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Secret Shopper: Kingston-upon-Thames premium menswear, Flannels, Giulio, Bentalls

Tom Bottomley
07 January 2022

Just before Christmas, we headed to Kingston-upon-Thames, South West London to get the retail lowdown on the new Giulio and Flannels stores, as well as the more established Fenwick-owned Bentalls department store.

Established in Cambridge in 1982, Giulio was acquired by JD Sports Fashion in July 2019. It still has founder Giulio Cinque steering the ship, but now has more financial clout behind the business, hence the impressive new Kingston store which opened in the summer.

Flannels needs no introduction, a one-time Knutsford independent founded by Neil Prosser in 1976, these days its fully owned by Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group with 45 UK stores, and counting. The Kingston store opened at the tail end of 2020, just before Lockdown 3. Giulio has perhaps got a more exclusive feel to it than Flannels, and is a bit more “designer” in general, though there are some inevitable brand crossovers, such as Off-White, Canada Goose, C.P. Company and Palm Angels – all good brands, of course, and no really noticeable same products.

Prices at both stores are certainly at the top-end, though there are some more accessible products in the Flannels mix too. Giulio carries the top tier Stone Island Shadow Project, which has a more exclusive distribution to the mainline, and it’s seemingly a store targeting a slightly older, and no doubt wealthy, customer, as opposed to the more designer brand aspiring twenty something customers found in Flannels. Both stores seem to know their target market well.

Meanwhile, Bentalls is generally more middle of the road in terms of its menswear offer, though it does these days have some nice surprises in the mix, It seems that, in anticipation of Flannels and Giulio coming to town, Bentalls upped its game, having refurbished the menswear floor in 2020 to showcase a more interesting brand line-up, though the women’s fashion floor is looking a bit tired and dated (so we left that one out).

Flannels

45-49 Clarence Street

Flannels

Street view and location

A prime spot on what is a slightly tatty looking high street in general these days, with what certainly seems like more empty units than pre-COVID, Flannels certainly raises the game. It’s located in the former Gap unit, next to the Bentalls Centre on one side and H. Samuel jewellers on the other, and opposite an Itsu restaurant and takeaway. From the street you’re drawn in by its rotating designer adverts on a screen to the left of the store entrance, including for its high-end childrenswear offer. The white lit up Flannels branding by the side of the entrance is subtle, as is the black and grey marble effect store front. It certainly stands out as being more upmarket than most else on the high street.

Windows and first impressions on entrance

Minimalistic and monochrome window displays, where Balenciaga seems to be the order of the day, with the designer brand’s super chunky Triple S sneakers and handbag separately displayed in lit up glass boxes in the window, as well as folded YSL and Balmain branded sweatshirts in other display boxes which were fairly understated, and you know expensive, but not really with a wow factor. A masked security man lets you in the shop, and straight away you’re hit with more Balenciaga on a display table, with a sweatshirt reduced from £465 to £379 and the Triple S super chunky soled trainers at £559.

Store fit, displays and merchandising

The store layout was never great when it was the old Gap store, so they have done  a decent job with the foundations they had to work with. The merchandising means you can certainly see the product clearly and hone in on the brands and products that catch your eye. Balenciaga footwear, including its black ‘Speed Sock’, is displayed is boxes in-store too, in an area at the front of the store with good lighting and seating. It’s all quite minimalist and all about the product. A large central glass Creed men’s fragrance display is also very prominent on the ground floor, obviously tapping in to the Christmas present market, which it also advertises on its store front screen.

The store entrance with subtle branding

Brand mix

While the downstairs seems more about high-end designer garments from the likes of Balenciaga, Kenzo, Balmain, Comme des Garçons Play, Palm Angels and Burberry, the “less flashy” men’s casualwear is upstairs, with the likes of True Religion, C.P. Company, Belstaff, Vivienne Westwood, Barbour, Paul & Shark and Polo Ralph Lauren.

There’s certainly some high ticket prices throughout the store. An Off-White sweatshirt will set you back £420, a Canada Goose puffa jacket was £1,095, a Kenzo jumper with a big logo on the front was £340, a Palm Angels polyester track top was £385 and a Burberry check shirt was £350, while a large Burberry scarf was a whopping £450. Appealing to the next generation of designer brand lovers, a Stone Island kid’s T-shirt with sleeve logo was priced at £79 and a DSquared2 Icon kid’s baseball cap £89.

The womenswear is quite mixed, young and ‘bling’ with Versace Jeans Couture and shiny Arctic Army puffa jackets - with over the top faux fur on the hood. There’s also Polo Ralph Lauren, Agent Provocateur and retro print 70’s style dresses and tops by the likes of Never Fully Dressed. Then there’s a navy double-breasted peak lapelled Balmain blazer with gold buttons, priced at £1,229, which somehow looked a bit out of place. Even the Balmain sweatshirts were £389. And a traditional Burberry women’s trench coat, which actually looked like it could have come out of a vintage store, was priced at £1,650. Wearing the right brands is clearly important to  Flannels’ customers, but not sure all is right for them in Kingston.

