Commercial property: Time for retail to think outside the box

The £1 billion revamp of the St James Centre in Edinburgh is something of an anomaly; we have simply stopped building shopping centres and the development pipeline across the UK has ground to a halt.

The shopping centre concept is 75 years old and there are more than 900 of them, but is the idea of a big box full of small boxes still relevant?

The recent failures of retail giants Maplin and Toys R Us both had an air of inevitability but the news certainly didn’t have the same shock effect of the earlier casualties such as Woolworths, Comet and Blockbuster.

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Things are changing but ,put simply, this is all about the growth of online; clicks as opposed to bricks. However, it is worth noting that, even in the digital age, almost 80 per cent of retail spend still happens on the high street.

We, as consumers, have clearly marked out our intent to shop, bank and live online and as a direct consequence our high streets, shopping centres and town centres are all facing radical change, but there is always opportunity.

Across many Scottish towns, the shopping centre is the most dominant feature and the core of activity – towns such as Paisley, Greenock, Motherwell, Stirling, Dunfermline and Dundee, where the economic and social value to these places is often understated.

We cannot allow these centres to fail but there are layers of complexity around condition, ownerships, covenants, and investment that will require a strong leadership, vision and innovation.

The starting point should be to look beyond traditional retailing.

While shopping centres cannot compete with the convenience of online or out-of-town retail parks, they can start to develop high-value experiential propositions and mixed use communities.

The key to creating communities is to engage and understand them and then to develop a complex matrix of emotional, physical, sensory and digital ties that allow targeted and multichannel selling of goods, services and experiences.

And partnerships – could the shopping centre incorporate some housing into its superfluous retail space, creating footfall, passive surveillance, community and consumption?

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What about libraries, galleries, art centres, health centres, nurseries, crèche facilities, playzones, business incubators, hatcheries and co-working space and gyms?

Bring in farmers’ markets, events and activities, better food and drink offerings, concerts, boutique cinema and performance.

Develop intuitive and value-focused experiences that your demographic will relate to.

If the centre serves a predominantly ageing demographic then wrap the core retail with health, travel, care, activities, finance, insurance, exercise and advisory services. Deploy digital technology to create seamless links between online and onsite and create showrooms and concession spaces where online sellers can promote their leading lines in a physical environment.

Motherwell is an example where the owners have developed a compelling product.

They recognised that local identity runs deep and analysed the demographic, looked at spend and behaviour and developed a product mix that has seen vacancies slashed and footfall increased.

New tenants such as Costa, Pure Gym and Warren James were secured and a range of community events and festivals developed.

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Better partnerships were created with stakeholders, transport providers and the council to improve civic realm, digital investment, cross-marketing and a much cleaner, greener and attractive family-friendly environment.

Time to think outside of that big box to see what small boxes go back inside.

Phil Prentice is the chief officer

of Scotland’s Towns