The Great British high street has taken a blow in the last 10 years as our buying preferences have shifted towards the convenience of the online store.
Driven by previously unimaginable choice, price comparison and targeted social media carrots, it’s hard to imagine why we’d ever walk the high street again.
However, is the tide starting to turn? Let’s take the pop-up. Once regarded as the prerogative of the hipster elite, it is now an opportunity for brands to get hands-on with the mainstream. Just last month Coke took up a three-day residency on London’s Greek Street to celebrate the centenary of its iconic bottle. More of a live advertisement than a shop, visitors received a free drink, and Coke received coverage in all the broadsheets, together with the design and marketing press. We’ve thought for a long time that residential brand experiences (sales and marketing suites) should work just like this, so what is really stopping savvy developers from setting up shop?
It’s not that developers are unaware of the importance of the offline experience. Far from it, their marketing suites become ever more sophisticated as they attempt to woo buyers with a rich and immersive experience. But these suites are almost always on-site and concentrate entirely on a specific development; the developer’s brand comes second. Is there a way to put the brand and its values centre-stage, and offer a consistent, ongoing experience that really forges a relationship between developer and consumer?
A real shopfront
I think there is a way to do that — and it isn’t online. We all know that a virtual ‘shop window’ can be a wonderful thing, but the borderless online world has major limitations. Why not have a whole experience, with the kind of elegant design and in-person interactive capability that will really imprint the brand on the viewer’s mind?
A shift to the high street feels like a natural progression, enabling developers to present their brand as a whole, not just development by development, but in its entirety, with a clear mission and set of priorities. That’s the way to build trust — and build interest. As the world becomes ever more saturated with choice, we are all looking for retail theatre that offers something a little different, something life-affirming, entertaining and useful.
This is the code that major brands such as Nespresso, Rapha cycling clothing and, of course, Apple, have cracked, engaging consumers with a brand experience so immersive and enjoyable that even people who aren’t that interested in the product engage with the brand. Why shouldn’t developers with ambitions to grow their own brand learn from the best? It also presents the opportunity to engage passers-by — an easier proposition than offline since a shop can offer the genuine interaction, with a real live human, that we all hunger for, however internet-savvy we become.
A home is an intimate purchase and it is crucial to develop the trust that this kind of financial outlay and emotional investment demands. And when you think of the wealthy international buyers looking for a toehold in the London property market, is selling prime London property on Bond Street really such a crazy idea? After all, Sunseeker sells yachts from Davies Street, Bentley has a car showroom on Berkeley Square.
Of course, estate agents already pepper our high streets, but let’s face it, that’s like going to Carphone Warehouse to buy an iPhone and who wants to do that? The difference between the mass retailer and the specialist is huge. And, just as residential buyers say something about who they are by where they choose to live, developers could site themselves in a place that would further illuminate their brand. So, Candy & Candy might open on Bond Street and Ballymore in Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Place, while Londonewcastle would not look out of place in Boxpark.
In cutting-edge Manhattan developments such as 50 West, I saw walls lit up with IMAX-style panoramic views and a console that flicked between individual apartments. This is a futuristic $2.5m (£1.7m) marketing suite, but wouldn’t it be great to browse a whole gallery of great residential opportunities, viewing each one inside and out? The excitement this kind of space could generate would be phenomenal.
Closer to home, Mount Anvil has recently created a ‘brand space’ at its HQ that promotes its portfolio of developments in an informal setting. Manhattan Loft Corporation, meanwhile, has created a fabulous fusion gallery experience to market its Stratford development, Manhattan Loft Gardens, that incorporates a 3D tour of the building’s interior via a cutting-edge virtual-reality console — and the gallery is a standalone, situated not in Stratford but behind Tate Modern. But again, why stop at marketing just one building, when a developer’s brand is partly about the flexibility and agility that enables it to make the best use of each individual site?
Other sectors are definitely ahead of ours in experimenting with this fusion of traditional and 21st-century retail. Burberry’s Regent Street store has wowed critics with its vibrancy and innovation, from the giant screen — the largest of its kind in the world — that greets you on entrance, to the use of RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology that turns special in-store mirrors into screens offering the kind of information on craft and detail that’s usually only found on a store’s website. Burberry has said the store is intended to be a bricks-and-mortar version of its website. Surely there’s an opportunity here for the bricks and mortar specialists, too?
So, why has nobody really tried it? As a sector, we can be too attached to our tried and tested way of doing things. Perhaps the answer is in the tease: rather than a standalone store, why not a concession in a major department store like Selfridges? We’re taking tips from the fashion industry after all. Either way, now is the time to open up a space that will enhance a developer’s brand, tell its stories and really make it part of consumers’ lives. In my opinion, the high street has never been a more thrilling host.
Mark Davis is director of Me&Dave