Customer service

The staff seem to let you get on with it and have a good look around for a while before engaging and asking if you need any help. Once they do, they seem keen enough to help, and can direct you to whatever brands and specific products you may be on the look-out for.

Fitting rooms

The one upstairs is located in a small lounge like space with seating in the middle and shoes on display. It’s roomy with good mirrors, a large one on one side and another narrower one on the opposite side that can be adjusted so you can clearly see yourself, and what you’re trying on, from all angles. A nice touch because you often can’t see yourself from the back.

Burberry kidswear display in the window

Ambience

Low key ambient music in the background, well-lit display areas, cool seating in parts of the store, particularly upstairs in the space by the changing room, and on the ground floor as you come in – by the shoes. It’s generally a relaxed atmosphere with the product doing the talking, and young twenty-something lads and girls coming in for their latest designer fix. How they afford most of it is another thing! On the first floor, it’s evident you’re in the old Gap store with its low ceilings, but painted black gives a feeling that you’re in more of a special club, with the brands displayed clearly in their own sections. Around the corner and there’s footwear, womenswear and kidswear.

In Conclusion

A "blingtastic" designer fest for young bucks about town, and no doubt the odd Premiership footballer, who like you to know what brands they’re wearing, with some pretty heavyweight prices. Flannels knows its aspirational market and delivers accordingly.

Giulio

51-52 Clarence Street

Giulio is located in a corner unit

Street view and location

Two doors down from Flannels on Clarence Street, Giulio is on a large and long corner unit that stretches to the back of the other Bentalls Centre entrance on Fife Road. It’s in a great old building with a tower at the top and that’s clearly had extensive work done to it. It’s very clean looking with fresh brickwork, having only opened in the summer. Like Flannels, it elevates the high street.

Windows and first impressions on entrance

A minimalistic window display in the fairly small Clarence Street fronted window, with shelving showing footwear and bags, including Comme des Garçons Play x Converse sneakers, Max Mara handbags and a DSquared2 backpack and bum bag. In the Fife Road windows, there are three mannequins showing both menswear and womenswear, and a display table with Palm Angels handbags. The large windows stretch right to the back and you can clearly see rails of clothing inside by the windows all the way along, with brands including Amiri, Casablanca, Off-White, Canada Goose and Moschino. In fact, you can get a good feel for the store, and the products on offer, from outside before entering, though once you’ve been in the store you may think the windows on the whole maybe don’t do the store justice. The door is manned by one of the sales team, who locks and unlocks it as new customers enter. The staff are very friendly, well dressed and greet you as you make your way around the shop.

A rail in the window

Store fit, displays and merchandising

Giulio has a well thought out fit-out and layout with a minimalistic feel, and it’s spacious so you can really see everything on display. The attention to detail is evident, as one of the staff pointed out that Giulio himself wanted the staircase at the front of the store to be ever so slightly set back from the wall, which gives a feeling of being a floating staircase. Only one of each item is out on display, usually a size small for women’s and a size medium for men’s. If you show an interest in something, and you’re not the size on display, the products are scanned to see what other sizes are still available in the upstairs stock room.

Brand mix

Upstairs is what one of the buyers on the shopfloor described as being where you will find more “classically known labels” such as Emporio Armani, Stone Island, Hugo Boss and C.P. Company on men’s and Maison Margiela, Marni, Max Mara and Sportmax on women’s, while the ground floor has a more contemporary feel with the likes of Lanvin, Moncler, Canada Goose, Off-White, DSqared2, Palm Angels, OAMC, Amiri, Marni and Casablanca. A Marni men’s check wool coat at £1,500 is certainly an investment piece, as is a Lanvin all over print men’s hoody at £615 and a Moncler women’s leopard print puffa jacket at £1,700. There’s a lot of good stuff in the store and the buying is quite exceptional across both men’s and women’s.

Customer service

Attentive, intuitive, friendly and knowledgeable staff can tell you all you want to know about all of the brands and products. They even apparently recently had a brand representative in from Italian label Ten C to talk them through the specifics of their jackets (one great technical military influenced puffa jacket was £1,100), and with other brands also apparently often coming in to do staff training, it means they are armed to the teeth to relay details on what makes pieces so special, and presumably why they justify the high ticket prices, to customers. They all seem to like to talk, even if you’re seemingly not really out to buy anything. They really are there to help in any way, so it’s safe to say Giulio takes customer service to another level – perfect for the kind of clientele it attracts. This is how physical retail should be done. The staff also dress the part in keeping with the store’s offer, in line with the store’s founder Giulio Cinque’s known attention to detail. The staff are a mix of young and trendy and style savvy slightly older men and women, so each customer is well catered for. There was men’s buyer on the shopfloor on the ground floor, while a women’s buyer could be found on the first floor selecting what to be put out, while also serving a customer in the large lounge area with an armful of clothes. All in all it seems a slickly run operation.

