COMMENT: Customer experience isn’t a quick fix for vacant retail space

Gone are the days where the shops alone are enough – it’s now all about whole days out and customer experiences to win footfall. With retailers having to think outside the box, Landsec's Russell Loveland argues why experience is not a commodity to backfill vacancies.

It’s a tough time for retail, and it seems just about everyone has the same plan of action for the future: customer experience.

There’s sound logic to giving customers more of a reason to shop in-store than online, but what is experience, really? A buzzword for a sector desperate to prove it is evolving, or a fundamental shift in the relationship between landlord, customer and guest?

Recent retail news gives us a strong indication that landlords are going to have to up their game when it comes to repurposing space. Many brands are doing a great job of showcasing how online and in-store retail can work hand-in-hand. Some are not. For those who don’t find a way to reconcile the digital revolution with traditional retailing, there may be uncomfortable months ahead. Landlords need to think carefully about what they plan to do if space is left behind.

Despite what some may say, experience is not the answer to backfilling vacant retail space. Not every shopping destination in the country can have a trampoline park, for example. There is a shortage of supply when it comes to experiences in retail, and demand is high. It’s easy to see where the temptation to fill vacant units with experiential activities comes from. However, any landlord who plans to capitalise on empty space through experiential activity alone, needs to think again.

Not so long ago, there was a different, commonly accepted solution to filling empty retail space. For a number of years, the sector looked to food and beverage to fill the gap. However, if time has taught us anything, it’s that between then and now, the food offering at some shopping destinations has become saturated beyond a healthy point. Now, that market is struggling, too. Over-supply has meant that demand has plummeted, and we’re back to square one.

Landlords must view experience differently. It’s not a quick fix, or a buzzword. Instead, it’s the heart and soul of a retail property portfolio – offering the delightful, the different, and the innovative to brands and guests. In today’s retail sector, everything is experience. It’s our brand because we passionately believe in it. Our desire to deliver experience to the people we work with and for, is deeply ingrained in our retail strategy.

Customer experience is not about trampoline parks or virtual reality stores – these should be viewed as quality leisure offerings in their own right – it is about the shopping experience from before you leave your house until after you get home. From tills to toilets, parking to robotic dinosaurs, a landlord’s aim must be to surprise and delight, to present brands in a way that a screen cannot and to provide a catalyst for moments to remember.

In a harsh business landscape for retailers and landlords, the shopping destinations that survive will be the shopping destinations that offer the best experiences on every level – the destinations that demonstrate experience is far more than a buzzword, after all.

Experience is not a commodity you can backfill vacancies with. It’s the foundation of a strategy that means you don’t have to backfill vacant retail spaces in the first place.

Russell Loveland is Senior Portfolio Director at Landsec, owner of some of the UK’s largest retail destinations

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  1. Landlords have to be more inventive today. Re-use empty space in different ways – with start-ups, market stalls, a quiet lounge for the non-shoppers, spa, etc. which all contributes to the “retail experience”. If this is not done then the existing traders will be looking at others locations that can provide this experience.

  2. Thinking differently and use empty space for leisure like Gyms/PT studios, nursery’s and family activities which all drive footfall back to the shopping areas and then link retails digital purchase with pick up and go strategies.


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