Reconfigured space

Air Design’s Alan Robertson talks curating vacant spaces in a thoughtful way

Retail has reopened but in many places across the UK it is a shell of its former self, with high street giants Debenhams and Top Shop among the biggest casualties, leaving visible holes in the retail landscape. Landlords must now start thinking of curating their spaces into unique destinations to meet the changing needs of customers as they re-enter these places.

“Although the number of vacant spaces increased, the demands for unique social experiences in these spaces have simultaneously increased alongside it,” says Alan Robertson, CEO of placemaking experts Air Design.

The best candidate for these empty units, he suggests, is local business: “Rather than landlords renting spaces to a mass-market retail chain for a fixed number of years, landlords should take a more flexible approach of having more short-term leases to suit smaller, local businesses.”

Research published by Mastercard during the final quarter of 2020 stated that over 65% of people in the UK founded a new appreciation and preference for using local businesses. More specifically, the younger generation are especially invested in supporting more independent retailers with 63% of 18–34-year-olds stating they actively seek out locally owned businesses when shopping.

In comparison to chain retailers, local businesses offer a more personal, tailored approach with each one having been on a unique journey to create their idea, product or service – a story that consumers are wanting to invest in and be a part of.

“With the importance of community values rapidly increasing among consumers over the last year, it is therefore important to bring in these local businesses for a fresh and unique offering. This will in turn bring in a higher and more diverse demographic as you are bringing in local flavour in a mix of standard retail chains,” says Robertson.

The desire for F&B-led experiences has been on the rise for several years, with spaces for food retailers doubling from 7% to 15% in 2019 and are expected to occupy 25% of gross leasable area in 2025. Robertson thinks that landlords should offer opportunities for internationally inspired food start-ups and local businesses which provide a diverse mixture of locally sourced food and drinks.

“We are social animals and miss the human interactions we have been deprived of for the past year,” says Robertson. “Curating a unique social hub within a large shopping centre will attract and ultimately build upon the development of a dynamic community environment.”

Key to the success of the future of retail destinations, he thinks, will be curating mixed-use spaces, bringing together dining, shopping, entertainment, and living all in one space.

“Consumers prefer places which emphasise community values by including elements of ‘blended living,’ social walkable spaces such as biophilic areas, new entertainment areas combining physical and digital experiences, residential living and office areas,” he says. “They want a varied sensory palette of choice and experience.”

Landlords curating vacant spaces in a thoughtful way will act as a creative catalyst to reconnect communities after a year of distance, to support smaller local businesses and to create unique and exciting experiences to meet our new evolving social needs. “These tailored plans will in turn attract and branch out to new and existing customers to increase footfall, revenue and ultimately asset value,” adds Robertson.

This was first published in Retail Destination Fortnightly. Click here to subscribe.

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