Retail is in a period of rapid change. Buzz words like Black Friday, ‘click & collect’ and even ‘bricks and mortar’ have quickly become part of the vernacular, and most people will tell you about the shopping trends they’ve embraced in recent months.
On the one hand, it is incredibly exciting that the evolving retail landscape is no longer a niche concern. The downside of becoming a mainstream conversation topic, though, is oversimplification. Too often retail is discussed in binary terms - as the relationship between those with something to sell and those looking to buy. The third key player - the retail landlord - gets written out. Yet those who develop, own and manage retail sites have a great influence over what they will look like in the future - and they certainly have the greatest incentive to maintain the appeal of a physical rather than virtual shopping experience.
So what role can, or should, the property owner play in today’s retail revolution?
We can start by reviewing that age-old property term, asset management. In days gone by, this meant building the space, keeping it in good condition, and collecting rent each month. But to focus solely on the physical space, the asset, means surrendering control of how people interact with it, the experience - the very thing that differentiates your centre or park from any other. To stay competitive today, marketing, technology, creative design and commercial sales skills are an essential part of the landlord’s CV.
True, the shopping transaction is in the retailer’s remit, but the shopping experience is not theirs alone. Both landlord and retailer have a responsibility to deploy insight, experience and expertise to attract shoppers, make them stay, spend money and return another day. The model for retail success is no longer a chain - the landlord delivering premises to a retailer, the retailer delivering a shop to the public - but an interconnected web.
It’s not just our objectives that should overlap with retailers, but our attitudes too. It can be tempting to fill our centres with the very latest innovations, but acting like a retailer means taking the time to understand our customers’ missions and mindsets first and finding the right technology to fit second.
Retailers are passionate about understanding the people who visit their shops, and the best ones take a dynamic and responsive approach to changing behaviours. By behaving like a retailer, we can deliver what our customers truly want in unison with our operators, be it brilliant basics or the latest innovations. For example, our customers at Trinity Leeds are very loyal, something we have responded to through the introduction of Love Trinity, an app that enhances their shopping experience.
When it comes to attracting the right and best retail and catering mix, we have to have the site infrastructure in place that works for these operators - which means always being one step ahead. By investing in research and forecasting, we can prepare our retailers for what we know consumers want both today and tomorrow.
An insightful landlord makes life easier for its retailers, and this means understanding their ambitions - global and local - as well. By listening and responding to individual needs we can forge long-term partnerships with retail brands. One size does not fit all, and it’s this philosophy that’s informing our approach to leasing at Westgate, Oxford. We’re introducing mixed lease lengths outside the protection of the Landlord and Tenant Act at the £440m development due for completion in autumn 2017. After all, if this current period of change has taught us anything, it’s that an asset’s value is no longer tied up in long leases. Instead, our leases at Westgate offer both us and the retailer a greater degree of flexibility than ever before, so we are all able to move quickly as trends evolve - meaning the centre will always be relevant to our customers, not a sad reminder of what was in fashion in years gone by.
While none of us has a crystal ball, the best landlords will keep anticipating the needs both of shops and shoppers to create assets fit enough to survive as retail continues to evolve.
Polly Troughton is head of retail parks and leisure at Land Securities