22 December 2018

Retailers may be suffering in the face of online competition, but the physical store remains an important part of a brand’s identity. Neil Gerrard speaks to Sam Jacob, founder of Sam Jacob Studios; Sheppard Robson’s Claire Haywood; Jeremy Sweet of BDP; and Heatherwick Studio’s Tamsin Green about the role architecture can play in shaping future meanings of retail space.

For many retailers, it is not the tills that are ringing in their stores, but the shrill din of proverbial alarm bells. Shopping habits are changing and changing quickly.

It is a global problem and the statistics make for grim reading. In the UK alone, shops are closing at the rate of 14 every day according to research from PwC, and analysts estimate that some 200 UK shopping centres are at risk of administration as a result of dwindling footfall, as would-be customers take their purchases online.

Meanwhile, in the US, household names like Macy’s and JC Penney have announced hundreds of closures since 2017 and Sears, once the country’s fourth-largest employer, has seen the number of its stores decline from 3,500 in the mid-1990s to fewer than 600 today.

The future of physical stores

And yet, a recent report by Arup on the future of retail declared that the physical store is still a “critical step” in the purchase journey, pointing to a survey of consumers that showed 59% preferred to buy household appliances in-person, with 52% preferring to see consumer electronics in real life before parting with their cash, and 72% opting to leave the home for groceries.

For the time being, then, the accepted wisdom is that retailers need an omnichannel presence.

“It’s not either ecommerce or physical property but rather the interplay between the two,” says Claire Haywood, partner and retail lead at Sheppard Robson.

With that, though, comes the acknowledgement that the form and function of a physical store need to shift dramatically.

“All the rules have changed,” says Sam Jacob, founder of Sam Jacob Studio, co-founder of the nowdisbanded pomo provocateurs FAT Architecture and recently a judge in the Crown Estate’s Future Retail Destinations competition.

“What is a shop when what used to be its fundamental reason for being – the transaction – can now take place somewhere else? Maybe it isn’t even the place where the transaction is conducted, but where other kinds of relationship are explored and created?” he suggests.

Big-brand boutiques

When it comes to high fashion, major brands are teaming up with architects to offer boutiques the design of which is every bit as outlandish as the products contained within, making them a destination in their own right.

Dior’s eye-popping clothing store in Seoul, created by Christian de Portzamparc and Peter Marino, for example, is dressed in 20m-tall white fibreglass panels that undulate, recalling the flowing movement of the clothing created by the famous fashion brand.

Meanwhile, MVRDV took what is perhaps a more sensitive but just as radical approach to Chanel’s Crystal House boutique in Amsterdam, mimicking the design of the original building in the city’s PC Hooftstraat shopping district but with a facade made almost entirely out of glass bricks.

The prohibitive cost means that such groundbreaking approaches to rethinking retail stores are the exception rather than the rule (each glass stone used on Chanel’s store reportedly cost €50), but the basic premise that shops need to offer consumers more than just the prospect of a transaction still applies.

Rise of the showroom

“I think ‘showrooms’ and ‘brand centres’ are likely to become a bigger part of the bricks and mortar retail offer,” says Haywood. “, which is an online brand, has since opened three showrooms across the UK to showcase its products.”

Looking to the US, that is certainly the approach Samsung has decided to take. Its first flagship store in Manhattan, Samsung 837, is built on the company’s idea of what the future of retail looks like and focuses on experience. The only part of the 55,000m2 store where you can actually make a transaction is in the cafe. The rest of it is given over to a changing programme of activities, including tech-based art installations, live broadcasts and workshops.

For Jeremy Sweet, head of retail at BDP, placemaking and the creation of a memorable experience for would-be customers is key.

“People still want to come together to experience, interact and socialise, so creating the right environment to allow that is a major positive attribute,” he asserts. “The days of having oldfashioned, inward-looking shopping centres that just offer retail are over.”

In London, the newly opened Coal Drops Yard, a 10,000m2 retail development designed by Heatherwick Studio, has been built with creating a memorable experience very much in mind.

