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  • Writer's pictureReynoldsSymes

ART FOR ART'S SAKE - retail gets experimental

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

One of the big ongoing conundrums in retail now, is how to entice the docile customer away from their seductive computer screen, and back into physical retail space. Even though the ‘pandemic pause’ is for the most part over, ‘normal life’ has clearly not been resumed. For many retailers, the public’s retreat into the safety of their homes has intensified the already threatening transition to online retail – a comfortable, slipper wearing alternate land of plenty, as opposed to the dour, samey high street experience of poorly trained staff and low stock volumes that scream the risk of disappointment. And that’s before you make the masked trip on public transport!

Of course, the answer for retail is to find new ways to attract customers, seducing them into making a retail pilgrimage with the promise of something special as a reward. Something that the computer screen cannot give them. A hands-on retail experience.

Bold retail has historically been viewed as the premise of large department stores: those Jurassic behemoths of yesteryear. Back in the days of outside lavatories and Sunday bath nights, these giants gave us retail entertainment; and often for free. Selfridges ran a seemingly never-ending rosta of interesting exhibitions, Liberty were always demonstrating some craft or the other and Harrods even had a Pet Kingdom where you could aspire to purchase an alligator or a camel (fortunately 'The Endangered Species Act’ put an end to that particular lark). As stores became more commercially ‘aware’, every square inch of space demanded a return in sales and some of these vast emporiums slowly became less entertaining, until they were just places to buy more stuff; a kind of boring, super luxurious open stockroom (but an open stockroom nevertheless)! Herald the arrival of online shopping and you begin to see how we ended up where we are now.

FORTNUM's X FRANK - instore Sculpture Court

Fortunately, not all retailers think alike, and I was lucky enough to work for one that still passionately believed in exceeding the customers’ expectations - bestowing an element of surprise and delight. In September 2016, Fortnum & Mason spearheaded ART in the retail environment, launching Fortnum’s X Frank; a collaboration between the store and Frank Cohen - one of the most prolific collectors of modern British art (and a true Gentleman), that involved turning the entire store, both inside and out, into a provocative art installation.

Exhibiting for free, gratis, on-the house, a collection of works curated by Robert Upstone, the show included work by renowned artists such as Frank Auerbach, Charming Baker, Tracey Emin, Howard Hodgkin, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Bridget Riley, William Roberts and Stuart Pearson Wright.

FRANK & PAUL - 4am in a Fortnum's window alongside artwork by Tracey Emin and Bridget Riley

The installation process sounded simple enough if you said it fast. ‘Take out Fortnum’s art and put in Frank’s’. Next item on the marketing agenda! But before the meeting minutes had even been transcribed, new ‘exciting’ discoveries had come to light, such as, why hadn’t the walls behind our existing pieces of art on the staircases been painted? and what idiot in 1945 decided that this would be a good place for a light switch?

Undeterred, we forged ahead, and by the time the long installation night came around my adrenaline induced excitement had exceeded fever pitch. Luckily for my sanity, Frank Cohen arrived in the wee small hours to walk the store - and as we stood staring at 'The Jury' by Reginald Brill (located on a wall outside the Ladies!) Frank passionately explained the paintings composition and the nature of the artist himself, and my world felt calm again.

installation of FORTNUM's X FRANK art collaboration 2016

The exhibition ran for 4 weeks, and was a deemed a huge success. Nothing was stolen, none of the sculptures in the first floor Sculpture Court had been knocked over, retail sales hadn’t fallen through the floor, and the canopy hadn’t collapsed from the weight of Lynne Chadwick’s King and Queen! But the reputation of the store as a vibrant, modern retail emporium had been enhanced, both in the eyes of the press and more importantly, those of Fortnum's loyal customer base.

Regardless of the initial dramas behind the scenes (and the thought of getting all the art out again), the store had offered its customers sublime entertainment whilst shopping; the chance to engage with something that they never expected, and to be enlightened and inspired, all for free!

Returning to today, inventive retail is not a thing of the past. Today’s gloom and doom is a wake-up call for brands to be bold (or be bowled out!), to engage us with more than just endless floors of repetitive product, end of season reductions, miles of printed signage and more of the same ‘Never Knowingly Over Exciting’ shopping environments.

GALLERY of work from 2016 FORTNUM's X FRANK show

I’m ever hopeful that maybe one day I will get the opportunity to see Cher giving a free concert on the third floor adjacent to the Customer Service desk, or to have my day ‘disrupted’ by stumbling across 'Spider' by Louise Bourgeois whilst shopping for cold meats and fancies in The Food Court.

What would your idea of bold 'added value' retail be? Leave a comment, I'd love to hear.


Frank Cohen's instagram feed can be found at

Art for art's sake definition -

Frank Cohen Art Collection can be found here:

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