Retailer’s Therapy roundtable: Future-proofing for a volatile and uncertain market

19th December 2018

Retailer’s Therapy roundtable: Future-proofing for a volatile and uncertain market

There has been many column inches dedicated to the future of retail recently, with headlines such as ‘High Street crisis: Shops closing at a rate of '14 per day'. We decided to host a roundtable that would bring a number of leading voices together to discuss the future of retail and, of particular interest to us, how design can help future-proof bricks and mortar retail in such a volatile market.

Sheppard Robson’s retail lead Claire Haywood reflects on the conversation in a recent piece in Building magazine (the full article can be read here and below). Claire writes with caution about what the sector faces but stresses that it is not all doom and gloom; she highlights opportunities for how thoughtful retail design ideas can bring fresh perspectives on the future of the high street and shopping centres.

Whilst recognising that there is just too much physical retail space, Claire’s piece does identify that the demise of big retailers will actually present opportunities to repair our high streets. This revolves around thinking laterally about how retail design can converge with a mix of uses that are all woven together with high-quality public spaces.

Is the demise of some big retailers an opportunity to repair our high streets?

By Claire Haywood, partner and retail lead at Sheppard Robson

We recently brought together occupiers, funders, developers, planning consultants and designers for our Retailers’ Therapy event – a title that hints at the mood in which many are currently reflecting on the sector. When planning a retail roundtable, there is a risk that – amidst the media onslaught – the conversation spirals into despair, with the demise of high-profile retailers becoming a bleak forecast for all of our high streets and shopping centres. This was far from the conversation we actually had: although change is clearly in the air and cautionary tales were told, there was also a clear sense of opportunity.

Firstly, when looking at the distress in the retail sector, it’s perhaps important to highlight an obvious fact – there’s just too much physical retail space. The world has changed and, with it, so have the habits and psychology of shoppers. Research into the extent of the oversupply, coupled with an understanding of what people want and what communities need, can free up the conversation around retail. This change in perspective can push us to think more laterally about weaving together a rich mix of mutually supportive uses.

The disappearance of numerous household brands has not just created holes in our high streets but has also, behind the visible retail space, left ‘gap sites’ in the surrounding townscape. These voids were once filled with deep-plan buildings, now mostly over-sized and outdated, which address the high street but, from other sides, turn their back on the town.

Instead of thinking of how to swap retail spaces like-for-like, more developers, architects and councils are thinking of ways of repurposing these ‘gap sites’ to weave together retail, residential, workplace and community amenities, which are anchored around high-quality public spaces. The civic quality is the pivotal factor in this reappraisal of retail, acting as a ‘glue’ that – when done thoughtfully and well-managed – can help bind retail together with other uses.

We have been commissioned to work on a project in North London that does just this, replacing a large department store with a residential-led, mixed-use project. The scheme will shape seven buildings around a new public space at the heart of the scheme, bringing together a 134-key hotel and 197 homes. This will still include retail and restaurant units that address the high-street but also invite passers-by into a courtyard, which will be animated by different retail and leisure spaces, as well as workspace for local, emerging businesses.

But this kind of reimagining of the high street and shopping centres is not a prescriptive formula and involves an understanding of what people want and the town or city needs. We can push this reappraisal of the high street further than just including homes, workspace and leisure facilities; there is also an opportunity to incorporate important community services within the repurposing and restructuring of major retail developments.

In times when retail was king, community assets were pushed to the periphery of some towns to maximise space for shoppers. But is this an opportunity to bring healthcare services and council offices back into town centres? These staple civic facilities could be a useful neighbour for retail, positioning leisure and community services together to create a density of activity.

Not every town needs multiple department stores – they are a product of a homogeny that has characterised our retail spaces for too long. If we get this reappraisal right, the old vision for retail will be replaced by fresh perspectives on how to engage and attract people in a way that also enriches our town centres.

Peter Dye

Director of Communications