This year’s Black Friday could prove to be a watershed moment for the out of town retail park as we know it. Many retailers with a presence in the UKs retail parks are struggling to make a profit while facing ongoing lockdowns and restrictions. Even when they are able to trade, social distancing measures and the reluctance of many consumers to return to brick and mortar shops means that online sales are booming.
Despite seeing an initial increase in footfall in the early stages of COVID-19, out of town retail parks have now witnessed a return to falling numbers of customers. New developments were grinding to a halt for some time before COVID. But the pandemic has crystallised the issue. Online retailers have largely benefited from the pandemic – Amazon alone is set to hoover up an astounding 65% of all Black Friday spending this year – and with lockdown meaning non-essential shops are not able to open, Black Friday will bring home just how serious the situation is for retail parks.
How times change. Out of town retail parks were once hailed as the future of shopping, but now they resemble tired, identikit relics of the past that contain a collection of the same old stores and have no sense of place: you could be in one retail park, but you could be in any.
The good news is that while coronavirus has certainly presented significant challenges, there are also significant opportunities. Retail parks need to adapt in order to reflect this reality. But if they are to thrive in a post pandemic world, they must do more than merely adapt to changing consumer needs. They must grasp the opportunity to reimagine the entire shopping experience. The vast majority of retail parks are grey and drab, and do little to entice the customer to stay for any longer than is necessary to complete their purchase.
So what can be done? Loosening of planning laws mean that, in theory, some parks could be converted into housing. But, apart from the fact that their structures are not easy to convert into residential use (most are made up of deep-plan large squares or rectangles with limited opportunity for natural light, for example), how many people – especially families – would really want to live on a box-park style apartment on the edge of town?
The best bet for retail parks is to reinvent themselves around the experiential. For inspiration, we need only to look towards Asia. In Japan, for instance, a wellness themed mall that features climbing gyms and a 300 metre running track on the roof has been a huge success, allowing consumers to work out and shop in the same place. In Thailand, Central World Mall features an indoor ice rink, two Hindu shrines, and a hotel. Retail parks that offer experiences could help combat the threat posed to businesses by the rise of online shopping, as they would encourage consumers to go to the retail park to either shop or pick up goods that they have purchased online, and stay for another experience.
Retail parks can also generate a sense of place by better responding to the needs of the community. As flexible working becomes the norm, retail parks could become community hubs that include communal workspaces, cinemas, GP surgeries and more. They could even have the added benefit of helping local authorities attract tourism revenue, providing a much-needed boost to communities struggling in the post-pandemic world.
Indeed, this was what Victor Gruen, the so-called ‘father of the retail park’ envisioned when he designed the first of its kind in the US in the late 1950s, and on which model the UKs retail parks are based. Gruen’s vision was a communal gathering with a lively mix of commerce, art and entertainment. Yet the parks that were built in the ensuing years were so far from his dream that Gruen later said: “I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for call. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”
What goes around, comes around, and now it’s the retail park that’s fighting for its survival.
COVID-19 alone isn’t the reason for the decline of the retail park – the problems it faced were there long before – but it should speed up change. In order to succeed, retailers need to focus on two things: responding better to the needs of customers, and providing a more varied experience for the public.