Interview: Harris + Hoole on why design is key to the success of Tesco coffee chain

28th May 2014

'Design is the thing' that launches a new brand to the public says Harris and Hoole director Thomas Springett

For a relatively small UK chain of artisan coffee shops, albeit one with big ambitions, Harris and Hoole has achieved a remarkable level of public awareness in a short time for one simple reason: it is backed by supermarket giant Tesco.

Tesco’s investment has helped the brand, launched in 2012, achieve a rapid pace of growth. It currently has 36 stores across the south east of the UK and is now expanding at the rate of roughly one new branch per week, says its property director Thomas Springett. This portfolio comprises a mix of branches located both within Tesco stores and in standalone units.

Retail design would be a key factor for any new retailer embarking on such a fast brand building project, but Harris & Hoole has elevated the discipline to an even higher level of importance. In a crowded market the brand has chosen to differentiate itself by ensuring that every branch has an entirely different design.

”Innovation and design is 100 per cent what Harris and Hoole is about. We are not a cookie cutter, there is nothing formulaic about what we are doing. Each shop is designed on its own merits,” says Springett. “You’ll not see any real similarities, with the exception of what you want to see for a consistent approach as a customer. You want to know that you are going to get a good cup of coffee in each one and you are going to have a great customer experience, but otherwise, design-wise, it is a really open book.”

Set up by the Tolley family, headed by Taylor Street coffee chain founder Nick Tolley, Harris and Hoole has a mission to bring speciality coffee to a mass market. Springett – a former Tesco staffer – has been on board with the project since the beginning, taking a major role in shaping the stores.

The chain is named after a pair of coffee-loving characters featured in Samuel Pepys’ diaries and uses branding developed by agency Someone. For its store design the company drew up a shortlist of agencies and quickly found a rapport with design and architectural practice Path Design, says Springett.

Having appointed designers Springett was keen not to stifle their creativity. “We have got a great design team and we give them full rein. My experience is that if you give someone a decent enough brief you should then step away, you shouldn’t be too hands-on. That’s how we do it,” he says. “I’m a big advocate of not over-specifying. Some of these designers have got such fantastic ideas that if you can give them free rein to implement and complete what they want it is the best thing you can ever do. We are really hands-off. I’m not as creative as any of those guys that work there. I’m there so that when they are putting in hexagons in [a Tesco store in] Hemel Hempstead… and Tesco get nervous… my job is to say ‘back off’ we are doing this, let us do it.”

The first Harris & Hoole store, located in a former butcher’s shop in Amersham, utilised original features of the building in its design. Several other branches in historic buildings have since followed suit. “But we soon realised that when we go into shopping centres, or into Tesco shops, or when we go into airports, transport hubs etc, that you are not always going to be gifted with original features,” says Springett. So in buildings that do not offer a standout original feature the brand will install a new one to achieve the required ‘wow’ factor: “When we set out what capital expenditure we want to spend on a shop, we will factor in that design is a big thing. There will always be a pool of money, a sum for the wow factor. And whatever form that comes in, whether it is something suspended from the roof, whether it’s a funky new floor finish or a completely new counter, it’s there.”

The Watford branch includes a birds nest structure while others offer the aforementioned honeycomb ceilings or shed-like wooden frames. “The feature is the big thing that we try and input… we are really trying to push the boundaries on design,” says Springett. Speaking from the Pinner branch of Harris and Hoole, he says the service counter is another area that sets the chain apart from rivals. Instead of being placed between customers and staff the counter is turned around so customers walk into the service area and interact directly with the barista. “We said let’s flip it round and have it more like an open kitchen. When you go to someone’s house and you interact around the kitchen – let’s have something similar to that,” he explains.

But such innovation can mean a steep learning curve. At first, for example, customers didn’t know what to do at the new-shape counter. “You have to be a little bit patronising in your design I’ve found, to really explain to people…  so we went back to the drawing board, we need to make sure that it’s really simple what the process is,” says Springett.

