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Interview: HEMA international director Richard Flint on store design and expansion

Design-led lifestyle retailer HEMA is an increasingly familiar sight to European consumers, and one that is set to become more familiar yet.

Last week the chain opened a flagship store on London’s Tottenham Court Road, taking its UK total to seven sites. It plans to open more next year, and more again the year after that, says international director Richard Flint, who is responsible for operations outside Holland.

HEMA is growing in the UK, Belgium, France, Spain and Germany, finding favour in high footfall locations where its broad product mix appeals to fast-moving shoppers. And it is customers themselves who are helping to steer the brand’s expansion.

“We’re getting more and more insight about where our consumers want us, from social media,” says Flint.

He describes HEMA as a brand with a long history of engaging socially with its customers, a policy which is bearing rich fruit in the era of 21st century communications. HEMA listens to its customers when it comes to choosing stores and product ranges, and in how it presents them. This understanding is fed into stores on both an international level and a domestic one, with lessons from its growth programme informing store design in its home market too.

The new Tottenham Court Road store is the brand’s largest UK branch to date at 350 sq m, and a good example of its store concept, says Flint. “The concept is worlds, worlds that you live in,” he says, indicating the collections of curated products around the store. “It’s the rooms of a house… we talk a lot as a company about making daily lives easier, and it really is at the centre of all that we do. And making daily lives easier for me is having the right product in the right place – but, also, in inspiring you to want to buy.”

The clearly segmented kid’s world, stationery world, cooking world, and others, make it easy for customers to navigate the store, and simple for them to plan a particular life event. A selection of everything needed for a child’s birthday party, for example – from chocolate initials to party bag contents, from snacks to bowls to serve them in – is merchandised handily together, in a store that carries a high density of products. “We’re carrying a lot of SKUs,” says Flint.

It is a rare choice of categories, and one that helps HEMA stand out, says Flint. “We’re quite unique, because we have hard goods, food and apparel, and there are very few retailers that do all three,” he says.

“The idea is that we make sure that we are continually innovative, we continually have a very, very high design focus, we’re very relevant, but ultimately we’re great value,” says Flint. The store’s products are almost all own label and – like the stores – designed in-house.

Both stores and products are constantly evolving. “Our international concept was born in 2008… and over those years, particularly the last couple of years with expansion in France… we’ve learnt a great deal, which we have now translated back into the Dutch market,” says Flint. “We have just renovated 300 stores – all our stores in Holland – and that was based upon both design of [the] consumer journey and relevance that we saw from our international business. Now we’ve really got that correct, we are going next year to re-do all the international stores.” The company has already renovated 100 stores in Belgium.

There is a constant reference in-store to HEMA’s Dutch heritage – it was founded in Amsterdam 91 years ago – both overtly and discreetly.

A brand wall – in Tottenham Court Road this is located in the void over the staircase to the basement level – features a graphic representation of the company’s background, and its commitment to environmental issues. And products have a distinct Dutch flavour, from waffles and cinnamon pillows to a noticeably well-stocked selection of cycling accessories.

A large digital screen over the tills and service counter is also used to talk about the HEMA brand, and to explain its online offer. The company has a clear policy of driving a seamless online and offline strategy, with learnings from every channel used to shape the others in a virtuous circle: areas with high online sales are considered for a physical store, which can drive local online sales up further. The strategy has worked well recently in Cologne, where high online sales encouraged the brand to open a physical store last January; it achieved double the expected revenues.

Apart from one large screen, there is no digital signage in the Tottenham Court Road store. Electronic shelf edge labelling has been installed in Dutch stores, and that may be considered for other markets, but technology investment in the UK is being steered towards allowing easy payments in-store and easy sales online.

The brand’s app-based loyalty programme – the most popular app in the Apple store in Holland and Benelux countries – will be rolled out internationally this year or next. “We are getting greater and greater insight into how our customers shop, where they live, what they want. And that is developing context, and that is what is driving our design,” says Flint.

HEMA plans to open 25 stores next year, spread across several countries.

“We will open more stores in the UK, but we’ve yet to define right numbers,” says Flint. “We’ve got one store opening here in a travel station, to be announced next year, and we’re looking at a few locations in key high streets in London. We remain very London-centric at the moment, but we’re still taking time to look everywhere. But one thing is for certain – we will open more stores next year than we did this year in total, and we will open more the year after.”