Making space for today’s consumer: how the old skill of placemaking is contributing to a new kind of retail

 Placemaking as a concept dates back to the 60s and 70s, when architects and planners started to look for ways to reconcile the boom in private commercial and residential property with the need for welcoming public spaces. Now that shopping can be done entirely online, a new phase of innovation is aiming to put retail at the heart of spaces that continue to act as focal points for the whole community.

The success of developments like Westfield in London has underscored the importance of a diverse experience offering leisure – including food and drink, entertainment and fitness – alongside the shopping. As well as these elements, the digitally savvy customer also expects to be able to move seamlessly between buying online and in-store.

Commercial property adviser CBRE recently released a report titled ‘Global Retail and Placemaking, which notes that for all the buzz around e-commerce, physical retail sales are consistently higher and more profitable across markets and geographies. According to the Office for National Statistics, 85% of UK retail sales in January were in-store. Retailers are realising that far from being a dying asset, brick-and-mortar is alive and brimming with new possibilities. 

Integration is the watchword – integration of use to appeal to locals, workers and visitors alike; and integration of technology, including social media and wi-fi. Indeed, two of the main drivers behind these new spaces are also at the heart of the trend towards omnichannel: how to give consumers who don’t have to leave the sofa to shop a reason to, and how to extend that online experience into the physical one.  

In France, the Val d’Europe outside Paris has been cited as a strong example of weaving digital elements into the overall offer. Innovations include digital ‘totems’ to guide visitors through the complex via their smartphones, along with regular interactive kiosks. 

Last October, one of our trusted partners, John Lewis, opened a flagship store in Leeds’ Victoria Gate – a recently completed 170,000 sq ft retail development. The John Lewis store is the focal point of the new centre, which draws its architectural inspiration from city’s 19th century arcades. Creative use of visual merchandising and 3D graphics in the store itself invite customers to discover different sections for themselves rather than be directed to them.

Our own relationship with John Lewis contributes to its success as a truly omnichannel retailer. Through our retail finance solutions, they’re able to offer their customers a range of options for spreading the cost of purchases – something more and more retailers are finding is vital to maintaining footfall in the face of online competition.

Victoria Gate’s early success highlights just how important placemaking will be in the future of physical retail. As one of the developers commented when it opened, retail is “often not seen as cool by architects but architecture can do something with it”. I believe times are changing and that retail will increasingly be seen as a prize opportunity for architects to create a new kind of public space – one that offers today’s consumers an experience that all the convenience of shopping online just can’t match.

Gerald Grimes is the Managing Director of Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance. For more information, visit


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