If by the end of the decade 1 in 4 shopping transactions are made online, the high street will look very different. How could we use shopping malls to be more inspiring, engaging and community driven and in so doing provide a space for retailers to interact with consumers, to shape their brands and customer experience?
This week the Centre for Retail Research published a chilling forecast for the UK high street. It forecasts the closure of 164 major or medium-sized retailers, with more than 60,000 stores employing 300,000 people closing in the next 5 years. The emerging economics of retailing mean that currently 1 in 8 purchases are made online (currently the highest in the world), with an estimated rise to 21%, or 1 in every 4 being made online by the end of the decade.
Personally, retail therapy has always been my ‘retail hell’. I’d rather buy a product online from the comfort of my sofa than pay a ransom for car parking, spend the day being pushed and squashed and have my ears assaulted by tin pop music. So I won’t be shedding any tears if this prediction fulfils itself. That said, I think it would be a crying shame if the opportunity to create an exciting, more inspired and engaging way to use this space were lost.
Imagine this – a typical ‘shopping mall’ with three levels. Lots of open space and light. Only instead of being a ‘shopping mall’, it’s a learning community ‘hub’. This is how it could be structured:
- On one level, the business hub model would allow social entrepreneurs to connect, share ideas and offer flexible working space.
- On the next level, artists could come together – huge wide open spaces for galleries, video production studios, artists-in-residence and mini theatres. Interactive displays would be available and huge video screens that people could upload their photos/tweets/thoughts…
- On the third level, a ‘learning academy’ could be offered for people of all ages – space for creative school projects, for youngsters to teach digital skills, for the ‘retired’ to share their wisdom and expertise. For community development – space for people to propose ideas on how to care for and co-create their local environment. There would be workshops on health awareness, with clinics and workshops on nutrition, exercise and disease prevention.
- In the atrium across all levels would be open meeting space, areas for people to connect. Prominent recycling areas, space for meditation and ‘decompression’, along with plant-life would be available.
At all levels, space is taken by ‘retailers’ who offer customer experiences, opportunities to engage with customers and create community. Rather than competing for disposable income on the shop floor, they look to develop brand enthusiasts who then have a choice with regards the retail channel they buy from.
Apple took the first step towards this ‘retail revolution’. But it’s not just limited to traditional retail. Credit Foncier, a mortgage lender in France, opened a new store in Paris with the sole purpose of inspiring anybody who wanted to own their own home.
According to the excellent 2012 IDEO report, smart retailers are recognising the opportunity that these spaces could offer in engaging with customers at a relational rather than transactional level. By understanding and interacting with customers to find out what their needs are, the retail experience can be crafted into a powerful force for R&D development.
“Customers today want retailers to be less about well-orchestrated brands and carefully rehearsed answers and more about transparency, authenticity and passion.”
I, for one, would be jumping up and down at the opportunity to contribute to such a vibrant, inspiring and community-led vision for our high street of the future. The question is, how much imagination do the retail giants and local councils have to create it? Or will it be too late by the time they recognise the need?