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Town Centres: remaining resilient in the changing face of retail

Resilience plays a recurring role in the UK’s history. As a group of islands we have weathered famines and plagues, invasions and wars, and as of today we have new economic and political forces challenging our ability to bend, not break.

There is a weight of force on the nation’s retail landscape, which has been under pressure over the last decade. But, as we mentioned in our recent article “Swap the shop: is residential the answer?”, city centres are evolving, not dying. The shift won’t be instantaneous, but we are working with clients across the country who are ready to embrace a new normal. Their retail locations are physical manifestations of change, which are steadying themselves, ready to transform and evolve to a whole new set of opportunities with alternative-use options.

But how can you ensure resilience when there is such a large, on-going structural shift in the retail sector? When we work with clients, we take a research-led approach and segment our analysis of their assets into three distinct focal points: “who” - the local demographic; “why” - the current reason to visit; and “what’s next” - what might bring even more visitors to a place.

Who: the local demographic

Our main advice to clients is to start by understanding what their local demographic is. “A successful place will draw on its unique catchment.” say Kathryn Wood, Partner in the Cushman & Wakefield Places team. “Every town is different and the corresponding offer needs to reflect this.”

Our research capabilities mean we can really get to the heart of a place to understand its rhythm and dynamics; as demonstrated in our recent UK Resilience Index report,  “UK Town Centres – What’s Next?”. The report, which analyses the performance of 250 town centres over the past 10 years, based on 24 economic, demographic and property metrics, highlights the evolving role of the UK’s town centres and can act as a benchmarking tool as well as helping pinpoint where potential opportunities for growth may lie.

We believe some of the core ingredients of a resilient town include affluence, high student populations and high tourist spend in its catchment. But what if your town or asset does not have these ingredient

“We’re advising lots of clients with these sorts of assets – there are always solutions, they just need to be bespoke, and take extensive research to expose,” says Wood. “We work with expert internal teams across a range of sectors to make sure each solution is carefully crafted. Our number-one tip is to make sure the development solution is relevant to its local context”.

Why: the current reason to visit

Next, we ask: why is the public engaging with your asset? This may sound like an obvious question, but the consumer’s evolving needs are the key driver of change and with advances in technology, your visitor’s mission may not be the same as it once was.

Traditionally, retail locations have been influenced by the ‘shopper mission’, generally falling into one of three categories: large destination, or experience-orientated visits; purpose shopping for specific purchases; or community-based convenience trips; but people are demanding more. Successful places need a reason to visit, over and above the competition.

Sophie Morgan, Senior Surveyor in the Cushman & Wakefield Places team, explains: “Landlords should be open to repurposing an asset into a different use altogether if it’s not successfully fulfilling the needs of the consumer. A strong mix of uses which is relevant to the catchment is essential, regardless of the mission.”

What’s next: bringing in new visitors

Beyond retail, we work with owners to create vibrancy in their assets, and this means creating a reason to visit other than to shop. “Retail and leisure alone will not be enough to keep most locations resilient. They will need to be well-designed with walkability and high-quality space that hosts interesting brands and events, has community engagement and provides a mix of uses,” confirmed Morgan. Placemaking through creating customer experience and social spaces unlocks further retail spend, simply by bringing people to the space. It can also widen the catchment.

So which assets are preparing to bend, not break?

Town Centre repositioning, Greater London

Working for a large mixed-use UK landlord, we undertook an exercise to research the potential of their Greater London asset. Looking at supply and demand projections, we were able to establish what the latent potential might be for a range of asset classes. We then used this analysis to shape what the vision might be for that centre. Morgan explained, “We looked into demographics, connectivity, employment data. We determined who the customers would be and therefore who the space should be aimed at - not just using broad sectors - but detailing distinct uses such as later living, co-living, co-working and cultural uses”. The client is now using this research to shape its ongoing strategy for delivering future development at this site.

Bracknell, Bracknell Forest Council

Following the success of The Lexicon in Bracknell we were asked by Bracknell Forest Council to establish the next phase of the town’s evolution, advising on their vision for the town centre.

“We carried out a thorough review of the town centre, assessing the provision of existing use and where there was potential to introduce a complimentary offer,” says Wood, “The vision piece is important in guiding a strategy and focusing decision-making but must also translate into on-the-ground delivery. We help clients realise the commercial value of a vision - advising on viability, strategy and deliverability.”

Through this project we found meanwhile-use operator Projekt for a vacant council building. Negotiating on behalf of the council, we secured a deal which provides affordable space for small-to-medium businesses with flexible workspace and studios at Easthampstead Works, in a building which would otherwise have been vacant for years, or demolished. Wood shared, “We’re really proud to have added such a vibrant use to the community, and it provides accommodation which small businesses just didn’t have access to previously in Bracknell”.

Our wider analysis shaped the next stage of development in Bracknell, with the vision document formally adopted in December 2018. This is now being used to procure a new joint venture partner.

These are just two examples of the inspiring projects we’re working on with our clients, combining research, analytics and development expertise to determine individual solutions for assets and town centres.

There are core components which make a place successful, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A clear vision which meets the needs of its catchment, brings in new customers and additional revenue streams is critical to ensure resilience against the evolving retail market; which we are doing for our clients on a day-to-day basis. If you would like to make sure your asset is resilient, please get in touch with Kathryn Wood or Sophie Morgan

The Lexicon, Bracknell