Giulio window display

Fitting rooms

Designed for one-to-one service, the three large fitting rooms downstairs are comfortable and are located in a separate carpeted walk-in area with a large mirror at the back of the ground floor, while upstairs there’s a very futuristic large silver pod shaped fitting room, again perfect for shop assistants to bring you what you want to try on. It’s all very much about superior service.

Ambience and store feel

It’s got quite a chilled-out atmosphere though the clubby dance music in the background puts you in the mood to find something a bit special for a night out or a special occasion. There’s quite an opulent feel to it, especially in the lounge area upstairs, and the shop is deceiving in size from the outside, as the interior is long and opens up at the back of the store, with two staircases – one at each end - leading up to the first floor, which has a modern warehouse loft space feel to it with high ceilings, strip lighting, big windows and exposed brickwork. It’s light and airy and it’s a likeable space to be in.

In Conclusion

A pleasurable shopping experience with a strong designer product mix, with something for both younger and older fashion lovers, with helpful and knowledgeable staff, great changing rooms and a real feelgood factor.

Bentalls

Bentalls Centre, Wood Street

The store entrance in the Bentalls Centre

Street view and location

You can enter the freshly refurbished menswear area from the Wood Street side entrance, though much more traffic is likely to come in from the main centre with its entrance on the pedestrianised Clarence Street, which is generally always busy and looks smart enough for a shopping centre that’s been around quite some time.

Windows and first impressions on entrance

The store’s windows are located on Wood Street – on Kingston’s one-way system, but most shoppers enter the Bentalls Centre, of which Bentalls is obviously the anchor store, from the main entrance on Clarence Street – next to the Flannels store. Unless you’re parking around that way, or driving past, you’re unlikely to see the windows, though they always seem to do a good job of them, especially at Christmas. Once inside the Bentalls Centre you get a real festive feeling, and the glistening decorations with giant baubles this year are top notch and really raise the centre’s appeal.

Store fit, displays and merchandising

To use an old expression, it does what it says on the tin. It’s a typical old school department store layout with each brand clearly defined and easy to find. It does look a bit fresher since the refurbishment, and the addition of some unexpected brands and products mean some displays have a better impact. The selection of perfectly folded Fred Perry tipped polo shirts as you come in the Wood Street side entrance looked well placed and colourful. A Sneakers x Sole Trader section was a new display, next to Kurt Geiger.

Bentalls menswear floor

Brand mix

Bentalls has its brand mainstays, with its always prominent Polo Ralph Lauren section and brands such as Gant, Barbour, Calvin Klein Jeans, Levi’s, Diesel, Lyle & Scott and Hugo Boss, though it does these days have some surprises in the mix too, such as Belstaff (including a shearling flying jacket for £1,595 which is definitely punching above the weight of the average Bentalls customer), Oliver Spencer, Portuguese Flannel, NN07 and Wood Wood. It’s good to see some more progressive collections coming in and also some more directional fashion pieces in the mix, as it gives the whole floor a more contemporary lift. Though the green velvet men’s Vivienne Westwood cowboy shirt might be a bit much for Kingston. There’s definitely more of a customer for the Versace Jeans Couture all-over printed sweatshirt, but priced at £520 – stepping more in to Flannels territory – you’d hope Bentalls has good security in place.

Customer service

Not the best! You can walk around forever and not get asked if you’d like any help. Even trying to find someone to open the changing rooms to try something on was a bit of a trial. Though certain staff have been helpful in the past to dig out another size from the stockroom, they could do with a bit of encouragement on the whole. Also, you’d think the staff might be better dressed, as they’re not exactly helping with sales.

The Bentalls' refreshed brand mix

Fitting rooms

The three fitting rooms (which were all empty) were not the best, though they did have decent sized mirrors. Firstly though, you have to get the attention of a member of staff to put in the code to let you in the changing rooms, which proved to take a while. Once in, the first changing room’s main light had gone, the second changing room’s light was too dim, so the third changing room down, which looked like it could do with a good clean, was the only viable option. It too had it’s main light not working, but a bright light from the main ceiling meant you could see what you were doing. A refresh needed.

Ambience and store feel

The age old Christmas songs were the order of the day, with a version of ‘Silent Night’ that sounded like Bing Crosby, seeming a bit out of place in a modern shopping environment. The store, in fact the whole shopping centre, felt uncomfortably warm. The heating really doesn’t need to be ramped up that high. It doesn’t make you want to try anything on. Despite the menswear floor having been given a refurbishment not long ago, it still obviously has a very department store feel, with each brand in its designated area. The lighting left a bit to be desired in some areas, and a new Retroflex vintage clothing concession section, with what seemed to be quite highly priced but in general not the best vintage - aside from a Louis Vuitton holdall for £800! For instance, a Berghaus fleece jacket looked like a dog had been sleeping on it. The vintage section just felt a bit out of place in Bentalls, but it seems everyone thinks they can do a bit vintage these days.

In Conclusion

All the men’s brands you’d expect to find in a decent level department store owned by Fenwick, but Bentalls has also upped its game with more interesting brands and products now in the mix. The service, however, is a bit to be desired, as are the changing rooms.

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