The Great Hotel Conversion Trend

Shopping malls were retail destinations in their own right, giving shoppers a large variety of retail offerings within one location. However, the way people shop, and the arrival of online shopping has forever changed and increasingly challenged the shopping mall, with the pandemic just speeding up the changes. With some exceptions, owners of shopping malls have come under growing pressure to maximise the potential viability of their assets again.

A ray of hope that could be set to save many shopping malls, is the post-pandemic surge of experiential travel. In the case of shopping malls, it means enhancing the retail components, by providing more restaurants and a variety of leisure facilities and experiences – and the addition of hotels. This will entice tourists and local shoppers, who will see these as leisure destinations, rather than just places to exchange cash for goods.

Shopping malls are ripe for this transformation, as many often have substantial acreage in densely populated areas that already have good access to infrastructure, which helps make them suitable for accommodation as well.  This in turn can unlock land value by activating dormant space such as parking lots or as many malls have flat roofs, there is scope to consider airspace development.

Having a mixed purpose offering in one location answers the concept of the 15-minute city, which was inspired by French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno,  highlighting that it can and should be attainable for people to have access to everything they need within a 15-minute walk or cycle of their dwellings to save time and enhance quality of life.

The idea of mixed-use development doesn’t stop with shopping malls. There is a growing trend in cities to convert redundant office buildings into hotels. This is being driven by various factors, such as changes to the office market, with an estimated 35% decrease in office rentals and an increasing demand for hotel accommodation.

The rise of hybrid and remote working has meant that traditional office space is less in demand and property owners and developers have had to look hard at alternative uses for their buildings, in order to stay lucrative. In many instances, converting them into hotels is emerging as an attractive and viable solution.

In cities such as London, where space is a premium, and being a global tourist destination, there is always a demand for hotels. With feasible space for new build hotel developments scarce, converting existing buildings such as redundant office blocks that can be viably repurposed is a no-brainer.

Office blocks lend themselves to this cause for several reasons, with a prime benefit being that so many are open plan. Partition walls and modularity can be successfully used for the construction of rooms, which can be key to commercial success.  Structurally, large open office spaces tend to be solidly constructed and surround a central service core containing lifts, plumbing, ducts and risers, fire stairs, bathrooms and equipment. Wet areas located against the core can easily be connected to the building services and systems.

Most modern office buildings already have the advantage of a 3-meter floor to ceiling height and large windows to allow plenty of natural light. There is also often scope to move various exterior walls, in order to create balconies or outside leisure and hospitality spaces.

Taking into consideration that many office buildings are centrally situated, puts them in close proximity to prime tourist locations and makes them very attractive for redevelopment.

As with any large-scale conversion, it is essential to have the right team in place. A good Architect will be able to visualise and design the best use of the space within the building, to maximise its potential and ensure its adherence to the differing regulations required for the changed use of the space. An experienced Project Manager and Quantity Surveyor will  be able to facilitate the planning elements, and to help ensure that the works out carried out on time and within budget.

Ultimately, whether it is a redeveloped office block or the addition of a hotel within a shopping mall, these will help to inherently improve the local urban experience and to drive profitability for the owners.

Pitfalls to avoid during a hotel refurb

We are seeing how increasingly, hotels are responding to these changes, with many focusing on becoming social hubs for the local community and destinations to work, eat, meet and relax. More corporate guests are extending their stay into weekends , giving rise to what has become known as the ‘bleisure’ trend. This in turn is driving the need for hotels to be flexible with their social spaces, such as bars able to be transformed into meeting rooms, or restaurants into night clubs. It is the hotels that respond to these trends and changes by embarking on a rejuvenation scheme approximately every seven years, which are the least likely to experience a dip in profit.

When done properly, renovations can take considerable investment, both financially and with time. It is important to have a well thought out plan of action, with clearly defined steps. Criteria to consider include ensuring that refurbishments align with low reservation periods, to help reduce or avoid hotel revenue loss. But rather than closing the hotel entirely during the works, another option could be to close it in sections, commencing with the lobby and ancillary areas, and then dividing the bedrooms into smaller unoccupied sections, to try to avoid noise disturbance impacting on guests.

