At the height of the space race in the 1960s, so the legend goes, NASA’s astronauts realised their pens would not work in zero gravity.
To rectify this issue, NASA threw millions of dollars developing a pen that could work in space, while their crafty Soviet counterparts simply handed their astronauts pencils. Although this tale has been fairly definitively dismissed as a myth, its central premise that the simplest solutions are often the most effective remains apt.
Retail is not quite rocket science, but the major challenges and changes facing the sector make surviving a rather complex task.
Just like the pencil, Boxpark founder Roger Wade – who launched the third and largest Boxpark in Wembley, north west London in late December – has seemingly discovered a simple yet effective solution for the sector.
“People like to complicate retail and its actually very simple,” he told the Retail Gazette.
“Some of the greatest retailers I know, know the simplicity of retail and appreciate it.”
The latest evolution of Boxpark, which spans 50,000sq ft of retail and leisure space, stands as a physical manifestation of Wade’s ethos of simplicity.
Most immediately this simplicity can be found in its warehouse-like aesthetics, sporting a corrugated iron roof with exposed air conditioning, minimalist black and white décor and around 30 industrial-feeling retail and leisure units.
“I had a love of container architecture, it started when I was selling from the market stall and saw my goods being shipped in a container as a sign of success,” Wade said.
“I was already doing that with Boxfresh, I already had a store which was once a single container, to be honest it was only a matter of putting loads of containers together.”
The warehouse feel is accentuated by the 20,000sq ft space at its centre, overlooked by a second floor balcony that makes it reminiscent of a nightclub.
Of course, this is entirely deliberate and represents the first and perhaps most vital part of Wade’s simplistic three-part theory for retail success.
“Content is number one, if you don’t have great content you won’t exist, our content here is the traders we have and the events we put on,” he said.
“If you’re not entertaining the customer you don’t really exist, so I’m obsessed with that.”
This vast open hall doubles as a 2500 capacity events space, and there are already events ranging from yoga to movie nights, and even headline DJ nights booked until March.
Next in Wade’s rules for retail success is traffic, because “if you don’t create traffic to your content then you won’t exist”.
Unlike Boxpark’s other London locations in Shoreditch and Croydon, footfall at its Wembley location is all but guaranteed.
As part of the £3 billion Wembley Park development, which will eventually span 85 acres and include four distinct retail precincts, potential customers are never far away. Not only is the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium within easy walking distance, but the nearby London Designer Outlet centre boasted seven million visitors last year, more than both Wembley Stadium and neighbouring SSE Arena.
“Wembley Park is incredibly well connected to central London, you can get to central London in 15 minutes,” Wade added.
“They have great student accommodation here so I know the demographic is changing, on top of that you have the biggest stadium in the country, you have the second largest event space in terms of the SSE arena, you have one of the largest shopping centres in the country.
“The success of Wembley Park is intertwined with the success of Boxpark, and Boxpark’s success is intertwined with the success of Wembley Park.”
Last but not least in Wade’s three steps is conversion, ensuring the millions of revellers that are due to enter Boxpark over the coming year are converted into customers.
“We help create the content, we then create the traffic for them, then they have to turn that into customers… we let them focus on that last bit,” Wade said.
This simple strategy seems to be working, with Boxpark ranking 36th on the coveted Fast Track 100 list last year while booking its best ever performance, and this year is set to be even better.
However, if this strategy is both simple and effective, it begs the question why so many retailers are struggling to maintain growth, or even survive in the modern retail climate.
Fundamentally, it’s because it takes a great deal of self confidence and the willingness push against the conventional way of thinking in order for it to work – something Boxpark has had since day one.
“We’re not looking at anyone else, there’s no one else to look at,” Wade told Retail Gazette.
“What I could see was the death of the high street, and this is going back 10 years, or more than 10 years ago. I could see it was increasingly a shrinking independent base.
“What I was getting told at that time was ‘there is going to be no future for independents’, and I thought that just didn’t make any sense to me.
“Everyone that I know wants to be different from everyone else, they don’t want to be the same, they want to feel special.
“I really strongly believed in independent brands, so I went about to create the home of a new high street just created out of independent brands and that was the birth of Boxpark. At the time is was the world’s first pop-up mall.”
Each iteration of Boxpark is an evolution of the last. For instance, Wembley places a larger focus on street food, moving away from Shoreditch’s more fashion-orientated tenant mix, based on its observed popularity.
Although this evolution continues to tweak and improve Wade’s brainchild with every new location, its focus on independent retailers and independent thinking remain at its core.
“At the moment I can really run my business intuitively by feel,” Wade added.
“There’s business out there that are too stuck to a rigid business plan, or too stuck to getting an exit because they’re VT backed or they’re all chasing EBITDAs.
“We just don’t run our business like that, we plan for change. We don’t have a rigid business plan, we are evolving totally all the time and we are fanatical about the customer experience.”
While conventional retailers are spending millions on trying to solve their retail issues, scrambling to rejuvenate consumer confidence and shift their operations online, Boxpark has seemingly stuck to its pencil.
By utilising well-known and reliable retail practices, but remaining agile enough to use them in a fresh and modern context, it has gone from strength to strength and may well, as Wade intended, exemplify the new high street.