How to save the UK’s failing retail schemes

Throwing a mix of uses at an outdated retail scheme won’t save it. The collapse of several household names in the retail sector over the past few years has highlighted the way in which our shopping habits have changed markedly since the 1990s. Vacant retail units are becoming a much more common sight in shopping centres and on high streets across the UK, paving the way for a diversification of uses, including office, residential, leisure and F&B. In this paper, Chapman Taylor Main Board Director Adrian Griffiths argues that, while providing a strong mix of uses is crucial to the health of our town and city centres, throwing in other uses won’t always save a failing retail scheme.

10% of retail units in the UK are unoccupied

A major realignment is taking place in UK retail

There are currently 50,000 vacant retail units in the UK – 10% of the total. The recent Grimsey Review (a study of the high street conducted by former Wickes and Iceland Chief Executive Bill Grimsey) has predicted that 100,000 UK shop units could be empty within a decade, with perhaps 70,000 jobs lost.

Consumers are spending in rapidly changing ways, and the UK retail industry needs to be aware of how to meet the challenge that presents – younger generations, for example, are choosing to use their disposable income on experiences (which can be shared on social media) rather than commodities.

Retail environments, be they shopping centres, retail parks or urban high streets, are facing a period of transformative upheaval, and operators and developers are increasingly looking at the potential of adding a mix of uses to occupy former retail spaces now left vacant. However, sometimes it is simply not possible to do that successfully, and a complete redesign will be necessary to restore the social and economic fortunes of the retail element and the wider area.

Leisure and F+B is only part of the solution

Retail can survive and thrive

None of this is to suggest that retail is going to disappear from our community – there are a number of reasons why there will always be a strong retail presence, including that:

1. People still enjoy the social experience of shopping.

2. Customers want human interaction when they buy things – technology has its limits in terms of responding with nuance to questions and requests.

3. A physical presence on the high street or a commercial centre offers strategic advantages – providing a network of brand experience showrooms and pick-up points.

4. A physical presence advertises the brand to passers-by, who might then pop in, whereas an internet presence is reliant on foreknowledge, search engine optimisation or sheer chance.

Owners and operators need to work with tenants to ensure that the retail element of a mixed-use scheme or high street is providing an experience for customers. This must be done at all levels of the retail narrative, from early engagement via online browsing and external points of entry such as car park entrances through to providing a sense of arrival, an interactive visual narrative and excellent customer service. Important elements may include:

  • A focused, uncluttered, easily navigable and visually attractive web presence.
  • An efficient and well-planned order and delivery service.
  • An attractive exterior, with a window offering which draws people in (perhaps incorporating LED displays).
  • An architectural and interior design which fits with the overall brand
  • A ‘story’, through which customers are guided through the offers.
  • Knowledgeable, mannerly and well-presented customer service representatives.
  • Motivated, well-paid and well-treated staff, who will provide the still-crucial human face of the business.
  • A move towards treating the shop as a showroom, not a storage unit, with products held more cheaply off-site and delivered to order.
  • Good use of digital technology, in the form of swipe-screen displays, Virtual Reality immersion, and easy-to-use order kiosks.
  • Establishing brand loyalty by adding social elements such as club space and member-exclusive benefits.

Once elements like those are in place, an additional mix of uses will help to increase footfall, customer dwell-time and spending, as well as providing the vibrancy which attracts others to visit. However, a successful urban high street or mixed-use environment will always need a foundation of well-considered, resilient retail provision.

Knocked down and started again: Trinity Leeds, Cabot Circus

Filling vacant retail units is not straightforward

The retail element needs to be well-thought-through regardless of the other uses incorporated, and the ability of the latter to make up for deficiencies in the retail offer should not be overstated. Retailers must keep ahead of the rapidly changing market, particularly the challenge presented by online retailers, and anticipate trends in consumer preferences.

Empty retail units have a knock-on effect, subtracting from the dynamism of the surrounding area. High streets and shopping centres which have a substantial number of empty units look run down, and start to become depressing. A high street which becomes more and more dominated by charity shops, vape stores and takeaways is a high street which is in need of emergency intervention.

