CEO Vivien Godfrey on creating a new flagship for heritage retailer Stanfords

In-store events and personalised products on demand are key ingredients of a modern, experiential flagship store. They are also par for the course for a retailer founded in 1853, which has just moved into its own new London flagship site.

Specialist map and travel book retailer Stanfords has been a fixture on Long Acre in Covent Garden since 1901, when it moved into its previous home. It has long hosted book launches and signings, and been an essential research stop for explorers setting off on expeditions. The store plans to continue – and expand on – this activity in its new home on Mercer Walk. The Long Acre store is closing.

The new Stanfords store in Mercer Walk
The new Stanfords store in Mercer Walk

As well as owning an archive of historic maps, Stanfords has become a depository of knowledge in other ways. “We recently celebrated here the 25th year anniversary of one staff member, and we have at least one other that has been here longer than that,” says Stanfords CEO Vivien Godfrey. And she should know, having first arrived at Long Acre as a teenager taking up a summer job at the company where her father was CEO, a job previously held by his father. “They both in turn joined the George Philip Group, which in 1946 bought Edward Stanford,” she explains. Godfrey herself returned to the company after working in several roles outside.

The knowledge and history contained within Stanfords is a core part of its appeal, leading to a rare type of design challenge when it came to creating an entirely new store environment to replace the Long Acre store.

Stanfords picked design agency Caulder Moore for the job after running a pitch. “We felt that they did the best job when they presented to us, of the different firms we talked to. They seemed to have the greatest sympathy for taking our history and long-standing reputation… and incorporating and integrating it into the new environment,” says Godfrey.

Core elements, such as the map collection and the range of books, will ensure a level of continuity in the new store. And the move to a more modern space has allowed the introduction of versatile features and new technology that was previously unavailable.

The events space, for example, is far more flexible. “In the new shop we’ve been able to install a ceiling-mounted projector and a ceiling-mounted screen which we never had [before], because the ceiling was much too low. And… in our fitting out, we’ve had a railing put along the ceiling so we can add fabric panels, to be able to slightly close off the section where we have our events,” says Godfrey. Bespoke new map cabinets are on wheels, so they can simply be moved when an event attracts big crowds.

The map archive is one of the unique selling points of Stanfords, and one reason why a physical store is so important to it. The maps are on display, both on the walls and on the floor: “The first question every customer asks us is ‘Will the new shop have maps on the floor?” says Godfrey. “To which the answer is yes – but different, because in the current shop the maps are the floor. And there’s an important difference.” The new method will allow maps to be replaced, repaired, and updated far more easily than in Long Acre.

But the availability of on-demand printing of maps – at virtually any size and on a huge variety of materials – is another reason why a physical store is important.  Although customers are able to browse a digital archive of maps in the store – most of the originals are stored at the Royal Geographical Society – the retailer’s website isn’t, at least yet, up to the complicated job of selling maps on demand. And it could not match the in-store experience for such a specialised purchase.

“Our website is driven by software that is designed for the book industry, and that doesn’t work very well for print on demand mapping. In the book industry you have an ISBN, a single stock keeping unit, whereas in print on demand you can have one map that could be printed in several different sizes and on different types of paper, and you could select for it to be laminated or framed,” says Godfrey. “Those are a lot of variations for one single product. Fashion retailers deal with this problem all the time… but our software doesn’t really accommodate that, so we’re going to be moving to a new back-end software for our website in the future.”

The old Long Acre store was also home to the Stanfords office, which was above the shop. So, as well as the move of the store to Mercer Walk, the HQ has moved to Shelton Street. Being separated from the flagship should mean that the management team is able to give a little more attention to other stores, says Godfrey. And when she refers to other shops in the plural, she is thinking of specific plans.

There is a second Stanfords store, in Bristol, and the company is actively considering further expansion after successfully running a pop-up store last Christmas. “If we were to open more stores, the next would be in Manchester,” she says. The company has a business-to-business operation there. “I would like to think there is an opportunity to expand. What we do is very unique,” says Godfrey.

That objective has already seen the store introduce a broader range of travel-related products that performed well in the pop-up store. In addition to the company’s regular best sellers – such as the always popular The Knowledge map which teaches London Taxi drivers their way around London; and Ordnance Survey maps – these will be helping Stanfords prepare for its next century of showing people the world, from Covent Garden.