It’s easy to be snobby about design in the way that people used to be about salad (bear with me here), it being a joke that if you asked for salad north of the Watford Gap, you’d be presented with chopped Iceberg. I suppose it was intended to imply that once you’d left the cosy confines of the shiny, clever metropolis, all would be basic, boring and unimaginative. But just as good salad doesn’t have to involve exotic baby leaves topped off with edamame, pea shoots and a sprinkling of miso-roasted seeds, good design is not the preserve of a supposed urban elite in the capital. In fact, great design can be found today in the shops and even supermarkets on almost every major high street the length and breadth of Britain. And where once the idea of shopping for the home in Sainsbury’s might have been greeted with snorts of derision, today, it’s the smart shopper who keeps an open mind.
After all, isn’t it more about things resonating with you on an emotional and personal level than where they’re from? Don’t you simply want to be presented with a wide choice at a range of price points, and then depending on your budget and preferences make up your own mind? I think that today’s consumer no longer cares whether their sofa is from B&B Italia or French Connection for DFS – trust me, not a sentence I write lightly. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a second saying that there’s no difference in construction, materials, quality and manufacturing expertise between these two brands. The point I’m making is that today’s consumer is aware, and they also know their own mind enough enough to say, ‘yes, but I love this one, so that’s what I’m going to buy’. It’s a similar ‘confident consumer’ shift to that seen in fashion when women rejected the It-bag phenomenon. And it means that all brands will have to up their game.
Couple this change with the rise and rise of online shopping and it’s clear that the home furnishings sector is facing a revolution. John Lewis alone deals with more than six million click-and-collect orders a year (across all departments), compared with 350,000 when it launched in 2009. As a result, it’s had to add a £2 fee for orders under £30 in order to continue to maintain the complex logistics that must surround such a service. Crucially, returns are still free. And this is surely a key point. If clothes shopping sites are anything to go by, online shoppers routinely over-order, knowing that it’s easy to return unwanted items at no cost. But will people really take a punt on a big-ticket item like a sofa, sight unseen? Apparently they already are, although online stats don’t always reveal whether or not they visited the store to check out their purchase first. If they didn’t, this bodes ill for our high streets. After all, what will their purpose be if no-one needs to visit them anymore?
In fact, back in 2011, a review of the high street undertaken for the government by retail expert and TV’s Queen of Shops, Mary Portas, stated that neither internet shopping nor out-of-town retail parks were going away, as they offer consumers choice and competitive prices. Nevertheless, the high street could offer more if it regenerated itself as a community centre for entertainment as well as shopping. With an exciting wealth of new products on offer from unexpected brands, it seems that the future is looking bright for the high street. So whether you order from your armchair or hit the pavement, we’ve devoted 11 pages of this issue to a comprehensive high street shoppers’ guide: what to buy and where to go, from Marks & Spencer to Matalan (yes, really!).