Lessons for the high street: Crabtree & Evelyn’s Islington Townhouse

Welcome to our brand new series of articles on retailers that are operating in ways that provide some interesting and valuable lessons to the wider industry.

Location: Upper Street, Islington

In a nutshell: Everyone’s favourite hand cream provider is going off piste with its newest incarnation – a shop called the Townhouse in North London which aims to be a local community hub first and a shop second.

Launch weekend at the Islington Townhouse

Beauty retailer Crabtree & Evelyn has 150 stores around the world and a very loyal and traditional customer base which it values. However as that base ages the company is looking to appeal to a new generation of store customers for whom taking the time to make a trip to the high street means it really needs to be about more than shelves of products – otherwise they will simply order online.

To that end, according to Crabtree & Evelyn’s Global Chief Experience Officer Lee Woodard, a lot of thought went into how the company could not only be ‘on’ the high street but ‘in’ the high street. A small difference, he says, but very important to avoid that ‘cookie cutter store’ approach whereby identikit shops are parachuted into a neighbourhood without much regard for the personality of the area.

He adds that the Regent Street unit closed last year as the company simply had no interest in being in the west end anymore because people only visit, they don’t live there and there is little sense of community.

All of which brings us to Islington – a ‘culturally rich and vibrant high street with a well-defined community’ where Crabtree & Evelyn could put down retail roots. But why a townhouse theme? Woodard explains that a lot of brands are currently trying to label their London or British-ness but he wanted it to be a subtle but iconic image. And most houses in London are terraced which not only works architecturally for the brand as it is a domestic setting but is also reminiscent of community as you have close neighbours on a terraced street and lots of different sorts of people living cheek by jowl.

The vision for the townhouse concept is that local residents will use it almost regardless of whether they are buying products and at some point their interaction with the brand will be monetised in some way. This thinking is even more evident when you realise that the staff in charge of the unit are not traditional sales staff in any way, but actually chosen for their backgrounds in visitor experience and part of the pre-launch was to contact 120 local community groups to see how they might be able to use the space in Upper Street. The response was “amazing and very exciting” according to Woodard.

In December there was a Christmas wreath making workshop, portrait drawing session, Christmas card making event and a family introduction to meditation – all of which were free.

The plan for this year involves around 10 events a week and shop opening hours are geared towards this with the hours of 8am – 10am and again 7pm – 9pm being left solely for community sessions. The emphasis will be on ‘beauty within and without’ and on activities that make people feel great so for example, a female entrepreneur might book to give a motivational talk or a travel themed evening might loosely tie in with a Crabtree & Evelyn range and so on. Woodard says he almost envisages the buying of products as being like a souvenir of a good experience and there are certainly some feel-good items on the agenda such as a very popular Vision Board Night where attendees planned out their goals for the year.

Versatile space in the Islington Townhouse

Sales are only one of the shops key performance indicators (KPIs) and no staff are incentivised by sales targets. In fact, there are no tills in the shop at all and cash payments are not accepted.

As to whether there are plans for other such spaces in the company’s global portfolio, Woodard is positive on expansion. He says the core customer is a 30-something urban, fashion-conscious, professional female who has more in common with another urban professional female in Tokyo than she might do with an unemployed female living in a village in the far flung reaches of Britain. He thinks it is possible to pinpoint five to seven suitable locations in many of Crabtree & Evelyn’s operating cities. “There is a Shoreditch or a Notting Hill in Tokyo” he says “you just need to locate it”.

Mural in progress at Islington Townhouse

Another potential advantage of this and other local high street stores is that they could potentially change the conversation on omni-channel and delivery for the company. They could in time act as click & collect venues (there are large basements downstairs) and each could function as a small central warehouse and possibly even lead to a very localised delivery service.

Woodard explains that his idea of loyalty is not about points but about how the company could use the information gathered at the site to work better for its best customers. This might mean using the customer data to offer an exceptionally personalised service either on deliveries to work/home or by suggesting the 10 best supporters of the townhouse go out to dinner with the new product developer and hear about ideas first.

The store is laid out on one floor only (street level) with the front part of the design being very product-light and feeling like a living room with a writing desk, comfy chairs and soft furnishings. Shoppers then pass into the back of the shop floor which is set out as a garden with green tiles on the floor and flowers on the walls and trellis type structures to hold products. It is possible that the concept could involve a location with an actual garden one day but on Upper Street it is indoors.

Interior laid out for yoga class.

The garden area is for product testing and features a huge hand-made font which will be visible from the street. The windows have no advertising on them at all to enhance the feeling that one is looking through the windows of a private house and Woodard hopes that the activity inside the living room will be advertisement enough.

He was also adamant that there should be no concierge behind a desk as that gives the impression that an appointment is needed when Crabtree & Evelyn want people just to come and use the space.

Although Woodard doesn’t disclose how much the unit fit-out has cost, he does note that furniture designers Sebastian and Brogan Cox have made bespoke furniture for the site and have brought a very different eye to the project than a traditional shop designer.

With potential users already ranging from the Almeida Theatre who want to do pre-show evening events to a local mum’s book club wanting a morning slot, it looks like Crabtree & Evelyn has indeed tapped into a desire to return to the high street but with the objective of connecting with other people first and buying things second.