From its ambitious design, which sees the roofs of two cast-iron and brick former coal depots peeled off and bent towards each other at a 25m-high ‘kissing point’, to its expansive public spaces and mix of large and small stores, Heatherwick Studio project leader Tamsin Green explains that to hit developer Argent’s brief of attracting 12 million visitors a year, Coal Drops had to be made into a destination that transcended transactions.

“We were really thinking about how we create not just an environment for retail, but also a public space that has some element of theatre and experience, where there can be things happening within the space between the buildings,” says Green.

There’s an emphasis on the human element within each of the stores, with Heatherwick Studio and Argent creating very small units of as little as 12m2 to encourage independent startups to take a risk and open a store, sitting alongside anchor stores of up to around 2,000m2.

The architects have also built plenty of flexibility into the space, as Green explains: “In future, if Argent want to combine some of these units together or separate them up, that is possible. We currently have quite a small number of restaurants because there are many in the surrounding area, but in the future that may change so we have designed the units with the possibility in mind that some can become restaurants.”

Boxpark: a fusion of food and flexible space

Encouraging the presence of smaller, more unusual operators is also core to the experience at Boxpark in Croydon and Wembley, both designed by BDP Retail. A food and beverage-focused pop-up mall of shipping containers, Boxpark fuses street food, local restaurateurs and global brands to create a destination that appeals to a wide range of consumers, but particularly the younger generation of digital natives. Sweet sees lessons there for the entire retail sector.

“I think there are some parallels in Boxpark that we see coming into play in other schemes more generally,” he says. “It is not just about the fact that you are creating a space with more food and beverage in it: what is key to us is this idea of the architecture becoming about creating loose-fit, flexible space where the emphasis is on allowing things to happen and change.

“It’s not just about the fact that there are restaurants there – they have gigs, events and exhibitions, often in the dead time between breakfast and lunch.”

BDP designed the space so that seating in the main area can be removed very quickly to make way for Boxercise and yoga classes. And more generally, an evolution in payment technology – through mobile payment, for example – is likely to mean that architects have more space to play with. It is through this approach that Boxpark Croydon also became the preferred place in the local area to watch England play during the recent World Cup, something that even the architects themselves had not predicted.

Jacob sees that different way of thinking as a potential answer to the plight of zombie shopping precincts struggling to find their raison d’être.

“Once a particular model of how things have to work becomes established, that becomes a formula that it is then very difficult to do anything outside of,” he says. “Obviously when that formula no longer works, it requires rethinking and maybe it is a chance to think about what we want to have in our town centres. Could it be less monolithic? Could it be something where you are more active as a citizen rather than cast simply as a consumer? There is the potential for the revitalisation of public spaces across the country.”

Shopping for sustainability

Retail design also needs to tap into the concerns of modern-day consumers in order to win their approval, Haywood asserts. That means paying heed to issues like sustainability.

She points to Sheppard Robson’s new retail pavilion in Manchester’s Spinningfields, which will become a restaurant by the Ivy and is almost entirely constructed from timber, with planting greening the facades, and its BREEAM Excellent-rated Morrison’s supermarket on the Edgware Road in London, which introduces natural light onto the sales floors.

“At the heart of the issue is quality. Shopping centres and precincts – especially those that lack natural light and have outdated finishes – need to use design to create engaging, memorable experiences, creating a compelling and experiential alternative to online shopping,” she says.

“Previously the architecture was a blank canvas for the brand to inhabit. Increasingly the architecture and the brand are becoming linked and have a more symbiotic relationship.”

For Sam Jacob, there’s plenty that architects can do to assist retail brands and keep their physical stores fresh and interesting – and that applies whether it is a luxury development with a big budget or something much smaller and humbler – but the key is to have a space that can undergo continuous evolution and curation.

“You don’t just find a formula and stick to it,” he concludes. “It doesn’t feel like there is a key to what the future model should be. It’s more of an attitude.”

So while architects can’t rescue retailers from the tough times they are experiencing, fostering a closer relationship and working together to rethink what a physical store is for is key to future success.

The glass-brick facade of Chanel’s Crystal House boutique in Amsterdam.
Heatherwick Studio’s ambitious design for the 10,000m2 Coal Drops Yard retail development in London.
Boxpark pop-up mall in Croydon, London.

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