From big box to small box retailing – what Boxpark can teach the high street

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 By James Taylor, Egremont Group.

Something is emerging in the old industrial areas, an exciting idea that is challenging the High Street and injecting the fun back into retail. The exact opposite of big box retailing, Boxpark, a food and retail park made out of refitted shipping containers, could be the challenger brand that reignites consumer passion. Having recently opened a third location in London the concept is growing. So, what exactly are they doing to attract weary consumers that the high street should take note of?

Lesson one – make it fun

How do you inspire someone on a wet, cold, Saturday afternoon to come to your store, engage with your products and spend money? Make it fun!

Footfall is one of the biggest challenges to physical retailers. Boxpark Shoreditch drives footfall by inviting its varied audiences to “Eat. Drink. Shop. Play”. This is destination retailing at its best. Boxpark has created a fun place to kill time, with a variety of food and drink on offer as well as themed events that engage with a wide-ranging audience. Recent events include book signings, kids’ classes, live music concerts or discos. Once at a location the food stalls and micro retailers have a captive audience. Visitors that popped in for a drink may end up grabbing a bite and discovering a new brand or product they simply must have. It’s an experience, not a hard sell, and definitely not a chore.

High street retailers can apply similar ideas. Farmers markets prove popular in UK market towns because people enjoy the experience, the same is true of the street fairs used in US towns. Tradition retail outlets can only change their window displays to attract attention, how much more exciting is it if the whole street is closed off and a band is playing? Platforms for live music from local bands or organised community events could provide customers with the reason they need to visit the high street again. What about events in store? Fashion shows of new collections are popular and department stores certainly have the space. Some have trialled events with skincare bloggers but these are one off events rather than an expected activity. By making the store a destination customers are more likely to buy while they are enjoying the experience.

Lesson two – make it affordable

Rent and Business rates are the most common complaint of the independent high street retailer. 

Boxpark, by using old shipping containers for their retail units, make retail environments small and affordable for the budding retail entrepreneur. Their literature indicates that a typical unit costs £1,000 a week for rent, rates and utilities in Shoreditch central London.

This relative affordability encourages new and niche retailers to take a chance. In a world where online shopping is becoming the norm, it gives these brands a physical space to showcase their products at a low price point. They can focus on a small key range while building an experience for their customer base. If certain items are not popular they can swap them out quickly and trial new items. With rates like this a retailer can build up a customer base and popularity before moving to a bigger environment once they are more established, or simply deciding that a physical retail space isn’t for them. The financial risk is minimised encouraging new and exciting ideas.

This flexibility simply doesn’t exist in the high street, where an outdated financial model services locations that are large, expensive and difficult to reinvent. Perhaps there is a lesson here, and the high street could adapt by investigating how empty retail spaces could be shared, sub-let or diversified to increase flexibility for retailers. Why should traditional department stores close their upper floors, why not rent them out using a ‘concession’ model? As footfall decreases it becomes harder and harder to rent out vacant shops. Vacant shops lead to ghost high streets and a vicious cycle is created. Fewer brands could afford the rent so retailers left, lack of physical retailers pushed consumers towards online offerings…the decline continues. New ideas are needed.

Lesson three – make it personal

Imagine instead if the high-street offered a more diverse range of offerings that were closely tied to its community. Rather than identi-kit offerings from national chains, the retailers reflected the unique culture of the community it was serving. 

Boxpark excels because it has chosen a format that chimes with the desires of the young “hipster” crowd that are looking for a new place to visit. They want to drink a cocktail and are happy to eat from a food truck, they are also interested in smaller independent retailers.

Compare this to high-street and the experience is far more monotone. The financial model of long leases and high rates attract a concentration of service providers; nail parlours, tattoo parlours, hairdressers and a saturation of coffee shops and cafés. As a result, people are less drawn to these locations. If the high-street remains the same every day, the visitor experience becomes stale very quickly.

The key to unlocking this personalisation by community could be the store managers themselves. After all, who knows the customers best. Given the autonomy to change up the offering, showcase products that will excite and delight a certain community plus the ability to change what is on offer more regularly and you instantly have a more exciting customer experience. Tesco use Clubcard data to put relevant food on the shelves for their customers, how often do fashion retailers do the same? 

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Like Pop-Up shops, Boxpark has a novelty that helps it win over a traditional High Street. That is not to say that all is lost. Customers need to visit the shops regularly for a variety of reasons, by tailoring that offering more specifically to the customers that do visit, changing up the offering and providing an element of entertainment there is hope for a renaissance. Rather than bemoaning the retail disrupters, they should be celebrated for the new ideas they bring – the high street might just learn something.