What are the key ingredients for a successful shopping area?

 —  Article by Iain Aitch
people in UK shopping centre
Image credit: Shutterstock

Today’s shopping areas in towns and cities across the UK are much more than a random collection of retailers.

For shoppers flitting between clothes stores, cafes and the latest pop-up, the focus is on what they need – or want – to buy. Yet the mix and position of shops can make or break their retail experience, and determine how frequently they return to the high street.

Even if the buildings have been there for over a century, the shops and restaurants that occupy them should ideally be part of a strategy, says James Brown, JLL’s Head of EMEA Research and Strategy. That’s why the most successful shopping streets are usually planned, honed and managed as much as any shopping centre.

Getting the mix right

“It’s not just about the right mix of shops, but we have identified eight key attributes that you need to consider for successful retail place-making,” says Brown.

The eight attributes that Brown refers to are economic fundamentals, connectivity, environment, diversity and vitality, dynamism and pro-activity, identity, responsibility and culture and heritage. However, there’s no one size fits all approach or pre-defined combination of these – it comes down to a complex blend of place, space, management and marketing.

“When it comes to the context of a city centre high street or out-of-town mall, those attributes will differ,” he says. “But all the attributes contribute to the success of retail spaces. Urban retail has got the economic fundamentals and invariably city centres are well-connected, have diversity and vitality, as well as museums and galleries that add vibrancy.”

Brown points to central London for good examples of areas that are holistically managed, often so effectively that you may not even notice the hand of management upon them, citing The Crown Estate, Cadogan and Shaftesbury as just some that do the job well.

Carnaby’s got a strong brand, as does Covent Garden, Regent Street and Marylebone High Street,” he says. “They’ve got strong identities, but they are also increasingly being marketed overseas as destinations. Sitting back and expecting your tenants to deliver over the long term is no longer good enough. Asset managers have to stay at the forefront of the changing retail sector.”

Some of this change has involved a surprising return to what may have seemed like an outmoded format, in the shape of the street market. But the revamped market has helped to drive footfall, with its homespun creative feel and surfeit of street food.

“The beauty of these more flexible concepts is that they can accommodate change and new concepts,” says Brown. “They offer the end user something different on a more frequent basis.”

The art of place-making

Such concepts feed into the much-vaunted art of place-making, which gives equal importance to what happens around shops and what happens inside them. Culture and heritage certainly play into that, but creating a pleasant environment that has a touch of edge, eccentricity or cool will also help attract the right crowd.

“Place-making is hugely important,” says Tim Vallance, JLL’s Head of Retail and Leisure, UK. “We’re scratching the surface of place-making in this country. We’re lucky in that we have had shopping since the 13th century and have these beautiful old towns, but the biggest area for growth is Asia, where they’ve had to start from scratch. A lot has gone on in California too.”

Vallance also acknowledges the search for cool playing a part in the ideal shopping area, especially in an age where almost everything is available to buy online. Instagramming your dinner may seem trivial, but he believes that it does matter.

“People want a visceral experience from their day out, whether that is shopping or eating,” he says. “If you haven’t produced something as a retailer or restauranteur that someone isn’t going to take a photograph of, you’re probably not appealing to the public.”

Modern spaces for modern times

The challenge for retailers is creating and managing a place where people want to spend time and money without making it seem like an artificial environment.

“People have always shared great, authentic experiences and places,” Vallance concludes. “Now they do that straight away through social media. You want to say you’ve discovered a really special artisan Italian place. You don’t want to be actively seen at the big chain if it is not cool.”

While there’s no magic formula to creating spaces which will appeal to everyone, by understanding what people want from a shopping area and working with the individual characteristics of each place, brands and retail property managers can provide a popular and vibrant shopping experience.

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