COVID lessons – an opportunity for retail place strategy

If ever there has been a stand-out in the retail environment due to recent circumstances; by observation it can be viewed two-fold; a greater uptake in online retail, and the resilience of convenience-based bricks and mortar. This is not necessarily a reflection of the entire retail landscape but more an observation of two performers in retail that have the potential to drive innovation within developments moving into the future.

With lockdowns and restrictions being imposed upon society to varying degrees, regional and district retail assets classes felt the greatest impacts across the board. This is also true of the retail strip shops, high-streets and CBD centres being drained of footfall. Given the immediate changes in shopper behaviour over the last few months, there have been interesting clues into how developments could leverage the accelerated changes imposed upon retail assets. Notwithstanding the returning levels of patronage to brick and mortar, once restrictions were systematically lifted, we have learned a thing or two about what really matters during stressful times.

Firstly, everyone needs their local, convenient, retail offer, whether it be a neighbourhood centre, high-street, or stand-alone supermarket. The basics are always going to be essential, be it a grocer, fruit and veggie operator, deli, butcher, baker, fishmonger, post office, hardware or liquor store. Every local community needs this essential retail within close proximity. It has been wonderful to re-discover the local traders, learn about their product, and get accustomed to seeing more of the local community regularly, as a result of being encouraged to work remotely or from home as opposed to the office in the CBD.

Rather than busting out to larger regional centres during restrictions, large populations tended to subscribe to local convenient offers and large-format retail for varying reasons. Fortunately, large centres that are anchored by supermarkets, grocers, fresh food, and other incidental services, have seen a steady trickle of patronage as opposed to a complete disbandment.

It is no secret that fashion retail has taken a back-seat with being a necessity as a result of our population being socially distanced. This is not necessarily the end of fashion but demonstrates what is essential on many levels. When restrictions lift, the “peacocking-effect” re-emerges; the need to be seen by others and to be kitted out in the latest threads. Many of us cannot wait to get out and share moments with others in the public realm – we need to be appropriately adorned. Sadly, fashion sits at the top of many cost-cutting lists. However, there are many success stories of fashion retailers adapting quickly to constraints and challenges via online platforms. So too are some of the “return-to-trade” stories for many after restrictions were eased. The notion of adaptable fashion retail on multiple platforms is not new, but the acceleration of change to fashion retail is more sensitive than ever. We will likely see fewer fashion stores, and those we will see in the next evolution will be of a very high standard of experience, custom brand immersion, personalisation, and customer care.

In complete contrast to fashion retail, we continue to observe the quiet, on-going, successes of large-format retail assets that support local communities and businesses, irrespective of imposed remote-working restrictions. It is very interesting to draw parallels between convenience-based retail and large-format retail. Considerations such as convenient parking, ease of access, hours of operation, and generally open-air environments give both asset classes a differentiation. What if we can draw upon these few ingredients and intentionally disrupt the mix of existing district / regional assets? Sure, this will throw the cat amongst the pigeons, but would it assist in making our larger assets more tenable for a longer, more sustainable, future? We are already seeing a greater mix of use on large landholdings. Still, I worry that some are possibly bolted-on merely to insulate stressed-out assets and need greater diversity and “place granularity” to deal with the long-term retail strategy.

It is very exciting to think of what our centres, mixed-use assets and community town centres precincts will look like going forward. Considering the successes of local community-based convenient centres and large format retail, we do see the benefits of blending these asset classes together more deliberately and challenging the status quo. It not only brings a greater mix into the equation and reduces risk; this strategy can leverage community ownership and diversify the retail mix thereby enhancing granularity and precinct strength.



Harold is a Director with over 15 years’ practice experience in retail master planning, retail design, high-end residential design, commercial, warehouse and hospitality architecture.

Did you enjoy this article?