Research on the effectiveness of branch design is carried out after every opening to make future branches more effective. This has led to an appreciation, for example, that its high concept in-store features aren’t always popular but that they do create conversation and interest. “I said to our designers last week, ‘If some people don’t like it, it means you are doing your job, because it’s opinion and you are creating that buzz, you are creating that conversation.’ You could just walk into a shop that is a bit more cookie cutter and then you won’t get that conversation. That’s not what we want to do, we want people to sit down, have a great coffee, have a great experience and enjoy the surroundings they are in,” says Springett.

The research process has highlighted other issues too. Early stores featured little in the way of coffee branding, leaving shoppers in the dark as to what the stores sold. This was soon remedied, though Springett says the ‘bus stop’ signs on store exterior may be modified to add the word ‘coffee’ too.

“It’s one thing we should never underestimate. When you are starting a brand up it’s incredibly difficult to pull people off the street and get them inside,” says Springett. “You can do it in a number of ways, promotions etc, but design is the main thing. When we first opened this place people were still curious as to what it was. People just couldn’t get their heads around it, and then slowly we got the coffee messaging up and we were writing things like coffee on the window, and all of a sudden people started coming in.”

Space within the branches is divided into broad zones depending on the expected dwell time of customers: there is an area for those having a quick coffee while they check their emails, one for those lingering a little longer over some food and room for those who are settling down for a long chat on a sofa.

Chalk boards and noticeboards are placed around branches, as part of a push to drive community engagement. Space is available in the branches for open mic talent nights and meetings of antenatal groups. Local events and even barista birthdays are flagged up, while managers are encouraged to customise the environment by choosing pictures and decorating the toilets to highlight the differences between branches.

There is no company colour palette. A branch close to the historic Brooklands motor racing circuit is painted in British Racing Green, but most other branches are painted in colours that simply look good. At first furniture was bought from flea markets, though the company’s size has now made this difficult.

The company is flexible about the size of the stores that it takes on too, applying a ten point list of criteria to the properties it choose. Issues such as whether the site is south-facing to achieve a sunny environment and how local demographics would suit the brand’s offer are included in the list. The team also evaluates the number of coffee chains already operating locally to ascertain if there is already a market for specialist coffee, or whether it will be a pioneer.

“We are actively on a mission here to reconceive the coffee experience, so we want speciality coffee offers around us, we don’t want to be knocking people out of business,” says Springett.

The relationship with investor Tesco puts Harris and Hoole in a position unusual for any growing company, giving it access to high footfall sites in the UK’s leading supermarket chain. Springett describes Tesco as an ideal investor, supportive but not interfering and taking a hands-off approach similar to the one Harris and Hoole takes with its designers: “It’s funny because when we go into the Tesco estate we say to them ‘We just want a box… just give us that box and we will fit it out… we are incredibly lucky.”

The brand has reached a stage where its earliest stores can now provide nearly two years of records, sales data and trends to further inform its strategy. It is also at in a position where it can apply value engineering strategies to reducing the costs inherent in each opening. Its counters, for example, are now formed of eight modules that can be mass produced but assembled in different ways and with different finishes if required.

But it is the future which is occupying the attention of the Harris and Hoole management team. Its branch opening strategy will see it more than double its store numbers over the next year, as investor Tesco repurposes its larger stores.

As Retail Design World has reported, Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke has announced plans to refresh more than 100 large format Tesco branches with the introduction of new services, Harris and Hoole listed high among them. The coffe chain is also looking at expanding into travel hubs such as train stations and airports and, when it has achieved some of those goals, would welcome an opportunity for international expansion through a franchise arrangement, says Springett.

And more immediate design changes may follow the introduction, in June this year, of a mobile phone app feature which will allow customers to pay for orders from a balance on their phone account. The GPS-enabled app, launched last summer, already lets customers place an order as they leave a bus or tube station, for example, so that it is ready as they reach the local Harris and Hoole branch. Staff can greet them by name, and the app manages the chain’s loyalty scheme too. Soon they will be able to order and pay seamlessly.

“That really is exciting from a design point of view because it changes the whole experience. What we are really excited by is that in high footfall areas – train stations, commuter belts, London – having a till point that is just an iPad.” This idea is to be trialled, and initiatives such as express lanes in busy branches are also under consideration.

It seems that even the face-to-face experience of drinking coffee is not immune to the charms of the digital economy – and that even brands that are just two years old are learning not to rest on their laurels.


Branding: Someone

Interiors: Path Design