Retail needs careful curation to thrive, says leading real estate investment firm

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By Neil Barber, leasing director at real estate investment firm, Cain International

From online retail to working from home, the pandemic has accelerated underlying trends in the way we live, shop and work. However, it has also brought into sharp focus missed real-world experiences that can’t be replicated in the digital realm, and it is by tapping into this that property owners and managers can create compelling shopping and leisure destinations.

The response to the recent re-opening of venues such as pubs, restaurants and cinemas gives us a clue as to the pent-up demand for experience. When restrictions were lifted on Monday May 17, Odeon reported its busiest week in a year, whilst restaurant bookings were up 47% compared to the same week in 2019, according to OpenTable.

In retail, similar trends are emerging: a recent JP Morgan survey of more than 700 people in the UK found that more consumers are planning to spend more time in shopping malls and retail parks after the pandemic than before. With all the talk of online shopping in recent years – and the volume turned up to max during the pandemic – we have overlooked the importance of experience in retail. Even on the simplest trip to buy clothes, trying them on, touching them and speaking face-to-face to knowledgeable and passionate staff is part of the experience.

Interacting with an item in the real world remains important for many purchases. This has led to sellers taking physical space to showcase products that are available online. Indeed, online retailer, Boohoo, is considering opening a physical outlet to secure premium beauty brands for its Debenhams outlet, as part of an otherwise entirely digital offering. Though likely to be a one-off, a physical store for Boohoo will enhance and elevate its Debenhams beauty offering, enabling it to better serve its predominantly online customer base.

Even with electronic items, a physical retail presence is considered important – look no further than the success of the Apple Store outlets where its products are showcased in beautifully designed surroundings, offering customer support and advice via the Genius Bar. This physical presence helps maintain its public perception as a premium product provider.

To engineer retail success, a destination needs a combination of retail and leisure outlets that provide a wide choice of experiences, driving footfall during the day, evenings, working week and weekends. For example, at Islington Square, our contemporary mixed-use scheme in north London, there is an Odeon Luxe & Dine, the cinema chain’s first deluxe venue including first-class reclining seats, freshly-prepared food, fine wines and cocktails, which draws people in during the evenings, particularly at weekends. Meanwhile, premier health club, Third Space, will attract people during the day, including early mornings, and early evenings.

Equally important is the right mix of retailers to support this organic footfall. Curating an exciting and dynamic retail and leisire offering takes considerable research and an understanding of the local market. Grouping gyms with retailers that provide health and related beauty products is a natural fit and Third Space is complemented by anatomē, a provider of botanical nutritional supplements, at Islington Square. Similar symbiotic retail groupings would be clothing and accessories to create a one-stop fashion destination with an independent vibe. It is critical to get the balance right, finding retail and hospitality outlets that complement each other and meet the needs of consumers, post pandemic. In this way, developers can create physical destinations that are vibrant and attractive, 24/7 and offer skilled and passionate staff.