Much hope and optimism has been placed on the opening up of the UK’s retail and hospitality sector as it welcomes customers back, in line with national guidelines. 

Erik Mueller-Ali, vice president, CallisonRTKL

Erik Mueller-Ali

Pent-up demand from consumers who have been stuck indoors is already providing a significant boost to the economy – retail sales climbed 9.2% in April with strong figures also expected for May. But the scars from lockdown will take considerable time to heal and, in some cases, there will be no return to the lifestyle we enjoyed prior to the global pandemic.

There is an opportunity to reconnect, recharge and redefine the community, some of which will be in line with our past experience, while other changes will be much more significant.

All aspects of life have been affected, but none more so than the retail experience, which has fundamentally changed. This accelerated structural shift in retail and changing consumer behaviour presents opportunities for existing retail destinations to reimagine themselves and innovate – or become irrelevant.

We must repurpose, reuse and revitalise what we have, which requires considerable collaboration between developers, landlords and tenants.

We have all had to adapt in the past year. Now businesses are reopening, it’s their turn. Sustainability will continue to drive business; we can meet the ever-increasing green targets and expectations of consumers by repurposing and re-energising the spaces around us.

All aspects of life have been affected, but none more so than the retail experience

A key part of this strategy will be recrafting large-floorplate malls and department stores to create community-centric spaces that work with the way people are living – retail spaces, F&B, gyms, events and flexible office hubs that create vibrancy and draw a truly mixed-use audience. These are spaces for the whole family.

We should focus on providing smarter retail spaces that don’t need extortionate fit-out costs and can offer rotating incubator-style pop-ups for emerging online and local brands to test the water – think 1,200 sq ft unique/customised product, not a 12,000 sq ft Zara or H&M that is available everywhere, including online.

Appear Here is a prime example of this in effect, with the brand having facilitated the opening of 10,000 small stores in the UK, the US and France since it launched in 2014. From a developer’s and landlord’s point of view, what’s not to love? You can offer something that no one else has with lower fit-out costs, create a hype and ensure your property has the hottest ticket in town.

Retail space

Source: Shutterstock / Maxim Kamynin

Shop tactics: we should focus on providing smarter retail spaces

Spaces for the new economy can also have different uses at different times of day – from a yoga studio in the morning to events or gallery space in the evening. A space is productive and profitable when people are engaged and using it, so it is time we think of these environments in constant motion and function, not static and singularly purposed.

Disruptive industry

The convenience of takeaway will continue to change the restaurant business model and developers and landowners would be prudent to factor in ghost or dark kitchens as part of their new mix. We are just seeing the start of a disruptive industry that some analysts predict could be worth up to £1trn.

The current UK housing crisis, whereby demand continues to grossly outstrip supply, will also benefit from these new changes. Department stores with their central locations could present huge opportunities to create much-needed housing.

We have recently worked on designs with Hammerson to redevelop a former Debenhams store in Highcross, Leicester, into new homes for rent with Packaged Living, which will bring a new residential audience to the centre of town, in turn supporting smaller retail and commercial outlets.

The idea is to bring people together, creating walking communities and an ecosystem of live, work and play. Aligned to this, the government recently confirmed it would go ahead with plans to introduce a new permitted development right allowing a range of commercial uses to convert to housing without the need for a planning application.

Quality and thoughtful, considered development must still remain top of the agenda and we can’t have a cookie-cutter approach – the needs of a mall in Milton Keynes will differ to those of one in central London. It is about creating a co-ordinated operation, not just about carving up spaces.

A retail solution won’t fix this retail problem. We must understand the values of the community and provide spaces that that will evolve and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Innovation and evolution are the only way forward.

Erik Mueller-Ali is principal of CallisonRTKL