Retail centres: redefining purpose in the digital age

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A swarm of global trends are causing retail centres to change the role they play in people’s lives. It turns out that an old concept called ‘placemaking’ - which focusses not just on physical spaces but the human interactions within them – could provide fresh optimism.  Let’s take a look at how an emphasis on people, place and connection is helping ailing retail centres find a new sense of purpose and relevance in the digital age.


Shopping as an experience

Starbucks was one of the first retailers to realise people would happily pay a hefty premium for a cup of coffee just to ‘experience’ the ambiance of its coffee shop.  This in-store ‘experience’ is central to the success of Apple and many others, too. Plenty of shops now entice people through their doors with new ‘attractions’, demonstrations, curated talks, showcases and much more. It’s about creating truly vibrant and dynamic places where people come, time and time again to experience something new.

Entertaining and engaging venues

And we’re starting to see this philosophy spill out into the broader high-street. For example along Redchurch Street in east London, you now have a varied mix; J Crew, Club Monaco, APC and Mast Brothers, which is a Brooklyn-based chocolate manufacturer. The latter have brought their craftmanship to a production and retail space on the high street, which is as much about the theatre of making, as it is about selling. It’s brimming with character and energy and it offers consumers a much more varied and engaging shopping experience than your typical high street.

Purposeful retail destinations

Another recent phenomenon is the emergence of shopping areas that are based on a specific purpose and devoted to certain experiences, such as food and wellness for example. Until recently food courts were simply a place to refuel so people could get back to shopping. Now great food markets and other amenities are becoming the key attractions and we’re likely to see other thematic shopping areas develop in line with the latest consumer fads.

A different kind of customer

Some people will probably always prefer the interaction that comes from the real world rather than the online one. New data tells us that two thirds of retail spend growth is coming from the over 55s, and the purple pound (spend by people with a disability) is worth £250 billion to the economy. Naturally companies are thinking about how to make their physical shops and retail spaces more appealing to these groups – with extra seating, quiet corners, trained customer service teams and so forth.

The heart and soul of place

To cement their place in society, leading retailers – especially out of town supermarkets are forging greater links – and loyalty – with surrounding communities. Some are even transitioning into a community centre of sorts. For example Sainsbury’s broke new ground by giving GPs free space to set up in-store surgeries while M&S has just launched its own community transformation programme.

A place in the future

According to Colin Burnet, a Director in JLL’s Retail Research team, in future physical retail space will be used in different, more enriched ways and even the most basic of retail venues will need to embed flexibility into their mix, and create closer links with the local community, for instance.

Placemaking with its ethos centred on people, place and connection is without doubt helping retail centres rediscover their sense of purpose in the digital age. To draw people offline and in-store, we’ll see more retail centres play up the aspects that internet shopping can’t provide, such as the real experiences, the human touches, and importantly, the social element.

Article written by Laura Jockers in JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services team.

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