Comment: Why retail parks attract investment by John Morgan of Leonard Design

As the importance of the customer �experience� grows, the retail parks of yesterday are changing dramatically. In an increasingly competitive market where retailers need to work hard to give customers a reason to make the journey into a store, retail parks are beginning to attract significant investment in the UK as developers realise their potential.

Historically, retail parks have lacked the ability to create a positive environmental experience, with some even being described as sheds around a large car park. However, many developers are now seeing the potential of investing in higher quality architecture to change the perception of retail parks.

At Leonard Design, we�ve been involved with projects in Dubai where developers are benefitting from transforming retail parks into mixed-use schemes with more leisure, residential and hotel offerings due to their accessible out-of-town locations. This thinking and investment is now coming to light in Europe and the UK.

Retail parks are also gaining from providing a frictionless click and collect experience allowing customers to purchase online, park for free at their convenience and collect in-store as well as enjoy the added retail and leisure offerings.

We�re in a significant transition period where retail parks are evolving to meet changing customer needs. Several large units with a substantial parking area is historically what one would expect from a typical retail park. Now what we�re seeing is retail parks offering much smaller units to provide a greater variety of retailers in one place, with a focus on providing a 360 degree customer experience. Convenience is key, so offering visitors the opportunity to shop, dine, relax and even workout at a retail park is important if they are to really see the value in visiting the space.

Customers also need a reason to leave their homes and be offered something which is more appealing than the temptation of e-commerce, to simply purchase from the comfort of their armchair. Feel and touch is key to driving this forward and offering a point of difference for customers to visit a store for an experience they cannot get online.

This is all part and parcel of how retail in the physical world has adapted to compete with the draw of online shopping. We know that click and collect is a huge selling point for retail parks but, as proven with a number of recently redeveloped spaces, if you can find the balance between a variety of retailers, click and collect options, and focus on the customer �experience� then a park can ultimately thrive.

Many critics proclaimed the death of retail parks but we have seen that if developers can get the environment right then there is huge opportunity. With big retailers such as Toys R Us and Maplin filing for administration - and more recently Next reporting it is enduring its toughest period for 25 years - this shows how hard retailers are having to work to offer a point of difference. This is why we�re now seeing much smaller and varied units at retail parks with a focus on the customer experience as whole � a movement away from the much larger traditional units.

More varied retail is certainly the way to go. Free parking and click and collect options are both certainly strengths of retail parks, but not enough to draw crowds.

More leisure such as cinemas, gyms or even quirky coffee shops and eateries are all now part and parcel of the retail park experience. The real change being brought in by developers is the ability to offer a mix of uses including residential apartments and hotels. Again, away from the busy city centre locations this offers a point of difference for residents and potential hotel guests.

At a time when there is much reported doom and gloom in the retail sector, it is great to see how significant retail developments are coming to fruition in UK and European projects. In the world of architecture, we find ourselves at the heart of many trends where towns and cities learn from each other.

This is particularly true of how the retail park landscape is changing and we predict that in 2018 and beyond, we�re going to see even more developers realising the investment opportunities available within a retail park. Expect to see even more diverse spaces popping up where you can eat, drink, relax, workout, unwind, stay and even live in these prime out-of-town locations.

John Morgan is director at Leonard Design Architects


What’s Hot on Essential Retail?