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Rethink: How to sell the high street after lockdown

Pamela Buxton

For a sector already in crisis, Covid-19 looked like the final straw for physical retail. But four specialists see a chance for growth and change for the better

The future of retail: Curated experiences, local enterprise, service and real live experience.
The future of retail: Curated experiences, local enterprise, service and real live experience. Credit: Jason Lyon

Physical retail was already in crisis long before Covid-19 struck, fuelled by changing shopping habits and the rise of online in particular. Since the lockdown, overall retail sales plummeted by a record 18.1% in April after a 5.2% fall in March according to the Office for National Statistics. Conversely, the proportion of retail sales spent online rose to a record 30.7% in April compared with 19.1% in April 2019.

Now, non-food retailers emerging from the shut-down must add to that social distancing, one-way systems, entry and queuing outside and more. And then there’s back-of-house stockroom and loading procedures.

So what’s the future for this struggling sector?

‘A lot of innovation needs to happen in retail as an industry. I wouldn’t be surprised if interesting things come out of Covid-19 in terms of omni-platform, and different experiences of shopping,’ according to Fiona Scott, co-author of the new GLA report High Streets and Town Centres: Adaptive Strategies, produced as part of the mayor of London’s Good Growth by Design programme.

With more people spending time in their local area not only during lockdown but potentially for some time to come, she sees an opportunity for enterprise on the high street, especially if it was supported by more flexible leasing arrangements and better public realm. And some of the other conditions that have been positives during the lockdown – such as better air quality and wider pavements – could also, she adds, help high street retail to thrive.

‘It relies on the strength of the market to be able to respond to that and be enticing and creative and attractive to consumer demand,’ she says.

It’s clear that whatever the challenges facing the retail sector before, Covid-19 has sent these into a sharper focus than ever.

Below, architects with expertise in the sector consider the future of retail. Friedrich Ludewig of Acme looks at how Covid-19 is fuelling retail’s ‘existential crisis’ and suggests a new way forward. Adam Scott of FreeState envisages a more agile approach to retailing and Adrian Griffiths of Chapman Taylor considers retail’s future role as one part of a mixed-use strategy for regenerating town centres.

‘Social distancing was well practised in most shops before the virus arrived, because stores were already rather empty,’ Friedrich Ludewig, ACME
‘Social distancing was well practised in most shops before the virus arrived, because stores were already rather empty,’ Friedrich Ludewig, ACME Credit: ACME

Friedrich Ludewig is a director of ACME, whose work includes Victoria Gate in Leeds, Eastland in Melbourne, and Dublin Central

I don’t think that retail clients will be calling architects tomorrow to redesign their stores just for Covid-19. That’s like repainting the salon of the Titanic, where you should be dealing with the iceberg straight ahead of you. Social distancing was well practised in most shops before the virus arrived, because stores were already rather empty.

That’s because retail was already in the middle of a full-on existential crisis before Covid-19. The typology was under serious pressure to evolve, with the traditions of the high street, the department store and the shopping mall disintegrating at increasing speeds. Online retail was working with ever-accelerating pace and market share. Consumers had started to question if conspicuous retail consumption is sustainable in a climate-changing world.

Stores were consolidating and questioning their footprints. The Carluccios and Jamie Olivers of this world were folding one after another. Debenhams and House of Fraser were in and out of administration. John Lewis & Partners announced its lowest bonus for half a century. Was anyone out there still planning new shopping centres the way they used to be done, even before the virus arrived?

Covid-19 is therefore not asking entirely new questions, but is an accelerator at a time when the world of physical retail was actively searching for new ways to be relevant.  Covid-19 has sharpened the questions by making things that were already quite unsustainable extremely unsustainable. It accelerates the debate about what the purpose of physical space is over online-only offers. The world of retail was brightly on fire before, Covid is adding a little bit more oil to the blaze.

The question for physical retail that emerged way before Covid-19 is a question of basic relevance. If online has more choice, and if home delivery is so much more convenient, and if physical space is so expensive to create and maintain, why does anyone still bother?

The future of physical retail does not lie in scale or range as online will always win on that. However, what the likes of Amazon do not offer is curation and sensation. A good gallerist does not offer me all the art of the world but instead curates their gallery to show very few works from an artist that they feel passionate about. A good nightclub does not play all music but instead offers a very special night, with a special set of tracks, mixed in the moment and shared by me and a few friends only. The future of retail lies in spaces that are local and specific. What will make me leave the house post-Covid-19 won’t be cut-price sale offers, it will be curated products, curated experiences, spatial sensations and social interaction.

