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When is a shop not a shop?

When is a shop not a shop? When it’s a showroom. If only it were that simple. The difference between the two is a mixture of hard facts and touchy-feeliness.

With showrooms, size matters. Not necessarily the floorplate of the space, but the size of the products. Hence the term ‘car showroom’. But those are aimed at the general public, whereas furniture showrooms are more B to B.

Timorous Beasties
Timorous Beasties

To make a two-pronged attack on both audiences, wallpaper and fabric designers extraordinaire Timorous Beasties has opened a shop alongside its long-standing space on Islington’s Amwell Street. “We wanted to open this up to our retail clients, and so we've opened a retail shop next door to the existing trade showroom,” says Paul Simmons, who founded the business in 1990 with Alistair McAuley.

Simmons explains the difference between the two: “It's similar to the difference between prêt-à-porter and haute couture. Our shop is much more about our range of products: touching, looking and buying something off the shelf,” he adds, “whereas our showroom is more about somebody who knows our brand and wants to progress an idea, develop a product or have something more bespoke.”

Timorous Beasties
Timorous Beasties

An expression of these two typologies is found in the interior design. The trade showroom’s walls are adorned in a one-off, bespoke wallpaper of seaweed and eels.

Meanwhile Timorous Beasties’ trade showroom has been revamped as an interiors library for its trade clientele. Architects and interior designers can come in to discuss project specification.

Parkside
Parkside

Designers of shops concentrate on giving customers direct access to product, and have to create environments that can handle product density, says Julie Oxberry of Household. In contrast, “exhibition-like showrooms carry less stock, if any, leaving more room for experiences or scene setting to hero individual products.”

The tile company Parkside’s new Clerkenwell space exemplifies this. It has a tile gallery, design studio, co-working desks, event space for talks and exhibitions, as well as a café. Its architects Feix&Merlin describe it as a hub for the design community, where large format tiles are displayed on sliding screens that can be moved around and updated.

Parkside
Parkside

Each deserves its own execution. “Shops require durable materials that can endure daily operations,” says Oxberry, “and while showrooms also aim to drive high footfall, they don’t require the same level of restocking and therefore offer more scope to use bespoke or unusual materials.”

Lighting is also a consideration. “Showrooms are more likely to serve a singular purpose or experience, and lighting design will focus on creating an atmosphere to set the scene,” she adds. “Shops serve multiple purposes and thus the lighting will need to offer highs and lows, ins and outs, lights and darks and moments of surprise.”

De Padova
De Padova

But the roles of these two types of retail offer are blurring. Italian furniture brand De Padova’s recently opened London outlet is aimed at “private people, sophisticated and high-end customers who want to buy something that’s not well known. And we want to attract architects, designers, interior decorators,” says Roberto Gavazzi, CEO of De Padova and Boffi. It was designed by Boffi’s ten-strong style office in Milan, to a concept by designer Piero Lissoni.

As more traffic goes online, conventional retailers are taking up some of the cues of the showroom and tweaking them for the consumer. “Showrooms are using success metrics that give more weight to experience,” says Oxberry, “complementing sales per sq ft with new measures that recognise the value of brand-building experiences.”

She cites direct-to-consumer mattress brand Casper, which has an experiential showroom in New York’s Manhattan. At the Dreamery – designed by Casper’s in-house team with architects Hollwich Kushner - people can book a 45-minute nap to test the mattresses. “Branded nap pods elevate service and trial, removing the focus on conversion,” she says.

The White Company
The White Company

In the same category, Household has created a similar set-up for the White Company. The Sleep Studio is “a sensory service experience that revolves around ‘touch’ and an emotional response to a product, rather than focusing on thread count or technical specs”, she says. This includes ‘the wrap test’, where customers wrap themselves in duvets to check size, weight, feel and comfort.

This all ties in with Gavazzi’s belief that “high-level clients don’t want to buy just a piece but an experience.”

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