Why the high street must learn from the mall

05 : 07 : 2018 Retail : Placemaking : Architecture
The Commons, Bangkok, has been specifically designed to foster a sense of community. The Commons, Bangkok, has been specifically designed to foster a sense of community.

Intransigent local governments seem to have adopted an ethos of ‘you first’, waiting for others to prove the value of this community-over-retail approach.

Peter Maxwell, foresight writer, LS:N Global

The recent launch of Bill Grimsey’s second edition of The Grimsey Review, examining the plight of the British high street, is a much needed reminder that our town centres remain in a state of crisis. With vacancy rates standing at a demoralising 11.1% in England, 11.9% in Scotland and 14.5% in Wales, it’s clear that local councils, landlords and retailers have yet to collectively figure out how to make brick-and-mortar viable once more – in fact the review found that only 23% of town centres currently have a ten-year plan. But why are they in this state? Because their identity is still monopolised by shopping.

Grimsey argues that there is a need for councils to ‘accept that there is already too much retail space in the UK and that brick-and-mortar retailing can no longer be the anchor for thriving high streets and town centres. They need to be repopulated and re-fashioned as community hubs.’ He points to examples such as Roeselare in Belgium, where the creation of the ARhus Knowledge Centre has given citizens renewed motivation to venture into town, and Stockton-on-Tees, which has pushed investment towards transforming the heart of the city into an arts and entertainment zone.

What’s most surprising about the Grimsey Review’s 2018 update, however, is how few successful examples there are of town centre innovation for Grimsey himself to draw from. Intransigent local governments seem to have adopted an ethos of ‘you first’, waiting for others to prove the value of this community-over-retail approach before they are willing to invest.

But perhaps they’re looking in the wrong place. Reviewing these schemes in light of our own recently-published Storefront Salvation report, in which we lay out a range of strategies retailers should adopt if they want to return to relevance in the age of e-commerce, there seems an obvious but rarely made comparison to be drawn between the high street and another often dismissed commercial concept: the shopping mall.

The relegation of commercial imperatives is actually the key to making brick-and-mortar retail viable once more.

Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail and Technology, has referred to the current decline in US shopping centre numbers as ‘retail Darwinism’. It is not so much that all malls are dying, just the bad malls. Shopping will remain a leisure pastime, but in these good malls, different types of leisure are being prioritised beyond shopping. In the UK for instance, the Rushden Lakes shopping centre in Northamptonshire combines retail with designated cycling, walking and even canoeing routes so visitors can explore the local area as part of their visit. The centre has announced it will open additional restaurants in 2019, as well as introducing a range of leisure activities including golf and indoor climbing.

In the US, Area 51 is a shopping centre opening next year where the focus will be on enterainment over commerce. The mall will be split into five zones, comprising food hall, an events space, an outdoor venue with a capacity of 3,000 people, and a 30,000-square-feet central hall featuring a rotating schedule of art installations and exhibitions

These initiatives very much mirrors Grimsey’s call for towns throughout the UK to ‘develop plans that are business-like and focused on transforming the place into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure…as well as some shops’. The relegation of commercial imperatives to the back of this queue is, as the above demonstrates, actually the key to making brick-and-mortar retail viable once more. If councils take inspiration from the mall, they’ll quickly learn that it’s not so much that all high streets will disappear, just the ones that can’t kick their shopping habit.

For more on the future of retail, read our Storefront Salvation report.