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Interview: Gautier UK managing director Harvey Roberts

Lack of space has been turned into a selling point by one furniture manufacturer. French brand Gautier, which normally operates from 372 sq m (4000 sq ft) units, has two London stores just half that size.

“They’re the two smallest stores we have anywhere, because of the cost of property in the capital,” says Gautier UK managing director Harvey Roberts. “What’s more important (in London) is to have the right location rather than lots of space.”

Gautier’s addresses are in the Chelsea Design Quarter and Chiswick. The move to the former site on a corner of King’s Road and Lots Road came about in Easter 2016, when its four-year lease in west London’s Westbourne Grove was up. “We looked for the best location for our customer base,” says Roberts, who has been at his post since February 2014 and prior to that was head of retail at Dorset-based heritage paints and wallpaper business Farrow & Ball.

The Chelsea store was reconfigured in October to better appeal to this target audience - 60% interior designers and specifiers, and 40% end users – and now focuses heavily on space-saving solutions. So on display is Nocturne, its pull-down bed, which was on show at London trade fair Decorex this September; and a new collection of smaller dining sets, which were specifically created by Gautier’s designers in response to London feedback.

“Those focal points make a big difference to us, because people can’t find them elsewhere,” says Roberts, and they’re aptly demonstrated in the bijou interiors.

For store formats, the company has a design template, created by the five-strong interior design team, based near its production sites in the west-central department of the Vendée.

That template has been adapted “quite rigorously”, says Roberts, to suit Chelsea. So while Gautier’s biggest shops of 740 sq m (8000 sq ft) boast an interaction area where customers can sit and have coffee, a play area for children, and desks where staff talk to customers, Chelsea is all about the room sets. These sets were inherited from the previous occupier, kitchen maker Chalon, and have been branded with Gautier hues.

Now, customers’ room planning actually takes place in a room set at a real TV unit. “That’s more genuine and more consultative,” believes Roberts, “a lot less formal, and more free-flowing.”

For the refit, the key elements – branding, lighting and flooring – remain the same, to ensure continuity with the previous look and with other stores. Instead, “we looked at colour,” says Roberts. So the classic, neutral furniture sits against a backdrop of wallpaper and a strong colour palette for the paint of yellow, green, reds, which are intended to reference southern France. This refresh aims to “bring the displays alive”, he adds, pointing out that the brightest hues are “used sparingly”.

In the parlance of primetime reality TV shows, it’s been an incredible journey for Gautier. Husband and wife Patrice and Annick Gautier started making children’s bedroom furniture in 1960. Now in its third generation, the family-run business has expanded its range and makes all its furniture in the Vendée, sourcing its wood locally. Likewise, most of its 950 workers are native to the area. Roberts explains that 10 years ago, Gautier products were stocked in third party retailers, such as Harrods. Now, it has 120 stores across the globe from the Middle East, and Russia to Europe, including 70 in France.

Despite (or because of) all this expansion, Gautier is keen to trumpet it roots - not just in its styling but in its approach to customers. “Because we are French and family-owned, we want people to feel super-super welcome, and people don’t expect to be jumped on. It’s a consultative journey, our team are qualified interior designers, and will visit customers in the home at no cost to the customer. Also, we offer a full delivery and installation service by workers who are employed by us rather than subcontracted. That gives the consumer confidence.”

Gautier also has a transactional website, but at the moment, “online sales are tiny”, and the site is more about driving enquiries. Roberts explains that for Gautier, “online is a tool to help the stores, we want the two to work together. People will still want to touch and see our products in store.” The company is now looking at introducing virtual reality as a tool to show the product range.

Roberts says Gautier is planning to open more shops in London, and hopes the next two – one south of the river and another in north London – will be up and running in the next 12 months. “We want 12-15 stores across the UK, mostly London and the south,” he adds, “We want to be the first choice for modern contemporary furniture in the UK.”