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Birthday rivalry on the high street

Cath Kidston, Heal’s, OKA and M&S get nostalgic - and cut-throat - over their milestone anniversaries, Annie Deakin reports

Like children in an ever-competitive playground, shops on the high street are boasting of their heritage in bids for custom and loyalty. Throwing a birthday party is the hottest ploy for drumming up new business while thanking existing customers in one swoop. .

Interior shops Heal’s, Graham & Green, Cath Kidston and others are celebrating milestone dates - and hosting parties bigger and better than the ones before

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Last October, Cath Kidston - the label that made us love vintage chic - set the birthday party bar high with a village style fete to celebrate 15 years in business. ‘My dream was to open an eclectic junk shop filled with colour, print and other childhood favourites,’ said the eponymous designer who first set up shop in London’s Clarendon Cross; she now has 12 branches in the UK and a further five in Japan. I attended the bunting-filled bash in London’s Portman Square; instead of the usual slick corporate affairs, flowers spilled out of buckets, guests perched on haybales and there was candy floss, burger vans and a tombola.

Like Cath Kidston, OKA enjoyed rapid success, quickly becoming an established British brand. This September, OKA marks ten years in business, quite a feat for a shop that began as a four page leaflet in a barn in 1999. It now has a slick website, a three-times-a-year catalogue and over 12 shops from London to Edinburgh - with a new shop opening in North Yorkshire and a new permanent fabric by the meter service in the Notting Hill branch. As one of the younger shops on the high street, their party plans in September are relatively modest.

Not content with just the one party, Graham & Green is hosting five bashes this summer to celebrate 35 years since launch. Starting the week of 5 August, each branch will offer Henna body painting, wine, a limited birthday shopper and 20 per cent everything in store. And yet, five days is peanuts compared to the big players’ party planning.

Forget days or weeks, Selfridges is celebrating their 100 years in business over a series of months. Its opening, back in 1909, was the shopping event of the decade; making the unveiling of Westfield look pitiable. Current owners, the Canadian Weston family (who also own Associated British Food) have put on the centenary memorabilia exhibition, vintage scene window displays and an exclusive range of designs in their iconic 109 Pantone yellow.

While Selfridges has been rather grand since day dot, fellow high street giant M&S is proud of its down-to-earth heritage. The two shops’ birthdays were poles apart in marketing tactics. As Selfridges sped down the flashy design route, M&S targeted the masses with nostalgia and whopping bargains to celebrate its 125th birthday. M&S started in 1884 when the company’s founder Michael Marks opened his first stall at the city’s Kirkgate Market. To commemorate the anniversary, a TV advert showed Twiggy looking back at the impact M&S has had on UK consumer habits; it has helped introduce the avocado, sell-by dates and machine-washable lingerie to Britain. M&S returned to its Penny Bazaar roots by offering two million items at 1p each for three days. There is even a public exhibition of the M&S archive at the University of Leeds’ Centenary Gallery.

If the high street was a playground, the popular, cool kid would be Heal’s who has been knocking around for an awe-inspiring 200 years. Their bi-centenary celebrations will run from this September until Christmas 2010. Established in 1810 as a family business by John Harris Heal, the shop has consistently sold the most cutting edge design of its day. Since 2004, the Heal’s Discovers project has helped young designers (including John Reeves and Russell Pinch) to develop their ideas from concept stage to shop floor. Heal’s ReDiscovers features new, exclusive and limited edition products inspired by history by renowned British designers.

Like brotherly rivalry and playground hierarchy, there is a pecking order on the high street, mostly determined by year of birth. A trip down memory lane is a reminder to nostalgic customers of a shop’s core values; quality, value, service, innovation and trust. And as the marketing teams at Heal’s and M&S understand well, there’s nothing like a birthday bash to put the younger siblings in their place.

Annie Deakin is Editor of mydeco.com