Blog: 8 September 2016‘Experience’ matters in retail and leisure place-making

The ‘experience’ has been the mainstay of all conversations about new retail and leisure development for the last decade.  How will a new shopping centre engage people?  What will make people stay?  Why should a family come to your development rather than its competitor down the road?  We all know the discussions about designing, creating and curating a place that delivers ‘an experience’ for visitors and therefore underpins footfall, economic performance and ultimately value.

When I look at the lessons we can all learn about creating that ‘experience’ for shoppers, I keep coming back to that equally important other aspect of experience – do the people that are planning, designing and building this thing have the right professional experience to make it succeed?

As traditional uses break down and integration is commonplace across all modern retail and leisure schemes, having the professional experience to understand what will achieve a successful development – and one which has some shelf life too – is essential.  With substantial investment being sunk, not insignificant risk being taken in many cases on planning, and an obvious need for return on capital, we need to be clear that, as a professional real estate community, we have the right experience and are constantly improving.

So for me, I look at Westfield’s success at White City, at Birmingham’s Bull Ring, at Leeds’ Trinity Shopping Centre and at countless schemes across the UK and I’m constantly asking ‘what can we learn here’.  Only then can I feel comfortable advising clients on a next generation scheme.  Innovation to achieve a unique destination – not replication – has to be the watchword for major retail and leisure projects.

Our involvement in Watermark West Quay in Southampton would be a good example.  Alongside intelligent design, architecture, permeability throughout the development and integration of uses, there’s a real emphasis on the site’s local setting.  In this case, making the best use of ancient city walls as well as the city’s waterfront and marine heritage – and making sure it’s stitched into the city.    You couldn’t say ‘this shopping centre could be anywhere’ as you arguably could with other locations.  Instead, it’s definitely in and for Southampton.  It’s integrated into its context and the stronger for it.  Significantly it is also a mixed use destination offering a variety of reasons to visit and dwell.  And that comes from the experience and lessons learned on pre-cursor schemes which arguably have done less well to be distinctive.

Across the UK it is hard work to make retail and leisure schemes long-term success stories.  Customers are so empowered and savvy now that they make decisions on where to spend time and money very differently to how they did even a few years ago – and arguably people don’t even have to leave the sofa to shop so demand more from their ‘shopping experience’.  So as planners and designers, we need to ensure we gather up, interrogate and then deploy all of the lessons we can from every new scheme – and by doing that ensure constant innovation and continuous improvement.

Yes, retail and leisure is all about the experience.  But you’ll never get the customer experience anywhere close to what you’re targeting if you don’t have the professional experience to shape and deliver that new retail and leisure proposition.

Mark will be attending this year's BCSC Conference - find out how to catch up with him and the team here.

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