Is a focus on the public realm and transport hubs key to boosting physical stores asks John Morgan

Regardless of technological advancements or market changes, the retail sector must always adhere to the rule of putting the customer first.

In order to grow and develop, retail leaders must think like the customer and put themselves in their shoes to constantly improve the customer experience and ultimately drive sales.

We keep getting told: ‘the high street is dead’ so what should we do? My answer is simple: get more people living in towns and city centres but give them a reason to do so by offering greater quality of life and convenience so there isn’t a need for them to go elsewhere. 

Naturally people shop locally when it’s on their doorstep – it becomes habit. A town or city centre is no different – you can start to build a community of people, services and experiences as you would in a village. However, the services need to be different in every situation to suit the people living there. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, which property developers need to realise. It isn’t a simple solution of putting five popular coffee shops and chains into a centre, it’s about understanding the DNA of the people and the place and creating something unique and relevant around that.

The key is to understand your audience and provide for it well rather than to come up with the next big exciting invention. For example, there is a strong interest in the pet care sector at the moment – with Pets at Home recording a rise of 6.3 per cent in group revenue to £237.2m for the 2018 Christmas period when compared with the same time in the previous year - which means despite economic uncertainty, our pets are important to us. So ask those questions: is there a need for veterinary care, puppy training, and dog walking within the area? It doesn’t matter what people are interested in, it’s about understanding their current needs and being bold enough to change things.

Public realm can unify a place. When you’ve got lots of different landlords and owners, it can be very difficult for an area to feel like it’s one holistic place. By thinking public realm first, shops benefit from an overall improved public experience as you flow through the mix of leisure, retail and commercial spaces. A good example of this is in Sheffield’s Heart of the City II project, which is a masterplan to transform the city centre offering improved retail, commercial spaces and public realm. In Sheffield, the investment in public realm has helped to make the place feel coherent – not one building ownership stands alone because there is a holistic feeling to the city.

A key area impacting the future of physical retail is how we’re seeing more and more people getting into cycling. This is evident in places like Copenhagen, where architects work alongside a dedicated cycling consultant who is part of the design team to ensure infrastructure and facilities for cyclists are included from the outset. This is very different from the UK and something that is of growing importance in retail design as fewer people want to use cars.    

Another example of learning from European countries is in Beeston, Nottinghamshire, where Broxtowe Borough Council has understood exactly what is needed in the town. Using the European-like tram system as a hub for developing around, this means people can access everything they need via the public transport infrastructure. The masterplan for the site is 50% housing so people will be living in the town and using the new restaurants, cinema and gymnasium as their local amenities which has an overall positive impact on the regional economy.

Kronen Vanlose
Kronen Vanlose

Another example of public realm being at the heart of retail development is in Vanløse, Copenhagen. Kronen was a part-built shopping centre which had stalled due to the recession but was then saved. The challenge was to remodel the part-built design, improve the planned scheme, and to redefine the development into a unique hub of residential, retail, and leisure space for the whole community to enjoy.

The proposed plans included developing a mix of family residential, affordable homes and student accommodation above the building. The key element of this project used the public realm to integrate the residential spaces with the surrounding area so the homes didn’t feel as if they were sat on top of a shopping centre. This included utilising an existing public square which incorporated steps leading to a dining terrace and then a staircase from the dining terrace to the new residential area.

So, my solution for retail design in 2019: it’s a combination of making use of your assets, local authorities, developers and architects working together for the best of the region but ultimately, getting more people into the town or city centre will bring physical retail back to life.   

John Morgan is a director at Leonard Design Architects

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