Much has been written on how shopping habits have been transformed by technology, and how the abundance of digital channels has changed the retail landscape for good.
But there is a further, equally pertinent, movement afoot: the experience revolution. And while this trend is well-established in our towns and shopping centres, its impact is only beginning to be felt by retail parks.
Speaking at the Retail World Congress recently, Debenhams chairman Sir Ian Cheshire told delegates that for the next generation it was “experience, not stuff that matters”. While millennials may be driving this trend, consumers across the board have increased their spending on going out and entertainment as they too prioritise experiences, especially those that can be shared on social media.
This quest for experience presents an interesting contradiction for retail parks, which have been fantastically successful by being convenient and easy to use, rather than because they‘ve offered an inspiring destination.
So, in a tough and competitive market, how do we reconcile the two in order to meet enhanced customer expectations and drive long term success?
The answer lies with taking a comprehensive view of the overall quality of the park experience to ensure it promotes ease of use: from embedding sustainable forms of transport such as electric car charging; offering free wifi and charging facilities for mobile devices; to creating high-quality, attractive public spaces with dining and leisure options that give people more reasons to visit.
Renovations at Fosse in Leicester are already showing what an impact this can have. There‘s more to do, but by widening walkways, covering outside spaces, improving frontages, and introducing ceiling height glazing and park landscaping, it has attracted several new brands over the course of a year, including Pandora and Office, whilst also delivering a 15 per cent increase in footfall.
The inherent flexibility of the physical environment at retail parks has also shown them to be ideally placed to respond to the needs of the digital shopper, such as by providing dedicated parking for click-and-collect.
However, this is a fast-changing environment. Concepts like Amazon Go in the US, which has removed the check-out process entirely, demonstrate how the boundaries of the traditional shopping experience are being pushed for convenience.
But we‘re still working out what does and doesn‘t work. So, while there has been huge excitement about the potential for drones and virtual reality in retail, the implementation is not always straightforward, as Facebook‘s decision to close nearly half of its Oculus pop-ups in the US demonstrates.
This understanding of what shoppers want is also about more than overall trends. Each locality will have different demographics and demands, requiring a sophisticated understanding of its consumers to create the right retail and leisure mix in the right location – and to know when to incorporate new technology or experience innovations.
The new Rushden Lakes development, opening this summer, encapsulates this blend of convenience, experience-led shopping and local character. Situated beside lakes and 200 acres of protected wetlands nature reserve, it is a unique destination which brings together a blend of retail and dining, and a broad range of leisure activities from cycling, to bird watching and water sports.
It‘s a great example of a retail destination of the future; shaped by its surroundings to deliver a spectacular shopping experience that stands out from the competition.
It‘s testament to this vision that Rushden Lakes has attracted many retailers who haven‘t traded out of town before, such as Hobbs, Phase Eight and Jigsaw, as well as House of Fraser‘s first new department store in nearly 10 years.
This is an exciting time for retail. But the pace of change, increased competition and an uncertain economic outlook all contribute to making it a more challenging one. However, in a world where convenience is still king, there is a huge opportunity for landlords and retailers to work together to transform our retail parks into the shopping experience of the future.
Hannah Milne is the Director of Regional Retail at The Crown Estate.