The high street needs to rediscover its specialisms. Covid-19 has brought people to shop more locally again. Retailers must build on their local strengths and differences. People like to go to places of knowledge and expertise like a good bookshop or specialist fishmonger. And if some of us stay working from home for a few days a week, rather than all returning to the office full-time, perhaps the local high street has a chance to become more relevant again, as more people spend more of their working day away from the city centres.

Retail will never disappear, but it will stop being perceived as a profit centre, and a standalone typology. Retail will return to its roots, as a space of commerce and exchange at the ground plane of our buildings. Retail will become much more of a placemaking tool. In the future, retail will not be deployed to make money, but to make a place. The right coffee shop and bar on the ground floor will be important to make an office building more than a just a place of work. The boundaries between retail, cafes and places of work will become increasingly indistinguishable. Retail and restaurants will be needed to make a public space feel alive and public. Retail will be an integral part of any mixed-use building, and we think the definition of retail will broaden out to include anyone who welcomes visitors through the door to sell a product, a service or an experience including doctors, architects and carpenters, for example.

Looking ahead, there won’t be pure retail developers anymore. Instead there will be mixed-use developers, who understand the value of retail as an active ground floor plane within a bigger scheme. It will be one part of what we need to make a thriving, human-centric city.

‘A radical re-set,’ Simon Mitchell, Sybarite
‘A radical re-set,’ Simon Mitchell, Sybarite Credit: Dylan Thomas

Simon Mitchell is co-founder of architect and designer Sybarite, a practice specialising in luxury retail environments

I think there will be a radical re-set across every part of the luxury sector from fashion and accessories to cars and jets, as companies adjust to new volumes, supply chains and ways of doing business. In fashion, for example, Covid-19 will accelerate trends towards operating without seasons, such is the case with Gucci, and will also hasten the end of the runway show; Balenciaga has already shown that you can reach hundreds of thousands with a live screen-based launch and millions through later views.

Even more than before, luxury retail will now be about selling the dream – how to subliminally reach all the senses of the customer by thinking about tactility of surface, the comfort of chairs to relax in, the use of beautiful lighting and mirrors that are supremely flattering, as well as providing little touches like great coffee and service. There will be even more focus on the little nuances that will make people feel special and pampered, and inspire them to get out and explore the collections and try on great quality clothes. Luxury bricks and mortar is about the subtle nuances of touch and feel; it is about escapism and transportation.

I’ve long been an advocate of having less space dedicated to products and more given to the targeted curation of the retail experience, whether that be through great artwork or just space for contemplation and relaxation. The new SKP-S store we completed in Beijing last year in collaboration with eyewear brand Gentle Monster is conceived as a department store of the future, and just 40% of the store is dedicated to the product, compared with a norm of 70-80%.  Yet even with the impact of Covid-19, the retail sales have been way ahead of their projection because SKP-S offers an experiential take on retail as we know it.

As designers, we must encourage our clients to operate their stores safely. They need to retrain their staff to be almost like flight attendants. The service will have to impeccable and focus on the details and the personalisation of service. Retail’s future will rely on highly trained staff who really know and understand their client’s needs, aspirations and lifestyle – possibly making appointments in advance so when they’re in the store they will have more space, and more privacy, with the guaranteed security that they can easily socially distance.

Air quality is a subject we’ve been promoting in China with the use of air purification filters for sometime, and that surely has to happen over here too following Covid-19. To be able to filter the air quicker offers a sense of assurance to customers while they navigate stores.

Our European clients are already talking about the need for bigger fitting rooms and anterooms so that you don’t get pinch points.

Another thing we can do as designers is look into the use of anti-bacterial materials. We’re researching how cedar could be used more widely in stores because of its amazing anti-bacterial properties – that’s why it’s traditionally been used for sushi counters.

As humans we crave the need to see and touch. We have screen fatigue. We want to be away from flat screens and e-commerce. We anticipate that luxury retail and new forms of department stores in particular can offer this escapism by offering experiential journeys in discovery with collaborations, brand extensions, and with hospitality attached.

‘A much greater blur in terms of design and operations,’ Adam Scott, FreeState
‘A much greater blur in terms of design and operations,’ Adam Scott, FreeState

Adam Scott is founder and creative director of experience masterplanners FreeState

Covid-19 shines an extremely uncomfortable light on what we already knew: that for retail, uncertainty is the new certainty. The crisis has exposed an urgent need to move away from stratified mixed-use planning to a much more adaptable mixed-activity approach, one that may well spell the beginning of the end of the anchor tenant – at least in the traditional sense. We need to plan for unpredictable times and for unpredictable spaces. We need to substitute a build-and-they-will-come planning mantra for a much more fluid and adaptable approach to retail.

