25 October 2019

Hannah Milne: Shops are important – but so too is the space in between them

If retail is about more than just shopping, owners need to look beyond the salesfloor.

Consumer habits are changing. Retail has increasingly moved online, particularly for those missions where convenience is key factor. A trip to the shops is about much more than just shopping and the in-store experience is evolving to meet these needs too, creating compelling reasons to draw people back to physical retail.

The trading environment for retail has also changed. Increasing integration with online, a clear focus on sustainability from both shoppers and brands alike, and political uncertainty affecting long-term investment all means that the sector is facing new challenges.

As we adapt to this new environment, the healthy, vibrant retail centres of the future will increasingly rely on their ability to inspire and engage consumers. As an owner, I believe we have an important role to play in supporting the future of retail and it is our responsibility to ensure that the spaces ‘in-between’ our places are as compelling as the spaces themselves. In short, we must ensure the public areas and offer at our destinations is meeting the changing needs of the shoppers, retailers and communities that we serve.

The rationale for doing so is clear. The built environment can have a huge impact on our wellbeing, both physical and mental. We know that when consumers feel happy and relaxed, they are likely to stay longer in a place; and a longer dwell time translates into greater spending, benefiting both the owner and the retailers and leisure providers which are based there. Attractive, thoughtfully created public spaces have the potential to enhance our interactions, while also improving community wellbeing and supporting sustainability.

Part of an owner’s job is to think creatively about how we use our space to maximise value. At Fosse Park in Leicestershire, one of our flagship destinations, we are currently undertaking a £160 million expansion to the centre. As part of this, we are working with our architects and designers to transform an undevelopable part of the site into a state of the art children’s play area. Our hope is that this will not only improve the overall experience for families coming to Fosse Park and encourage them to stay longer, but will give them another reason to visit.

There can be a temptation on the part of owners to take a ‘paint by numbers’ approach, adding public art or artisan food market in one place just because it worked in another. However, every location has its own set of unique challenges which will require a unique solution. I believe we should think holistically about the public areas at our destinations and consider how each space can play a part in the overall experience. Making better use of data and insights can help avoid missteps. Even better still, working in collaboration with communities and local stakeholders we can help to ensure we create spaces that are matching the needs of the local population.

"Thoughtfully created public spaces have the potential to enhance our interactions, while also improving community wellbeing and supporting sustainability."

When masterplanning residential neighbourhoods, developers and architects will often talk about creating ‘a sense of place’, and rightly so. Creating successful places is about much more than just the built environment. And for shopping destinations, placemaking is about much more than allocating spaces for public use.

It should involve curated programmes of events, as well as careful choreography of different uses. This year, we were proud to launch two new extensions at Rushden Lakes, one of our flagship retail destinations in Northamptonshire. These included Garden Square, a landscaped shopping square; and the West Terrace leisure development with a 14-screen Cineworld cinema, a variety of restaurants and leisure occupiers. What makes these additions truly special, however, is their ability to change uses and their careful integration of public realm.

At Garden Square we have created a landscaped sensory garden designed to aid positive mental wellbeing through tranquil sounds and natural scents, carefully installed PA and infusers, bird boxes, and planting beds. The strength of our local partnerships also means we regularly host pop-up events with local businesses, entertainment-focused summer festivals and Heritage Days specifically designed to celebrate the community and its local history.

As we look to the long-term future of our destinations, we are excited about the opportunity presented by our retail spaces. There is the potential for them to become community hubs which will benefit their local communities for years to come. To achieve this, we are reframing how we think about the spaces which we own, both in terms of the breadth of offer and the overall experience we deliver to our visitors.

The challenges facing retail are complex, but there is much we can do to address them. As owners, we need to create environments which not only work today, but are prepared and flexible for what comes tomorrow. Doing this requires different thinking. We must take time and care to embed insights, partnerships and communities at the heart of everything will do. The reward for this effort, however, will be places people want to visit and where our customer’s businesses will continue to thrive. 

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