Rethinking retail must start with people

Rethinking retail must start with people: Get ‘people purpose’ right and ‘place purpose’ will follow

The retail development boom which has been sustained across western Europe for decades is slowing. In the UK it has virtually stopped. The market is generally over spaced. So the property market dialogue is evolving. The next decade will have different priorities. Significant amounts of retail space will be demolished whilst millions of square feet will need to be reimagined. The market is now talking endlessly about re-purposing. To many this simply means a change of use and in some cases this may be sufficient, but care needs to be taken to ensure this is not just a thin veneer masking an unresolved deeper problem.

‘People purpose’

The best approach to defining the future of places, be they ideas at sketch stage or more established destinations requiring reinvention, is to begin with people. The keyword here is ‘purpose’ and not re-purposing; the latter comes later. Purpose is about the fundamental use of a place. Why should anyone want to come to it? How will it make you feel and how will it be remembered? This leads to the concept of ‘people purpose’. If you get this right, ‘place purpose’ will follow.

By thinking about the role of people first, therefore, decisions about form and function can be made from a more informed position, which will lead to significantly greater success and longevity.
In the retail sector, the balance of power has shifted firmly from investors and brands to consumers, but this major shift is also being replicated in other sectors of the property world.

Broadgate in the City of London, conceived over 30 years ago, demonstrated the benefits of property development based upon the perspective of the people for whom the space was being created. In that case, research showed lower rise buildings, greater ground floor activation, larger floorplates aiding communication and better external public spaces would be more attractive to employees, thus increasing productivity and reduce churn.

Current owner British Land is now enhancing and diversifying the overall mix, including attracting food hall operator Eataly, boutique cinema Everyman, and adding more retail and food and beverage.
Our experience at P-Three from working on similar large-scale urban mixed-use projects is that by creating an exciting, activated and relevant ground floor plan for people to enjoy and stay, you create additional value for the upper floors, be they offices or residential.

Intangible experiences
The ‘people first’ approach is also being taken in the intangible experiences being added to places, and the way in which those experiences are being communicated to people. Helsinki, for example, is piloting a sustainable city guide that helps visitors and residents seek out lower-impact shops, restaurants, leisure uses and other services. The City is encouraging some of the venues to report their progress, from how they source their energy to the proportion of vegetarian and vegan food options on their menus. This feeds into a rating system for consumers that helps them make more informed choices.
This is just one example from a much bigger movement in which the consumer is the driver of change. In February this year, TrendWatching published a report called The Future of Experiences, looking at what people want from in-person experiences. One of three trends they identified was that consumers increasingly want a sense of belonging and connection as a vital balance to the rising levels of screen time and dependence on devices. TrendWatching’s key conclusion was that “consumers will embrace innovative shared spaces and in-person experiences that help win the growing battle against social atomization and promote social wellbeing”.

An exciting aspect of this is consumers will look to physical places to connect them with people that share similar values, aspirations and ideals. This sense of connection is reflected in recent retail innovations. This summer, The North Face opened an 8,000 sq ft store in New York that heralds its new retail strategy, which focuses on sustainability, community and celebrating the brand’s heritage. The North Face has pledged that by the end of 2024 every one of its stores will include space for educational and community-building initiatives and activities. Doing so will not only bring their brand to life, but establish the stores’ places in the communities in which they are located.

In all these examples, people are being put first by progressive owners, developers, occupiers, architects and brand builders. They are tangible and successful demonstrations of what can be achieved if people come first. In fact, by starting with people the purpose is defined and consequently the places are better, more engaging, more durable and in all probability more valuable.