While some high streets are losing their relevance others are being transformed into community-centric destinations. Solutions like more effective street management, lease restructuring and designing localized ecosystems are driving the revival.
Looking at two of London’s most popular shopping districts – Oxford and Regent Street, respectively – paints different pictures of the state of the high street. Drapers reports Oxford Street surpassed the UK’s national average vacancy rate at 16.9 per cent – an almost 5 per cent increase from 2019, having lost crucial anchor stores like Topshop and Forever 21. This presents a grim prognosis for in-person retail. If one of London’s most renowned shopping areas isn’t currently faring well, then where is?
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Assessing that requires a closer inspection, says Lara Marrero, principal and global retail practice area leader at Gensler: ‘We need to look beyond the headlines, at cause and effect. The headlines were just stating: “Vacancies, closures, retail is collapsing.” But in fact, retail is operating more efficiently, and brands are getting smarter about how to cater for their communities.’ Indeed, the high street isn’t faring as poorly as the panic would suggest. Only a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, Regent Street’s vacancy rate is a much lower 14 per cent, as of January 2023. The avenue’s unified management by The Crown Estate, its pedestrianization and dynamic offer are all contributing factors.
Toward a meaningful footprint
Retailers are in search of locations that can guarantee enough meaningful foot traffic. Areas that are not attractive to consumers are less sought after by brands who opt to make the big investment in going – or staying – bricks-and-mortar. It’s not that physical retail is doomed, Marrero explains, but that brands are becoming more selective in where they make those investments.
Regent Street’s sidewalks were widened to reclaim space from traffic and planters. Trees and benches were added to improve the pedestrian experience.
Two-thirds of retailers said they wanted to open more stores in 2022, with 50 per cent of retailers in search of better locations for their physical stores and 48 per cent noting a preference for the stir of popular pedestrian high streets, research from Woods Bagot finds. They’re looking for better quality locations – high-profile areas that align with their target demographics. Marrero echoes this: ‘If you’re a retailer, why would you want 20 stores if you could move everything into three stores and capture the same catchment on a leaner operating budget?’
High streets aren’t born, they’re made
The bottom line in real estate is location. But locations aren’t just born, they’re curated and managed to become attractive to consumers, changing in response to those that frequent them. The current structure of retail management makes collective evolution a challenge: retail space is typically owned by many different landlords instead of one entity. Finding and keeping tenants is the main motivation for landlords, and fractured ownership can lead to a homogenous, static retail offer.
Restructuring leasing is one method that can help prevent stagnation. The current system is outdated, thinks Marrero. ‘We’ve got to think differently about leasing on the high street. Contracts are signed on an eight-, ten-, 20-year lease.’ A mix of short and long-term contracts ensures a dynamic street, according to Leanne Catterall, customer partnership director of retail and leisure at The Crown Estate. The company manages significant real estate holdings in London’s West End in areas like Regent Street and St. James. ‘We complement our long-term leases with short-term pop-ups that add to the diversity of the area and attract a new range of visitors at specific points in the year,’ Catterall says.
The Vogue x Snapchat: Redefining the Body show used augmented reality to explore the convergence of digital and physical fashion. Temporary pop-up exhibitions, like the one that ran on Regent Street, create a dynamic offer.
‘As a community grows, the retail offer needs to change to stay relevant,’ notes Marrero. ‘With this current construct, the high street is forced to stay the same.’ A street manager works together with landlords and brands to not only improve occupancy rates but ensure the longevity of the high street by curating attractive offers and activations to consumers. At The Crown Estate, street management is a combination of asset management, collaboration with customers and consulting key stakeholders and community groups. ‘Consumer trends are constantly evolving, and we need to be flexible and agile and work closely with our customers through current and future challenges, like creating more experiential and purposeful retail and leisure experiences,’ explains Catterall.
‘The destination is the street, not the shops’
But creating a truly community-centric and experience-oriented retail street isn’t solely about shops. ‘Rather than simply selling products, retail streets really endeavour to make the best use of every part of the space they occupy,’ says Christopher Lye, principal of Woods Bagot. ‘Firstly, you must consider the nuances of the community you’re designing for – because no two are the same,’ he continues. ‘Before any good design can come into being, we have to account for how the community uses a space, how that might be improved, and who these people are.’
This process is multi-dimensional because different user groups occupy the high street at any given time, and their unique needs should be targeted. This could mean anything from improving pedestrianized areas and incorporating play and relaxation spaces to restoring historical features to strengthen the street’s context. ‘None of these decisions overtly impact sales but they influence the greater purpose: creating a quality destination,’ says Lye. ‘This approach demands systematic thinking at the urban level considering the needs of all users, not just those who are shopping.’
Cover and above: Formerly a ‘snack street’, Woods Bagot converted an area at the InPoint mall in Shanghai to accommodate a mixture of retail, food and beverage and other activations. The creation of public space makes the area attractive to a wider target group.
‘In-between’ spaces – zones that sit between anchor stores and destinations like parks or pop-ups – also greatly contribute to an area’s ambience. Lye says they depend on the community: ‘Maybe there’s a performance space, external food and beverage areas or simply room for a scenic pause.’ And, says Catterall, ‘Taking a holistic approach to an area like Regent’s Street or St James, you can see how details like storefronts to street decoration contribute to the character and identity of the place. It’s about investing in the whole ecosystem of the community to make the area more attractive, accessible, inclusive and diverse.’ After all, more time spent in the store translates to an increase in sales – by 1.3 per cent, the Woods Bagot research found.
Ultimately, creating community-centric, responsive retail destinations is about looking at the bigger picture. ‘You need to design for time well spent, not just the act of consumption,’ says Lye. ‘The destination is the street, not the shops.’
Originally source from Frameweb
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