Boots CEO, Seb James

“[Boots] needs to get the right products in front of customers and it needs to be much more welcoming, inviting and advice-led than we have perhaps traditionally been,” he says, adding that the retailer has also put more staff to the shop floor and introduced more competitive pricing.

“[Get this right] and you’ll have the customer coming in having a nice time and getting all the things they need, be served well and not have to pay a fortune… if you do all of those things, generally speaking, you’ll be OK.”

Whether this new concept is a ‘store of the future’ remains to be seen. What it may be lacking in future-proofing technology it makes up in abundance with beautiful and practical design. But it is clearly a ‘store of the now’ – a reaction to the modern millennial shoppers’ need for experience, not just product. I just question if it is a little too late?