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Finding a future for UK Retail within the forums of ancient Rome

24 September, 2021
Just as this autumn’s resurgence of the flare trend demonstrates, retail is nothing if not cyclical. But it’s not just the fashion designers taking inspiration from the past – developers, landlords and agents are now also harking back to bygone eras to help shape a new identity and purpose for town centres.

With this, the start of a new cycle for bricks-and-mortar retail is emerging. It is one heavily focused on both localism and blended uses, where the strict zoning of decades past is being rapidly eschewed in favour of a broader mix of operators spanning different industries.

Many parallels for these two trends can be found in previous cycles throughout British retailing history. Take Roman forums as a clear early example. These hugely successful centres were not only key retail hubs packed full of local traders, but they were also centres for wider commerce, banking, the courts, medical provisioning and the location for social and political gatherings. In essence, they were true community hubs.

So, could the future trajectory for today’s struggling town centres actually lie in an experiential and tech-led reiteration of ancient Rome’s forums – bringing people, business, leisure, medicine and politics all back together in unique and community focused town centres?

Some developers and landlords are now actively exploring this idea. And it’s easy to see why.

Tech and data will undeniably be powerful forces shaping the future of town centre retail. But as the rise of online shopping continues to dent footfall to brick-and-mortal stores – an impact only exacerbated by Covid-19 – those managing existing schemes and leasing new developments cannot rely on tech and data alone as the salve. They need new ways to create a point of difference and to entice people back in-town. Local retailers specifically targeting the needs of that town’s demographic, comprising a strong mix of different uses that cannot be satisfied online – such as children’s entertainment, beauty and medical services and leisure – present a strong pull.

Wokingham Borough Council’s town centre redevelopment, Peach Place and Elms Field, is a prime example of this new cycle in action. Despite the town being one of the most affluent catchments outside the M25, prior to this new scheme, the centre was far from reflective of this.

As development and leasing advisers on this project, when leasing discussions first commenced in 2015, our focus was very much on national retail operators. But as market conditions changed, we had to adapt quickly, turning our attention towards local operators that together could create a more diverse tenant mix, hyper-relevant to the local community. Today about 75% of the 40 units are let to local and regional operators. Of these local businesses, the non-retail or leisure operators providing that extra pull to the scheme and differentiated footfall, include: BeyondtheDownload which is a record store that also hosts live music events both in store and in the public square outside, The Vale Clinic Podiatry and Chiropody services, eActive Health Lounge, Outhouse Brewery, ArtyCollate by RYoung Art and Perfect Smile Orthodentists.

The awards already scooped by this scheme speak to the success that can be found in pursuing a more localised and blended approach to letting today. The development has been bestowed the Urban Land Institute’s Award for Excellence in Europe and is now in with a chance of receiving a global award. It has also been awarded the Royal Town Planning Institute’s award for Excellence in Planning for a Successful Economy, as well as SPACES 2021 Regeneration Award.

Another example of this move towards a more blended and locally focused tenant mix can be seen in Aylesbury. When Next vacated the Hale Leys shopping centre in 2018, rather than automatically looking for a new national retailer, we sought to diversify the space by agreeing a lease with a local soft play and VR game room operator Stay and Play (the largest in the Home Counties), alongside rooftop bar and restaurant The Manor – the debut site for this new local mini-chain. This pairing has helped bring a buzz back to Hale Leys, attracting footfall that wouldn’t otherwise have visited the shopping centre.

A focus on local retailers is also a key element of Shrewsbury’s success. Here independent retailers outnumber national chains by almost half, with Wyle Cop reputed to be the longest row of uninterrupted independents in the UK. The council now has grand plans to boost this even further, diversifying the town centre’s offer and bringing its own offices and central council functions back in-town after having previously moved out-of-town in the 1960s.

Having taken ownership of the town’s three shopping centres, Shropshire Council is proposing retaining the Darwin Centre as the main shopping precinct, and then transforming either the now-vacant Pride Hill mall or the Riverside Centre into its new council HQ, pairing its office space with new leisure facilities. Through these proposals, this historic town is demonstrating that it fully appreciates the power and strength that lies in boosting footfall with diverse uses that together serve all the direct needs of its local community.

And it’s not only local communities that stand to benefit from these two re-emerging trends; they also tap neatly into the current zeitgeist that is the green agenda. As national operators increasingly look to scale back their store portfolios in favour of accessing smaller markets via click-and-collect facilities, local operators are now more able to take space in town centres. This means supply and distribution chains are shrinking, and with amenities also focused in one centralised location, a greater reliance on public transport can also be encouraged.

The retailers themselves are also getting in on the act. The resurgence of farm shops can be seen as a direct response to increased consumer demand for more hyper-local produce, with the rise of vegetable and meat delivery boxes enabling these businesses to fulfil the historic role of the local greengrocer and butcher deliveries, a role previously made redundant with the rise of the supermarket giants. Many of these farm shops are also diversifying their offer to include soft play facilities, cafes and yoga spaces to help increase footfall. Larger national operators, and particularly the supermarket chains, are also increasingly seeking to diversify their offers to attract greater footfall and to make excess space more profitable – Tesco being the latest example through its concession deals with AO electricals and Pret in the last year.

With the dual benefits of delivering more unique and diverse offers that are truly community-centric whilst also creating a more environmentally friendly footing for bricks-and-mortar retailing, the move towards in-town blended uses based increasingly on local operators, is only likely to grow.

We’ve always acknowledged that the Romans have taught us a thing or two about law, architecture and engineering, but now it seems even the future of our struggling retail parades could benefit from the hindsight this ancient civilisation can offer.

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