Our Thoughts

Why the consumer must shape the retail spaces of the future

An increasing number of UK retail assets are either becoming less relevant, or even irrelevant, as traditional shopping locations.

With residential values exceeding those of retail, particularly in the South East, the obvious answer would be to use these sites to alleviate housing need.

As simple as this may be, this approach would be a mistake; ignoring the key role that retail can play in regeneration and in creating a sense of place.

Throughout human history the marketplace has been a focal point for communities, but arguably this role was forgotten during the post-war rebuilding years – the arrival of the Arndale Centres, large, homogenous retail giants, is now synonymous with the rampant over development of the 1950-70s.

While these centres were successful in the short term, several key mistakes were made. They were not sympathetically integrated into existing retail spaces – on occasion they were built with their backs to the high street.

And, the centres had roughly the same tenants and were built to the same aesthetic – a cookie cutter approach to development that quickly became outdated.

Reimagining these struggling retail environments can have a huge local impact – Bracknell’s Lexicon shopping centre, which opened in September, is a recent success story that is helping the town emerge from the shadow of nearby Reading.

Despite its relatively affluent population and a catchment area of more than 1m people, the town had a vacancy rate far in excess of the national average. A “New Town” in 1949, Bracknell grew rapidly but, commercially, its concrete construction and 1950s Brutalist architecture did not age well.

The answer has been to recreate a commercial focal point that meets modern consumer preferences. The Lexicon has achieved exactly that, with a smooth transition between the new shopping area and the old town centre. By sympathetically joining the two elements, the shopping experience remains authentic for long-term residents, but also exciting and new for visitors to the town.

On a larger scale, the redevelopment of King’s Cross is of course one of the key regeneration projects of the past 30 years.

From a regeneration and placemaking viewpoint, King’s Cross possesses a unique set of characteristics – its status as a UK infrastructure hub has resulted in an annual footfall of 200m people travelling through the site.

Since the completion of the station development, the focus has been on tailoring the leisure space to different demographics: rail users, nearby office occupiers and students.

The completion of Coal Drops Yard in 2018 will redefine King’s Cross again, as not merely a site for food and beverage occupiers, but as a destination retail site. The way in which the centre has been integrated into the original architecture suggests the scheme will provide an authentic, yet brand new retail experience. A careful curation of retailers will decide on the centre’s long term success.

Much has been written about such high-profile developments. Smaller sites and locations that do not have budgets bolstered by infrastructure funding receive considerably less attention, despite facing greater challenges.

We have visited many local shopping centres in the regions with a very high incidence of vacancy – in one striking example we saw just three people shopping.

Tellingly, the only part of this scheme that was full was a small café – demonstrating the way in which the space was no longer being used purely, or even primarily, as a retail destination.

This shopping centre is by no means a one of a kind – they litter the entirety of the UK, irrespective of region or affluence. The repositioning of this type of retail asset will remain one of the key issues facing landlords for years to come.

Retail may not remain the primary focus for these types of spaces, but as part of a mix of uses that is relevant to the local community.

The overriding theme from all of the schemes that we have studied was that in order for a scheme to be successful, its planner, developer and landlord must place the consumer at the centre of the decision-making process.

In years gone by, development has been conducted with little consideration for what the shopper desires. Now, increasingly-flexible lease terms mean that in certain retail-focussed environments, the offer can constantly evolve, providing a fresh experience with every visit.

It should be the consumer who shapes retail locations and not the other way around – if the user of the space is ignored, then in all probability, any efforts to redevelop or reimagine retail spaces will fail.



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