April – C&A, Köln

I’m a regular visitor to Köln, making several trips each year. During the Spring, I noticed that a familiar retail landmark, C&A in the main shopping street of Schildergasse had been given a comprehensive makeover. This in itself should be no surprise, as retailers both in the UK or Germany regularly update their look. However, C&A is not recognised for significant change, never mind a total revamp of its shopping experience.

On this, I speak with some experience. Recently, my company Visual Thinking was invited in to redevelop the VM for C&A’s denim categories. Our brief was to create a new visual identity and shopping experience for its Women’s, Men’s and Kids’ denim collections. The project itself was straightforward, as we work on similar VM briefs for other retailers each year. I’m pleased to say that, after several months of working together, our recommendations were implemented in full – something that was satisfying to see finally instore.

C&A is a huge, Dutch fashion company that to this day, is still family owned. Over the years it has its seen its fair share of highs and lows in its long and successful trading history. After many years the brand famously quit the UK in 2001, selling eleven of its stores to Primark, in what must now seem a galling event.

Unlike many of the other fashion brands which have sprung up in recent years, for me C&A still represents an essentially ‘slow fashion’ business and one that appears increasingly ‘out of step’ with competitor clothing brands which have embraced ‘fast fashion’ and innovation as part of their DNA. The value fashion sector in which C&A operates has seen massive change and growth in recent years. Unsurprisingly, this has been fuelled by the recession in many parts of Europe. No wonder that a re-energised Primark has seen its new store openings take off with great success in Spain, Portugal, Holland, Austria and now in the back yard of C&A’s operations in Germany.

I have selected this image of C&A’s new store, not because I believe it represents a ‘high water mark’ in retail design, or because it breaks new ground in VM, but because of how this update signals something fundamentally greater that is happening within the value fashion sector. And, importantly, how this has prompted C&A to re-evaluate its overall brand delivery strategy and retail proposition, by improving product quality and increasing prices.

A big part of Primark’s recent success must surely be down to its exciting retail design, impactful VM and simple but efficient customer service. Its latest Oxford Street store (opened in Autumn 2012 in a former Virgin Megastore) is, I believe, remarkably good. In comparison, the C&A redesign is a ‘cosmetic update’ of the current retail proposition, being essentially a new coat on an old donkey. Friendly and familiar, yes. Exciting and trend aware – no!

That’s not to be unfair of what has been achieved at C&A, but let’s be clear, it’s an evolution – not the revolution that in my opinion the business really needed – even though sales will no doubt have impressed enough to give the green light on further roll out.

Unlike Primark and others that have invested in new retail formats (and have been prepared to really push the boundaries and excite the customer with something genuinely new, exciting and something they can’t experience elsewhere), for me, this C&A makeover does not inspire or linger. Kidswear (image above), however, has responded well to the redesign and is has several effective elements that should see the brand compete well against the likes of H&M and other low cost rivals. However, on adults’ fashion, I’m waiting for the next revamp, which I trust will be instore sometime maybe…

C&A it for yourself at Schildergasse, 60-68, Köln, Germany.