Filling vacant retail units with leisure and high-quality F&B options is one possible solution. The problem is that the market can only accommodate so much leisure and F&B before demand becomes insufficient to make continued reliance upon them sustainable. Indeed, the F&B market has already peaked. Sometimes, to be frank, existing developments simply cannot be saved because they lack the appropriate flexibility to allow successful repurposing – knocking down and starting again will be necessary in those cases.

Political will is needed

Retail does not operate in a vacuum. Political commitment is also needed, at both central and local government level – they need to commit to backing the transformation of our urban and suburban centres in a considered way because the market alone cannot be relied upon to create sustainable and attractive community environments, particularly because many crucial components for a successful social and economic ecosystem are not profit drivers. At the moment, local authorities are the only entities buying failing secondary centres, and further government support is required to fund what is a desperately necessary urban regeneration process. One suggestion has been the creation of local town centre commissions to examine and report on the way forward for each urban centre.

The business rates system is also in urgent need of overhaul, currently acting as a bar to regeneration in struggling areas. Refocusing the burden of business property taxation to bigger businesses, including online retailers, and more prestigious locations could make a vital difference to our secondary town centres. If the political will is there, obstacles to the creation of new and successful urban centres, including successful retail elements, can be removed and a holistic, long-term strategy can be implemented.

Southgate and Princesshay fully mixed-use environments

Designing for a thriving retail future

Leaving things as they are is no longer an option. Shopping centre owners need to assess their positions and decide whether their assets are worth what they once were. In many cases, remodelling will be required if those centres are to retain their market position and play a continued role as town centre community hubs. A sticking-plaster approach of adding other uses to a badly conceived or outdated retail scheme will not save that development in the long run. A two-pronged approach involving a well-considered mix of uses underpinned by strong and contextually appropriate retail provision will be necessary to establish the foundations for a revitalised and future-proofed development.

Chapman Taylor has long advocated the benefits of providing 24-hour, integrated environments in which an excellent retail offer sits alongside leisure, F&B, residential office, hospitality and community functions – the latter including health and wellbeing services, cultural attractions and educational space. We have designed many schemes in accordance with this approach, such as Whitefriars in Canterbury, Princesshay in Exeter, Cabot Circus in Bristol and Southgate in Bath.

Gone are the days of providing just an ‘in-and-out’, standalone retail environment – increasingly, there is a desire for an all-day destination which caters for all age groups and backgrounds. First and foremost, however, we must ensure that we get the retail component right, so that the accompanying mix of uses can have the maximum benefit for the scheme and the community as a whole.

About the Author

Adrian Griffiths (BA (Hons) Dip Arch RIBA MA Urban Design FRSA)

Main Board Director, UK

Adrian joined Chapman Taylor in 1986 and was promoted to the Main Board in 1998. As an architect and urban design specialist, he is recognised internationally for his expertise in the masterplanning of major complex mixed-use developments which are key drivers in the regeneration of our town and city centres.

Adrian is conscious of the fact that the developments we build today create the societies of tomorrow, recognising the responsibility the profession has in influencing the quality of people’s lives. He regularly speaks at conferences and prepares papers which promote the benefits of mixed-use developments as a sustainable model for the long term. Adrian leads the Concept Design Team in the UK.

Areas of expertise:

Urban design / Masterplanning / Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

Adrian entra a far parte di Chapman Taylor nel 1986 e si unisce al Main Board nel 1998. Come architetto e specialista in progettazione urbanistica, è conosciuto a livello internazionale per la sua esperienza nei masterplan di grandi complessi multi-funzionali, che sono i principali autori nella rigenerazione dei nostri centri urbani.

Adrian è consapevole del fatto che le zone di sviluppo urbano che oggi costruiamo creano le società di domani, riconoscendo la responsabilità che la professione ha nell'influenzare la qualità della vita delle persone. Adrian partecipa abitualmente a conferenze e scrive articoli che promuovono i benefici degli spazi multifunzionali come modello sostenibile a lungo termine. Adrian guida il Concept Design Team nel Regno Unito.

Aree di competenza:

Urban design / Masterplanning / Mixed use / Retail / Leisure

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