US home furnishings retailer RH – formerly Restoration Hardware – opened the doors to its first UK store last month.
However, rather than launching a Tottenham Court Road flagship like many other furniture retailers would, the upmarket brand opened a very different kind of store in a stately home in the middle of the English countryside.
The upmarket brand, loved by celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Meghan Markle, is known for its lavish flagship stores housed inside unusual and impressive buildings, which it refers to as galleries.
The gallery at the grand Aynho Park estate in Oxfordshire marks the first stage of the retailer’s aggressive expansion across Europe as it looks to build on its 100-plus store estate in North America.
After snapping up the grounds in 2020, the last three years have been spent restoring and reimagining the Grade I listed property that was first built in 1615 and later embellished by architect Sir John Soane.
Spanning 55,000 sq ft and more than 60 rooms, the brand has managed to seamlessly blend its contemporary furniture with the existing features of the 17th century property to create a jaw-dropping masterpiece.
“We believe RH England represents our greatest work to date and will serve as a symbol of our values and beliefs as we embark on our expansion across Europe,” said chief executive Gary Friedman on the opening.
So, why has RH taken such a unique approach and what can UK retailers learn from it?
Lifestyle over retail
The secret to RH’s success – and what makes RH England so unique – is its lifestyle first, retail second strategy.
After all, retail is the furthest thing from the mind when greeted with a life-sized stuffed unicorn sitting in the entry hall of Aynho House or when stepping out onto the terrace that overlooks Europe’s largest herd of White Hart deer.
The notion has practically disappeared by the time you’ve made it past the giant Hercules statue sitting at the bottom of one of the stairways as you wander past the countless bedrooms furnished with immaculate beige furniture, thick handwoven rugs and playful decor.
It’s practically impossible to spot a price tag attached to any of the furniture in the house and in its place, discreet QR codes have been positioned next to the door frames or dangle from the bottom corner of armchairs to direct visitors to the online product page.
The property has been positioned to feel like a private residence and the feeling is amplified thanks to the inclusion of the home’s original structural features, and the sound of indie jazz music following you throughout the house.
It’s clear to see that the primary purpose of the house is to engage in the surroundings instead of shopping.
The at-home approach is something RH has become synonymous with under the direction of Freidman who took the helm in 2011, says retail analyst Matthew Brown.
He explains that RH’s strategy shifted from being just a shop in its Restoration Hardware days – the business rebranded back in 2012 – to offering the “ultimate lifestyle retail, where retail takes a backseat to lifestyle aspirations”.
“It is the most seductive way that you can present product,” he says. “It is the ultimate lifestyle arrangement and RH England is probably the ultimate version that RH could do anywhere.”
The roomsets are on constant rotation as the design team update the spaces with the latest products and UK exclusive pieces.
The property’s rich history also plays well into the brand’s positioning as after all, what’s more aspirational and luxurious than British aristocracy?
Concierge and members club
It becomes apparent just how far the retailer is prepared to go to make the experience feel less like retail in its attitude to customer service.
The brand has adopted a concierge-style approach, with complimentary valet parking at the door for all visitors, and an offer of refreshments when you enter the grand building.
It continues throughout the property, with a group of friendly and attentive staff moving around quietly in the background ready to answer questions or provide house tours to curious visitors.
“We are continually discussing the customer experience in retail and RH England takes this to an entirely different level,” says retail consultant Andrew Busby, referencing the meticulous level of detail that has gone into the gallery.
Its concierge-driven retail approach goes hand-in-hand with its attitude to loyalty, where customers are encouraged to join its membership scheme.
RH offers members up to 25% off all its ranges and 20% off sale items for an annual fee of £175.
“The member savings are significant enough for it to be an absolute no-brainer. If you ever wanted to buy anything from RH, you would 100% become a member,” says Brown, explaining that it’s a great way to “bring people into the ecosystem”.
Furniture for foodies
Food and drink may be a feature of some retail stores, from department stores to supermarkets, however, with the exception of high end stores like Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason or Harvey Nichols, it can often feel like an afterthought.
At RH, dining plays a hugely important role in embodying the brand’s aspirational lifestyle.
There are five dining options available at the property, including an open-air restaurant serving wood-fired pizzas, and an American diner-style restaurant set to open later in the year.
The highlight of the dining choices at RH England is The Orangery, which sits in a former mid-18th century glasshouse with 22 ft ceilings and a stunning lighting installation by glass designer Alison Berger featuring 567 blown-glass pendants.
The devil is in the details with this restaurant, as embroidered linen napkins sit on top of Calacatta gold marble tables with Italian merino wool velvet seating.
Just outside of The Orangery is the Wine Lounge, which offers a curated selection of champagnes and wines in front of a gilt bronze Louis XV-style fireplace.
It’s a truly luxurious experience that encourages you to immerse yourself in the surroundings and adopt the RH lifestyle.
Is there an audience for RH England?
The brand has undoubtedly made its mark with Aynho Park, especially as setting up shop in a grade I listed property is never going to be a straightforward investment.
However, the big question on everyone’s mind is how will the American retailer fare in the UK?
Located more than two hours away from London by car, it is not a store designed to serve the masses – although it is a short trip for those based in the affluent Cotswolds.
However, the store is a brand builder. A mecca for the interiors obsessed; the ultimate showroom that those making big purchases and have heard about the brand from its numerous fans across the Atlantic.
Ultimately RH is relying on word of mouth to build its audience in the UK as it is absent from social media, something unheard of in the retail sector.
Perhaps this is the type of store that is needed in a world where shopping is increasingly about experience. And in no sector is that more true than furniture, where big purchases are made on items that inspire and define their lifestyle.
RH’s move across the pond may be a “risky gamble”, according to Brown, however he points out that there is a gap in the UK and European market for luxury furniture, which it could well fill.
RH England is definitely more of a destination than a flagship store and few could replicate what it has done in Aynho Park but it should provide a dose of inspiration that the industry has been calling out for.
All eyes will be on RH’s London flagship, housed inside the former Abercrombie & Fitch store near Saville Row, which is expected to open sometime in 2025 to see what the brand’s take on retail in a more traditional setting looks like.
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