Post Portas: London retail now

Tuesday 13 March 2012

London’s retail scene needs to take on board holistic planning and management principles, accept change and be flexible about how space is used. But it is too late to ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ – high streets must adapt or die, and in ways which may not be entirely retail focused.

Those were the main recommendations from British Property Federation chief Liz Peace as she gave a keynote address to the Post Portas - London retail now conference at the NLA this morning. Peace said that retail is changing ‘hugely’, assailed by pressures from the economy and internet, causing the bigger retailers to retreat to only trade in the bigger centres. BIDs have done good work to support holistic management, but there was still a job to be done to involve landlords mandatorily. Perhaps, added Peace, it was time to embrace ‘left field ideas’ such as more residential in high streets and avoiding resorting to cheaper ‘meanwhile’ uses for empty property properties such as charity shops or pound shops. These, said Peace, only serve to bring down the character of an area and move it into a vicious cycle of decline.

London, though, really is in a ‘bubble’, said CBRE senior director for Central London Retail Steven Stedman, with the power and influence of the landed estates the admiration of the world and £1000/sq ft common in the capital. Selfridges, for example, took £1m in the first hour of its Boxing Day sales. Stedman believes that the mix of large mall – Westfields London and Stratford for example, and High Streets like Oxford Street – happily co-exist, with areas such as Dover Street and Albermarle Street experiencing leaps in rents. Retailers want the ‘prestige’ and ‘branding’ of a London address, and although they must in future ‘embrace multi-channel retailing’ or die, said Stedman, there will always be the need for a high street where we can touch the product and ‘enjoy the thrill of a purchase’.

Other speakers at the event included Turley Associates executive director Michael Lowndes, who told of how Croydon is experiencing ‘post-trauma growth’ after the riots, armed with regeneration cash, and where a decision over the future of the town’s Whitgift Centre expected this week. Capital and Counties marketing and communications director Bev Churchill took the audience through the transformation of Covent Garden, complete with a developable ‘brand’ which is perhaps more valuable to it even than the real estate the company owns. Tesco regional corporate affairs’ Tony Fletcher showed how the firm’s regeneration arm – Spenhill – is turning to residential and retail schemes such as one in Woolwich with which he hopes people can ‘look afresh’ at the area. And Land Securities retail leasing director David Atcherley-Symes pointed to the Victoria area as its big hope for a new mix of retail types, along with a new cinema, restaurants and residential. He added that ‘success is contagious’, with space in the market for schemes like Westfield London and a consequent growth in Shepherd’s Bush retail as a second tier. One of the keys to this success lay in being relevant, he said, and in being proud about being different. ‘Retailing needs to be relevant’, he said, ‘but it also needs to offer value for time and value for money.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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