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Standing out

Published:  19 May, 2008

Over the past few years, retail merchandising units (RMUs) have become a standard part of many of the UK's shopping centres, and they continue to evolve, with new design concepts constantly being introduced by manufacturers.

Unibox, for example, has created the new 'Super RMU' in collaboration with Tim Wardman of Tiempo/Glitz, who wanted to wow the American market. Wardman's experience and expertise, gained during his worldwide travels over many years, determined his main requirements: functionality and the ability to attract customers. These primary principles have always been the bedrock for Tiempo/Glitz when looking at new designs, and the Manchester-based firm Unibox was easily able to fulfil such criteria.

The Super RMU is constructed from white, high-gloss MDF, with laminated panels. The central staging display area is illuminated internally, and the unit is further enhanced with the addition of bright pink 'under unit' lighting, which provides an attractive glow at the base.

In order that the unit can be easily identified from a distance, a 2-metre high acrylic 'signage fin' is situated at one end.

Two such RMUs have now been supplied to the USA as part of a pilot scheme devised to test the US market, and a massive increase in sales has been reported from both units.

Super RMUs have also been sited in Queensgate shopping centre, Peterborough, and the newly-extended Eagle Centre in Derby. Both centres have been delighted with the reception of the units and the positive comments received so far.

The next step for Tiempo/Glitz is to select further centres in which Super RMUs can be sited, in order to complete their planned expansion programme in the UK and abroad.

Blueprint Projects has also recently introduced a new RMU, known simply as Freedom. Designed using 3D CAD, Freedom is a simple, highly adaptable design that lives up to its name, with locations for graphics and plasma screens as well as a range of innovative features, which benefit the centre, trader and customers.

The trader has the freedom to choose the configuration, material and colours to suit the chosen environment, and will also find the RMU extremely easy to use, as it has pull out drawers, providing easy access to the inside without having to remove external shelves.

Rather than the user fitting around the RMU's design, the Freedom RMU is designed to fit around the user. Blueprint Projects can provide visuals showing how the RMU will look in situ, and once a unit has been ordered it is transported as a flatpack, reducing transport costs, and then assembled on site by the company.

A typical set-up has a display space flanked by promotional and cash register counter units, which support the central space. However, various configurations are possible, depending on the intended function of the RMU.

A current trend in shopping centres is the introduction of bespoke kiosks, according to Byron Lewis, of Lewis Commercialisation. This approach allows for a much stronger branding. And it's not just start-up businesses that are taking advantage of RMUs, but also well-established retailers such as Marks & Spencer, which took 10 RMUs nationwide in the lead-up to Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Easter, all co-ordinated by the company Retail Profile.

Cathy Wilson of Retail Profile explains that the RMUs were located in shopping centres across the UK - some with an M&S store presence and others without. Those with a department store trialled RMUs both outside the store and further afield, in other parts of the mall.

"We've worked with M&S entrepreneurial store managers on a local level and seen some success in trialling this format, so we took it to head office level and looked at rolling it out on nationally. In this way M&S would be able to control the branding and the way in which the brand is being perceived," says Wilson.

"We were tapping into those shoppers that wouldn't have gone into M&S otherwise. Different product ranges were on display, guided by the occasion in question. Some shopping centres did much better than others but overall it was a great success. For obvious reasons, the best performing RMUs were those located near an M&S outlet, as they tend to be located in high footfall areas.

"I think we will look at rolling this format out at other times of the year - either in tune with the various public holidays or occasion days, or perhaps in line with the seasons."

Lewis adds: "I think that's where the industry is going. A shopping centre has a high footfall but the average person only goes into four or five stores in any one visit. That means each shop is only getting 5 per cent of, say, an overall footfall of 10 million. However, if stores are represented out in the mall, it's much harder to ignore them, and shoppers may be enticed to visit retailers on impulse as a result."

Clare Andrew, director of Shoppertainment, wholeheartedly agrees, and says Shoppertainment also joins forces with big name retailers to ensure its tenants are able to promote their wares in the malls. She points to the likes of M&S and Debenhams, who have been very keen to run promotions in this way. "If a retailer has a promotion on, then our promotions team will work with them to see what concepts are available to enhance what they're doing," she says. "If we see an opportunity to bring a retailer out into the mall, then it's great because they get improved exposure and we endorse their products. We always try to tie this approach in with events such as Valentine's Day.

"The large retailers are cottoning on to the fact that they can do this and that they have to be quick to take advantage of the opportunity in the face of competition."

Kathryn Ling, managing director of mall management agency Forum CentreSpace, also supports this view and says that mall spaces offer the opportunity for shopping centres to increase the profitability of their existing in-house retailers, in turn valuably strengthening relations with key stores.

At Middleton Grange shopping centre, for example, the mall space has been utilised to great effect, with in-house mobile phone retailers and clothing companies bringing their wares into the central arcade with prominent displays on the mall just outside their shops. In contrast to general advertising up and down the mall, siting a display directly outside the main shop not only substantially increases shoppers' awareness of a brand's presence in the mall, but also helps to entice a far greater number of browsers directly into the store, explains Ling.

"This technique is particularly useful for those stores that are situated in quieter sections of the mall, and it has been reported to be so effective that one mortgage broker occupying a unit within a shopping centre purposefully promotes its service in the mall up to six or seven times a year," says Ling. "According to the managing director, the extra visibility has brought the firm a customer increase of over 16 per cent, making it an incredibly worthwhile investment.

"Choosing the right location for retailers to display their goods on the mall is also extremely important. If an existing in-house retailer is to benefit fully, they must make an active decision about whether they're going to have a display outside their store or elsewhere on the mall. Having a presence directly outside the store will naturally draw people in and reinforce knowledge of their exact location on the mall. On the other hand, having a stand elsewhere in the shopping centre can increase general awareness of the brand and potentially draw in customers who would otherwise go elsewhere."