As digital retail moves into the realms of augmented reality and enhanced online experience, Fathom Architects has researched how this translates into physical high street spaces in urban centres.

Justin Nicholls

Justin Nicholls

Brands have adapted during the pandemic to develop customer narratives across multiple digital channels. Rather than compete with these, high street environments can add a layer that connects deeply with consumers to create a shared sense of belonging.

The accelerated shift to online payments and home delivery has liberated retail space from tills, high quantities of stock and hard security lines. Since the purpose of visiting a store is no longer driven by making a purchase, larger high street spaces can offer tailored, data-led experiences and expert advice that underline and build on brand values. At a time of increased scrutiny on the provenance of products, information on an ethical supply chain and sustainable manufacturing can build loyalty and trust.

The future of physical retail rests on its ability to create an elevated experience via a highly flexible spatial model capable of hosting display, performance and events. An adaptable framework could allow complementary retail narratives to overlap in the same space over time, with a combination of easily reconfigured physical and digital elements responding to changing footfall and demographics according to the time of day, week or season.

High street

Source: Shutterstock/ IR Stone

Tenants and landlords would have the opportunity to become high street curators, introducing residencies in culture, sports and gaming during and beyond traditional retail hours. This broadcast potential across ages, backgrounds and interest groups could engage a far wider audience than the consumer profile for a single tenant.

While high street retail is facing an existential challenge, the boom in online retail and brand engagement proves that consumer appetite remains high. If shops are to survive, careful consideration needs to be given to how high streets can better serve their communities. Retail units, therefore, should look beyond being a mere physical point of sale.

Justin Nicholls is founding partner of Fathom Architects