This all begins with a ramping up of what could be thought of as a fusion in masterplanning between different types, not only combining retail with workplace and leisure, but less obviously with education, healthcare, and experience-based pop-ups. This is not a call for a richer mix of uses, but rather for a richer mix of types of activity. Done well, it promises to be the model for the new retail norm come post-coronavirus.     

Secondly, faced with the post-Covid prospect of whole streets of empty retail space, planning authorities will need to think much more in terms of the event. We are going to see more hireable sites programmed for work events, live events, community and retail events. This will be especially relevant as we pass through the various lockdown exit strategies, where we will need to spread the constantly morphing retail offer across 24-hour timespans, as opposed to the customary 12-hour fixed-concept day.

Thirdly, we will see a much greater blur in terms of design and operations. Expect the rise of the super-curated high street, which will see a blurring of pop-up, short, and very short tenancies. These start-ups and independents will be underwritten not by the traditional anchor tenants, but by a new type of retail sponsor in a genuine mix of profit, social responsibility, and membership.

None of this is entirely new. It’s all out there already. These trends precede Covid-19, some by decades. What is new, however, is the rate with which the present crisis has accelerated the inevitable – the blurring of different types of activities, of statutory permissions, and of the programming of our retail sites. What were counter-cultural trends are now the means by which we will ensure that real-world retail is alive and relevant in whatever follows lockdown.

To design for this, we need to better understand the suitably complex interests of the post-Covid retail audience. This means thinking much less in terms of monolithic destinations, and much more about the real-world customer’s journey across a day, month and year. In thinking more deeply about the quality of the experience, we are much more likely to attract and involve people, and in attracting and involving, so the product evolves to further attract and involve.

Stick with the traditional build-it-and-they-might-come approach to retail and people may indeed come – perhaps once, possibly twice. But if instead we embrace a much more agile approach to retail, they will keep on coming – again and again and again.

See Adam Scott of Freestate speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on retail

In thinking more deeply about the quality of the experience, we are much more likely to attract and involve people, and in attracting and involving, so the product evolves to further attract and involve

Adrian Griffiths, Chapman Taylor: ‘A great opportunity to deliver truly inclusive, mixed-use developments in our town and city centres, which have been undermined by single-use schemes.’
Adrian Griffiths, Chapman Taylor: ‘A great opportunity to deliver truly inclusive, mixed-use developments in our town and city centres, which have been undermined by single-use schemes.’

Adrian Griffiths is a main board director at global architect and masterplanner Chapman Taylor

All retailers can do in the short term is provide a safe environment, as best as they can. As we unlock further, I expect the need for such measures to reduce – I do not expect protective screens to stay between staff and customers forever, for example. I think we will get back to retail as an experience and, for that, staff need to be able to interact with their customers.

In the longer term, Covid-19 is only going to reinforce the pre-existing need to rethink how retailers use space. Someone recently referred to Covid-19 as acting like a microwave for the retail sector, accelerating its transition.

I think this can be turned into a positive – there is a great opportunity now to move away from relying too much on physical retail spaces and to deliver truly inclusive, mixed-use developments in our town and city centres, which have been undermined by single-use schemes. This means creating town centre developments with the right urban framework to evolve over time, rather than having to be knocked down and rebuilt in an endless, and wasteful, cycle of redevelopment. While single-use shopping centres can be very difficult to adapt to societal change, high streets have been evolving naturally for centuries.

Chapman Taylor has been promoting this mixed-use agenda for years, emphasising that, while retail is still important, it needs to be part of a holistic approach which includes workplaces, leisure, food and beverage, residential and community functions.  

We are currently working on major city centre schemes in Coventry and Bolton. Both embrace diverse uses to build on the urban fabric and history of those places and in doing so, reinvigorate urban centres that had suffered due to over-reliance on a single sector. It is all about rebuilding the community and creating a strong, thriving sense of place.

We can learn positive lessons from life during lockdown, such as the importance of community spirit. People are valuing convenience more and using local shops regularly, which is a good thing because it could strengthen our local centres. Covid-19 could well accelerate the downsizing and demise of department stores, but we will see their concessions coming back to the high street, along with more independent retailers.

Covid-19 has also helped re-emphasise that we are an innately social species and that people want to spend time together. Social distancing is just a point in time. Hopefully, people will not even be thinking about it in a year’s time.

Read about local high streets from Jan Kattein. See proposals for different high streets that were part of our Future Town Centres competition.

For more on architecture and the coronavirus and to see more ideas for rethinking our built environment see here


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