One in four people who visit St Pancras International aren’t travelling. Maybe they’re a Harry Potter fan (parts of the franchise were filmed there) or they’re attending a wedding (the station hosts at least one a month), but chatting to Wendy Spinks, Commercial Director of parent company HS1 Ltd, suggests that the statistic could have something to do with a savvy retail offering.
Travel retail is booming. HS1 has seen annual sales increase year on year at St Pancras since 2010. More than 48m customers descend, 85% of which are in the ABC1 demographic and since taking on her role in 2013, Spinks has brought record retail figures to the Grade 1 listed building. She has effectively turned one of the UK’s busiest stations into a destination within its own right.
In October last year the majestic station, once earmarked for demolition, became home to the first John Lewis railway station shop. The opportunity to target millions of commuters using its revered click-and-collect service was a natural step for the British department store retailer, but it also represents a rite of passage for St Pancras.
“It’s a new concept for John Lewis,” Spinks tells me as she leads a grand tour just for me. “Clearly it’s a lot smaller than their other stores but it’s really working from a commuter’s perspective.
In fact most of our retailers have been reinvesting, which is a positive sign that they want to give us their all and display the best of what they do in a travel environment.”
Travel retail can be intense for an operator. The densities are high, with a lot of footfall in a very small space. Spinks understands this, having been on both sides of the travel retail fence.
Her career started as the multi-site manager for The Body Shop at Heathrow before moving on to manage Sunglasses Hut stores in all UK airports and eventually heading retail operations at Heathrow airport.
“In the [last] role I had at Heathrow and my position here, you come to have a real appreciation for what retailers are trying to do with less square footage. You recognise the internal challenges within a retailer’s business in relation to different concepts and models. A general high street offering doesn’t always work in a travel environment. How do you tailor that to ensure you get the best out of units trading in that environment?”
In The Body Shop days for example, and she’s going back a long time when she explains this but, products were being sold in whole bottle sizes. Think litre bottles of shampoo for consumers about to go on a trip to say, Cuba. Soon a range of travel products that were compact and convenient were developed. In the airport world, before the rules changed and liquids couldn’t be taken through security, producing things in less than 10mls was revolutionary for The Body Shop. It took lateral thinking.
“We did it way before the legislation came in,” Spinks explains, “which came as a result of categorising stores beyond sizes, to customer behaviour, in order to get the right product range.”
Being creative with space shouldn’t be limited to a rail station, but as Spinks put it, a large chunk of the footfall at St Pancras are walking past that same shop front ten times a week.
“It’s about staying fresh,” she tells me. “Some retailers are better at it than others but it’s important to keep that front door attractive. You can quite quickly become wallpaper to a commuter that’s passing by frequently.”
By this point the tour has led us to the Fortnum & Mason store, where Spinks and I are seated for a pot of exclusive St Pancras tea: a special blend that’s based on English Breakfast but a bit lighter. Apparently the French drink their tea lighter than the English do, so the blend was developed to suit the positioning and act as a link to the Eurostar.
The experience is surreal, not least because of the lavish service from the waiter and the exquisite display of products on shelves, but also because I’ve never stopped to enjoy a beverage at a station before – I’m always in a rush. I’m the customer who abandons the purchase of a Marks & Spencer meal deal at the sight of even a small queue, because I have to dash to catch my train.
“It’s a challenge for us,” says Spinks as she pours tea. “Part of our ongoing conversation with tenants is around how we address time-poor consumers. Do our retailers need more space or less choice? For big volume operators especially, are 50 sandwich options really necessary? Especially when the purchase can often be so quick. Maybe 30 types of sandwich would be better.”
Without realising it the subtext of our conversation has been adaptability. “It’s so important for retailers in order for them to thrive,” insists Spinks. “Take Hamley’s, which has a huge store on Regent St that’s brilliant and entertaining. The shop at St Pancras is tiny in comparison but still manages to engage with customers and incorporate fun into the shopping journey. They’ve re-packaged their spirit in to a small format that really works. Brands need to innovate and it helps our retailers when their landlords are open to doing things differently.
There’s also LK Bennet who run their store fantastically. They’re constantly changing their windows, and refreshing their stock. There’s new things landing the whole time and most notably, the staff are very good at recognising customer needs. They’ve learnt loads about how strong the gifting seasons are.”
I ask what the criteria is for a St Pancras retailer, to which Spinks responds with “being service-led” and “customer focused.”
“It’s not so important for the concept to be highly established, it’s whether or not we can convert its suitability” she explains.
But what’s really salient, she says leaning in ever so subtly as if it’s almost a secret, is when retailers create a bespoke experience. “So you made that point earlier,” she says, “about always being in a rush. Staff need to be able to read behaviour and identify when they should speed up the service, or slow it down. That relates to training really.”
As I’m catching a train to Cambridge within the half hour, Spinks offers to finish the tour on the way to the platform. She’s listing some of the activity the station hosts in order to drive footfall (think school choir groups and flash mobs) as we discuss how ‘retailtainment’ in malls and transport hubs is becoming something of a trend. Then, as if she planned it, a group of tourists bursts into song right beside us performing a rendition of ‘The Hokey Pokey’.