Design: More thrills than drills at B&Q

Shopping at B&Q used to be like watching paint dry. So what's with the new groovy lamps and cushions? Kate Watson-Smyth finds out

Wednesday 31 October 2007 01:00 GMT

Last year, Sam Dickson brought the board of B&Q together at one of its larger stores. She asked them to create a mood board for a room they would like to decorate. There was much enthusiasm as they all pitched in, choosing colours and fabric swatches and ripping pages out of magazines to create an overall look. Then she gave them each a trolley. "Go down into the shop," she said. "And bring back everything you need to make the room you have designed." At that point, they realised that they couldn't do it. At least not if they wanted to B&Q it.

Dickson is one of a group of dynamic young experts, mostly female, who have been tempted away from prestigious jobs at Liberty, Tesco and Camelot to inject some much-needed glamour into the DIY store. "Some of my friends were a little surprised by the move," admits Dickson. "But I've always loved B&Q, and I could see what they wanted to do."

It is part of a repositioning of the whole DIY ethos. After all, B&Q has traditionally been the place you go for a bag of screws, a plank of wood and the drill to fix it all to the wall. But during the 1990s – the decade of Changing Rooms et al – the store did well out of a new generation of DIYers, as taught by Linda Barker and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Gradually, the customers became more sophisticated, and more knowledgeable about what they wanted. And they became more female. And what women didn't want to do was browse around looking at power tools when they could be choosing light fittings or selecting rugs.

B&Q's management realised something needed to be done. And that was where Dickson came in, as well as Fionnuala Johnston and Jo Kenrick, to name but a few of the women who have been drafted in to revamp the store, and who have largely recreated B&Q in their own image. These young women loved decorating, and as they got older, they switched their passion for cheap fashion fixes into a desire for affordable, stylish home improvements.

Remember how fashionistas would smirk coyly when you complimented them on a new top and admit that it was from Topshop or Zara? Well, B&Q is hoping for the same effect. So, you can buy your expensive designer sofa, then scatter a few cheap cushions on it, or change the colour of the room. The idea was that you could change the whole look of the room with a lick of paint, a rug and a lampshade. Then, if you get bored with it in six months, you can chuck it out and start again.

So for 18 months the team worked on the revamp. Last month all was revealed. First, a series of colourful, glossy catalogues slid out of the Sunday papers. Then stylish TV ads. The chances are that you thought it was John Lewis or Next. Early indications are that the new Colours brand has been a runaway success. And those that followed through with a trip to a store will have been in for a big surprise. So far, one third have been revamped and redecorated, and 800 staff have been trained to help you coordinate your new decor.

It's an attempt to gain the female pound, says Jo Kenrick, marketing and customer proposition director. "We knew women were more and more involved in home improvement and we knew they didn't want to shop in those big sheds full of power tools," she says."We knew they were used to the idea of affordable, fast fashion for clothes and wanted the same for their homes."

Lengthy and expensive research revealed that six million women were planning to undertake some home improvement in the next three years. That's two million more women than men, and a 25 per cent increase on the number of women planning home improvements three years ago. Of those six million, 45 per cent are "safe decorators" spending up to £5,000 annually on one big project such as refurbishing the kitchen, bathroom or living room. The next 45 per cent are the "fashion followers", who will spend £2,000 three times a year. That's the bulk of the B&Q market. The final 10 per cent are the "style gurus", a niche market, but a group with cachet. To that end, each range includes something a little bit unusual or edgy to draw them in so they will boast to their friends.

"We are busy redoing all the stores," says Kenrick. "The hard end is still there with the power tools; but there is a soft end, a room set so that you can see how you can achieve a look. It's about couples being able to shop together. In one store, there are 36 kitchen room sets. But we also want to provide more choice than anywhere else – so if you want a wooden floor, you can come here and choose from 143 different types."

The whole B&Q push has been backed with a big ad campaign. That old slogan "You can do it if you B&Q it" has been replaced by the more inclusive "Let's do it" accompanied by the Cole Porter song. In one advertisement, the slogan is "Gentlemen prefer B&Q", a blatant attempt to appeal to a classy, female customer.

So will it work? Well, the initial signs are good. All the team profess to be excited by what is happening at B&Q. And after all, it was recently reported that Charlotte Church went into labour in the car park. They must be doing something right.

Top trend forecasts

Fionnuala Johnston, design manager of B&Q, has worked at Conran, Liberty and Selfridges, as well as Debenhams, Woolworths and Bhs. She says the following trends are going to be big.

* Minerals – natural colours in all shades.

* Metallics – on textiles, walls and tiles. Glitter, sparkle and sheen.

* Country – going green, literally. Soft, verdant colours and a homely feel.

* Minimalism – over.

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