Posted by: davidjmarlow | 12/07/2012

The implications of ‘continuous retail revolution’ for town centres and for the retail sector itself…

I was struck by Greg Clark’s perceptive recent MIPIM blog (at ) on the ‘three revolutions’ of retail in city centres over the past forty years. Greg argues that the department store, the shopping centre, and latterly on-line shopping has revolutionised the role of retail in city centres (and therefore the city centres themselves). My response accepted but extended Greg’s analysis, positing a ‘fourth revolution’ in the future of town and city centre retail ‘districts’. Based on my work on town centres in the UK in the aftermath of the Portas Review and government’s response to it, successful town and city centres need to ‘go with the grain’ of all four market revolutions. But, shaping this response locally will produce new high street revolutions in their own right.

The first revolution – the department store – has been accommodated in town and city centres but at the cost of the ‘clone town’ risk of every high street looking and feeling the same. Contemporary responses include the reinvention of the independent sector through, for instance, themed high quality markets, and the ‘village-isation’ of major destinations within the metropolitan centre. In London one can think of Covent Garden and Borough Market or perhaps Hampstead and even Bethnal Green in this type of way.

The second revolution – really the out of town shopping centre based on access by car – became almost the ‘holy grail’ of high street reinvention in the boom decades leading up to 2008. The out of town centre was brought into the city centre, though developments like Bullring redevelopment in Birmingham or Liverpool One, and accompanied by (more or less successful) collaborative town/city centre management to try and diminish the ‘enclave’ risk of the revolution.

The third revolution – the digital on-line shopping experience – is still in the process of being worked through. Contemporary responses include enhanced town centre management together with using online and interactive media to promote the high street and generate footfall, the rise of the multi-channel retailer, and incentivising the on-line retailer to locate physically on the high street.

Village-isation and the reinvention of the independent, modern shopping centres at the heart of proactive city centre management, and embracing on-line and interactive media as integral to the city centre experience is an integrated and coherent response to the three revolutions – necessary, but maybe not sufficient.

Are we seeing a ‘fourth revolution’ – one in which, in an age of medium-term austerity and changing social trends, shopping is no longer as central to our lives, and therefore to our city centres as hitherto. The recent work in the UK on town centres suggests that retail roles and functions will no longer be the primary purpose of many of them. For these centres (possibly a majority), henceforth people will come to city centres to live, to work, to recreate/play/experience, to learn, maybe to receive support – and only, incidentally, to shop.

Great city and town centres have always had a richness and multiplicity of purposes. Mediating and developing this diversity has been a major role of city and local leadership teams. The interesting challenge is therefore for the retail sector. Accustomed to being (on occasions, arrogant) ‘kings’ of the high street and ‘king-makers’ of city and town centre development, can they embrace new and sometimes secondary positions in urban hierarchies? Can they perhaps learn the skills and attributes of ‘servant leadership’?

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