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Shopping in the world of tomorrow

Tomorrow’s High Street and tomorrow‘s retailers need to combine new concepts and ideas about both their roles, writes Jeremy Hinds. The conventional relationship between them is now broken, and a new symbiotic relationship is required for both to survive.The common ingredient that will underpin the new relationship is experience – but what that is will vary considerably from location to location as well as between retailers.

Smaller centres, for example, cannot be expected to host flagship stores – and so the future of their high streets probably requires the high street itself to become the focus of experience led retailing.

This will mean that the high street has to explore how new spaces can be created to be shared between all its users of shoppers, retailers and service providers. The concept of space has to redefined – the idea that the high street is a public space and that retailers have their own private spaces has to change. The distinction between public and private space needs to become blurred. We see evidence of this already in coffee shops across the country where customers are frequently seen using the private space to conduct their own businesses on phones and laptops. Local authorities should lead the way in exploring how to make wider concepts of shared spaces more acceptable and meaningful to all users.

That in turn places a focus over the necessity of local authorities to invest in advanced technology and infrastructure in their high streets and other spaces. The infrastructure needed to support internet and hub-based technology should be as second nature as providing street lighting and hard paved surfaces today. Accepting that all this comes at a cost, local authorities will have to explore how to use funding streams more imaginatively than at present. Investing in digital infrastructure through planning contributions and the community infrastructure levy programme are explicitly encouraged under the National Planning Policy Framework. Local authorities that want to gain a competitive advantage might also assess the suitability of longer-term investment programmes by borrowing, and or working in partnership with digital providers, using opportunities such as the Nationwide Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme, and the Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund.

In larger centres, not only should local authorities explore the same themes as above, but they need to work more directly with retailers that are exploring innovative retail concepts. New retailers – and there are newcomers to the retail scene both in the UK and US, citing Microsoft and their Regent Street / Oxford Street flagship store, as well as US based startups such as Casper – and existing retailers, are all exploring new ways to interact with their customers, or perhaps more accurately, their clients! They are setting the pace, and other retailers will follow. Local authorities need to do the same. Retailers achieve levels of market penetration rates today with far fewer stores than was previously the case. Local authorities that are too slow to interact and engage with the new and emerging realities run a real risk of being left behind.

In this respect, every local authority should follow the examples of Southwark Council by publishing a Digital Infrastructure Strategy, and Greater Manchester for the GM Digital Infrastructure Strategy, although it now needs to be reviewed to re-assess how investment with retailers can be used to reinvigorate the high streets across the city centre and towns of the conurbation. Technology needs to play a greater role in the understanding of development and place making, perhaps looking at real examples elsewhere, such as Seoul in South Korea. Aiming to build genuine digital cities is the underpinning that will ensure the survival of the high street.

A starting point of change is for the idea that retailing is about only selling goods. That is simply not the case. Retailing is about experiment, experience, temporary attractions, interaction, playspace, workspace, and informal space.  Some of the world’s leading brand names are investing in wholly new models of retail where the likelihood of people making a purchase is secondary to the need to create a space for the display and experience of being there. There are retailers that are now blends of retail and workshops, music venues and art locations, see for example Brompton’s bike store, Ben Sherman, and Belstaff clothes stores, all in London.

For the UK, the changing nature of retail has direct implications on how we classify the sector for the purposes of planning permission and development management. The system of planning and development has to recognise that tomorrow’s retailers might not actually sell anything!  But nor will the retailer be a showroom – it will be something more, and at the same more exciting.

Tomorrow we’ll will see private spaces being used to entice the public at all times to share an experience. We will see art installations forming part of a constant dynamic of both the retailer and the high street. Retailers will come and go, and the appearance and disappearance of stores will be a normal, expected, occurrence. This raises new challenges for investors and the investment community to examine models for financing retail. And it is a significant gauntlet to local authorities that want long term investment in their towns and cities.

The space that we see one day might become unrecognisable the next as both retailers and the managers of space work to create evolving and dynamic areas for people to explore.

Tomorrow’s future is far from certain. But it is the uncertainty that creates the impetus for success – uncertainty is the cause of the dynamic for innovation and change that has to be embraced so that tomorrow is always a different day than yesterday.

Jeremy Hinds is a planning director at Savills.

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