After more than a decade at the helm of BOXPARK, a company that has enjoyed unparalleled success in demonstrating the power of experiential retail, Roger Wade announced this week that he is stepping down as CEO.
Shortly before the news went public, Blackstock Consulting’s Andrew Teacher sat down with the enigmatic entrepreneur for a particularly spirited interview.
In 2010, BOXPARK Shoreditch changed the way we look at retail – not only through its striking shipping container aesthetic, but in the revolving, limited edition nature of its fashionable tenants and its emphasis on ‘experiences’ over simply shopping. Having opened three BOXPARK locations during his time at the top of the company, with two more in the pipeline, Roger Wade is keen to stress the importance of high streets and physical retail spaces in a time when consumers are increasingly tempted by e-commerce.
From the beginning, Wade had entered the real estate industry from the perspective of a customer. He took his experience running streetwear label Boxfresh from 1989, which imported clothes that made young people feel unique, and applied the logic to BOXPARK.
“I just believed that people wanted to feel special, and that they wanted to go to small, independent shops to feel special. And I set about creating a high street for independent stores,” he says.
But Wade’s experience as a prolific retail entrepreneur meant he also has a deep understanding of the industry from the perspective of the retailer. He asserts that there are three core ideas to getting retail right: content, traffic, and conversion.
“If you’ve got fantastic content, you will be relevant to your customer,” says Wade. “If you haven’t got fantastic content, and if you’re not special to your customer, you won’t exist. You could have the best content in the world, but if you don’t create traffic to that content, you’re not going to make any sales.”
Pre-pandemic, BOXPARK was one of the fastest growing companies in the UK, and if you asked Wade about how he built his success, he could cite reams of data – but more importantly, he believes in trusting in one’s gut to truly succeed.
“Everyone wants a spreadsheet,” Wade observes. “Well, guess what? We do a lot of things based on feel. Because that’s what an artist does.”
Building on his South London roots, Wade practised what he preached when he opened BOXPARK Croydon – by going against the grain, revitalising a space, and demonstrating the true impact of the independent high street in creating “one of the trendiest places in the world.”
“I think that you’ve got to trust yourself,” he explains. “So, in that case, I ignored what everyone else was saying, I just said, ‘Look, people need to eat and drink and have entertainment in Croydon’, I knew South London well, and I believed that if we did something right, they would come.”
Part of BOXPARK’s remarkable success has been Wade’s drive towards diversifying the retail offering. Since launching a decade ago, the company now hosts hospitality businesses among more traditional retailers to make visiting more of an experience, and Wade has recently launched two new concepts: co-working spaces known as BoxOffice, and food halls called BoxHall. The fourth planned BOXPARK site, BoxHall City, is set to open in 2023 on the site of the historic Metropolitan Arcade at Liverpool Street Station, covering 17,000 sq ft and hosting 18 food and drink outlets. The company’s first foray outside of London will open in Bristol next year.
Looking to the future, Wade doesn’t see the death of the high street or its transformation into a series of dark kitchens and last-mile logistics hubs as inevitable. He truly believes in the long-term potential of physical retail, and that people inherently want to feel that irreplaceable special, 360-degree sensory experience that comes with a bricks-and-mortar shop.
That isn’t to say high streets and town centres aren’t at risk, however – Wade points out that where there’s no retail, it’s unlikely that people will want to work in an area, which has run-on impacts for antisocial behaviour and lack of community cohesion.
“I’ve heard major people in government who have said things like, ‘Oh we can’t stop the death of physical retail, it’s dead’ – what an absolute load of rubbish,” says Wade. “You can do lots to stop it, but you’ve not carefully considered the implications of not stopping it. We desperately need to think about that.”
“The effect of that is far greater than losing some shops on the high street,” he continues. “It’s going to be a complete breakdown of the fabric of our society.”
To prevent this, Wade calls for concerted action from both the property industry and the government. “The time for discussion is over,” he asserts. “It’s proven. If you don’t want to have town centres and high streets, do exactly what you’re doing at the moment: nothing.”
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