Stepping out of Oxford Circus station at lunch time on a week day and scars from the pandemic are there. You can’t miss the closed down giant Topshop branch and now you can take a photo without being barged into- something that was pretty tough pre-March 2020 before West End footfall was hammered by Covid-19 disruption. But a new shop, one where a hologram of a football greets you at the entrance, is about to kick some life back into one of the capital’s most famous shopping streets.
Sports Direct will on Friday (June 18) reopen its Oxford Street flagship following a major £10 million tech-heavy makeover. It features some 100 digital screens, a large selfie booth, bra fitting zone, and there will be over 140 brands stocked.
The Evening Standard was offered one of the first looks inside, and Michael Murray, the chain’s group head of elevation, says the company has aspirations for the 50,000 square feet shop “to be the best sports store in the world”.
It is a big ambition, and comes at a time when bricks and mortar retailers face headaches, including high business rates and online competition. But 31-year-old Murray is confident, and tells the Standard: “It is the most digitally enabled store we’ve ever done.” He refers to digital screens and touchpoints and says “it is really forward thinking”.
He also says: “Obviously the footfall in London is not great at the moment, but we do believe long term its going to bounce back.” Murray says the capital is “very important [for the business] despite the short term setbacks”.
Sports Direct, which is part of the Frasers Group retail business led by Mike Ashley, will also give two more sites a big tech-focused revamp: in Birmingham and Manchester.
So what can shoppers expect from the latest ‘elevated’ Sports Direct store model? Firstly, there is no evidence of the ‘pile-it-high, sell it cheap’ look that once featured in some branches. In Oxford Street there is plenty of a space to walk around, and goods are neatly displayed.
In the basement floor you will find a number of premium labels, such as Lacoste, sold via Frasers’ USC division. Back to the tech, which is aimed at enticing new customers and offering existing ones more from their shopping trip, and on the ground floor is an area where basketball fans can jump as high as they can and get a video of it sent to their phone.
Meanwhile, at the back of store, which you get to after walking through a ‘heroes’ area, where there are mannequins showing off fashions from a particular theme or event, this time its the Euros, is a dedicated bra finding zone. Here you can scan a QR code, input details from size, to what sports you do, to whether you have any specific requirements, and you get tailored results on what might be the best style and product to put in your basket.
Other tech in store ranges from phone charging points, to tablets if you want to order any sizes not available on site.
New features include a gaming experience area where customers can challenge VIP guests to a FIFA game and also buy PlayStations and accessories such as controllers and headsets. Another service on offer is customisation, where buyers can get their name on a football shirt or an emoji put on their trainers.
Murray, Ashley’s future son-in-law, says that while not all shops will get this treatment, Sports Direct wants to give other London stores a lighter-touch refurbishment or find replacement larger ones in some parts of the capital.
The Leeds United fan reckons the high street remains important and can complement digital sales. He says: “Not everybody wants to shop online. People like to buy online, collect in store, they like to come and be inspired by the range that we have in the store.”
Frasers, which is also behind chains such as Flannels, House of Fraser and Jack Wills, has not been immune to the headwinds physical retail has faced, such as temporary store closures in lockdowns. Meanwhile, on business rates, Murray says: “Business rates is a real problem and it needs the reform it has been promised for some time”.
Earlier this year the government said a business rates holiday due to finish at the end of March 2021 would be extended to June. From July this year to March 2022 there will be 66% business rates relief, capped at £2 million per business. Frasers said following the Budget that the £2 million rates cap “makes it a near worthless support package for large retailers”.
The company will also have to contend with the pandemic creating a wave of new online shoppers, some of whom won’t go back to bricks and mortar for purchases.
Business rates is a real problem
But despite industry-wide difficulties, Sports Direct looks to be committed to the high street. Murray says: “I believe stores which are tired, under-invested, will have a lack of branded products in them in the future. Sports Direct however is doing completely the opposite. We are investing in stores… we believe in the high street.”
A number of rivals will be watching closely to see how the retailer’s digital efforts in store pay off post-pandemic.