Despite research showing physical stores will account for £8 of every £10 to be spent in retail by 2025, we’re still perpetuating the notion that retail is dying. Retail has always existed in a state of Darwinian evolution. It’s adapt or get out of the way – we’re just seeing this play out at as a result of the pandemic in an accelerated rate and on a mass scale as the sector seeks to rebalance itself after years of procrastination.

As we emerge from this challenging year, the majority of us recognise some of the changes for the better; be it less commuting; more time with family; and shopping close to home that the pandemic has brought upon us. Company’s decisions to cut back on work space commitment, while bad for nearby shops and restaurants, presents opportunity for local retail and more mixed-use neighbourhoods to really come in to their own.

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Erik Mueller-Ali, SVP London, CRTKL

An agent in the evolution of retail will be the recent planning law reform in the UK, consolidating a large number of planning use classes into a single category, allowing for large scale repurposing of buildings without the need to planning consent. We are now no longer shackled to the concept, one building, and one use. The impact of this is far reaching on how we work, shop, and live. The convergence of this legislation change compounded with our behavioural changes spurred on by the pandemic will have a dramatic impact on neighbourhoods and high streets. There will be potential for them to become more self-sustainable and in many ways more personal to our needs, not those required by historic code – this will affect lease terms, with pop-ups and collaboration stores keeping the neighbourhood vibrant and exciting.

While this repurposing is just starting on the high street, we have already seen this transformation start to take shape in existing retail spaces. John Lewis recently announcing its intention to become a residential landlord, planning to build rental homes beside or above its Waitrose brands. The employee owned partnership is opting for the build-to-rent model on these sites, and also plans to kit out the homes with John Lewis branded furniture and fittings, thus expanding its influence into the everyday life of the resident.

In November, Brandon Stephens,  entrepreneur and founder of Tortilla, laid out his vision to reinvent former department store sites and convert them into hybrid spaces with workspace, meeting rooms, food halls, bars and cafés,  socialising space, and fitness and wellbeing facilities.  Instead of a homogenous concept rolled out across different cities he wants to provide ‘local operators and a recognition of what people there want and need.’

This re-purposing of spaces across the UK presents an innovative approach to addressing space, retail’s place within it and our changing needs as a society.  There have been discussions about planning flexibility when it comes to residential development as well. This is only the beginning of a wave of further reforms scheduled to come into force before the end of parliament (2024) which will liberalise rules around re-purposing, in turn stimulating growth in the creation of more homes. As a result, we can expect to see new neighbourhoods sustained by a fresh approach to living in the city with a lively and responsive mix of retail and leisure concepts.

In response to this we must look at the way retail is and will continue to evolve. Even pre-pandemic the purpose of a store changed; its mission is to nurture identity, connection and loyalty, not merely to distribute goods. As a three-dimensional representation of the brand, it informs and excites, bringing meaning to both real-world and online interactions.

Typically, most fit-outs aren’t suited to this, so we should be looking to optimise existing footprints as a starting point and considering new formats that allow stores to be nimble and dynamic. These are space that do more than shift season to season, we are creating flexible worlds that evolve from the morning to afternoon to evening, matching the rhythms and expectation of the user.

And flexibility is the order of the day, say goodbye to fixed structures bound by long leases and embrace a more fluid definition of retail. Pop-ups and retail residencies with modular stores and weekly rotations are on the rise. An effective way to mitigate risk and remain agile in an unstable climate, these allow brands to combat consumer fatigue, create partnerships and maintain engagement with trend-led timelier offerings.

Selfridges, as usual quick to innovate, reopens its store this week with ‘Market on The Mews’ converting outside Edwards Mews into a festive food market enticing shoppers back with a trifecta of fashion, food and festive offerings. Its London Flagship was also quick to address the pandemic cycling boom, with a bike shop residence at it corner shop that it created in partnership with tech firm Smartech.

Tech-enabled stores are improving service models and removing points of friction, whether by having outfits in your size ready and waiting for you when you walk in or allowing you to click and collect via a vending machine-style interface. For example, Burberry has recently opened one of the most stand-out immersive retail concepts of the year in Shenzhen in partnership with Tencent, the Chinese tech giant, and parent company of social media & e-commerce tool WeChat. Customers book in-store appointments, ask to try on items, contact customer assistants and even adjust their fitting room’s lighting and music – all within the Burberry WeChat mini-program, which acts as a digital concierge service.

While innovation enables convenience, safety and brand engagement, people must come first and sales personnel remain critical to the experience, with new technology freeing them up to play more of a personal shopper and brand advocate role. Prioritising and facilitating that human connection – giving your brand a human face – is still absolutely fundamental. 

With the continued evolution of our retail landscape, if you create spaces that bring people joy and make them feel good, the sales, offline and online, will come. The focus for bricks-and-mortar retail should be about re-configuring its place in our local high streets and new look neighbourhoods complementing online to create a complete brand experience. This is how we bring meaning back to retail and people back to our stores whatever they may look like in our changing world.

In retail, like every aspect of our lives, the pandemic has accelerated and amplified challenges that were already weighing us down. While the impact has been profound, history teaches us that challenging times reward those who act and our desire is unshakeable.

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