Having a strong procurement plan and committing to a programme with realistic deliverables and timescales is essential to help drive value engineering. Nobody wants to waste time by tendering a project for a desired scheme, only to find out that it comes in over budget. If as built information is not available, it helps to undertake a thorough dimensional survey and MEP survey of the entire building. This is where it is prudent to obtain the support of an experienced Project Management and Cost Management team.

One could say that choosing the right team with a ‘can-do’ attitude and experience that reflects the project type and having them in place from the beginning, is key to the success of the entire project. After all, there is no point in undertaking a rejuvenation scheme if it becomes sabotaged by spiralling costs and unnecessary delays.

Tenders for Main Contractors (MCs) with the correct pedigree, need to be carefully considered and they should be able to demonstrate previous experience of the project type. It is advisable to lock them into the tender and to check their financial status and the project value against their turnover and current order book. MCs also need to submit a detailed programme with their tender, including a description of their logistical plan and most importantly a weekly prediction of their labour resources on site each week. This is again where an experienced Project Manager who is familiar with a host of local MCs can offer pertinent advice before awarding the contract. It is also prudent to ensure that the correct type of Contract is in place with the Main Contractor before works commence, to avoid potentially a multitude of unexpected costs and complications arising during the refurbishment scheme.

Knowing who the clientele is and how to accommodate their needs is paramount. From this, a clear concept can then be developed, with the help of an experienced design team. A good Project Manager will be able to work alongside a design team, utilising their experience to ensure that realistic solutions are achieved, without compromising on the creative elements that will give a hotel its own robust brand identity and customer appeal. Whilst schemes should require an initial sample room fit-out for sign off, an experience Project Manager will help to ensure that the physical delivery of the concept is right and kept within budget, as it is rolled out to other areas.

Good communication cannot be underestimated and having a good Project Manager in place, enables all communication to be overseen and communicated through one individual, which will help facilitate a smoother process all around. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ rings very true when it comes to refurbishment projects and it is advisable not to skimp on consultant fees, as they are employed to look after the best interests of both the client and the project.

There is no denying that embarking on a refurbishment scheme can be challenging. However, by having the correct team in place and ensuring best business practice and good communication from the beginning, it should result upon completion in a profit increase, through being able to potentially charge more per night and attract new audiences, and ultimately to drive occupancy rates.

Demand sees surge in office refurbs

Hybrid working has been on the rise since the turn of the century and even prior to the pandemic JLL expected 30% of London’s office space to be ‘flexible’ by 2030, however, it is Covid that has permanently changed the way we work, resulting in a surge in demand for flexible workspace globally. This is helping to generate the largest increase in the refurbishment of office buildings since 2020, as demand from workers shifts to the highest quality and flexible spaces and embracing of new working practices.

Comments Geraint Evans, Managing Director of Office Network Global, “Changes to employee rights in the UK will only increase the migration to flexible working when the Flexible Working Bill achieves Royal Assent later this year. The Bill enables employees to request flexible working changes to their job role even before they start work, with each request having to be considered and only dismissed with good reason. Recent CIPD research shows that 6 percent of employees changed jobs last year specifically due to a lack of flexible options and 12 percent left their profession altogether due to a lack of flexibility within the sector. This represents almost 2 and 4 million workers respectively and will undoubtedly result in further alterations and refurbishments as business leaders and landlords strive to accommodate accordingly.”

The Summer 2023 London Office Crane Survey carried out by Deloitte found that the number of office refurbishments across the capital hit a record high in the period between October 2022 and March 2023.

Margaret Doyle, chief insights officer for financial services and real estate at Deloitte, has said: “Tenants’ shift toward quality over quantity has led to desire for attractive, sustainable, well-kitted out spaces, close to transport hubs and amenities.”

This is having a ripple effect with new infrastructure and expanding transport links such as the new Elizabeth Line helping to attract people to previously overlooked areas, such as mid-town and the eastern fringes of the city.

Another influencing factor is the need to bring offices up to scratch legally – especially in terms of energy efficiency – which is set to drive London’s development for the rest of the decade. The letting of commercial space with an EPC rating below E becoming soon becoming unlawful, has initiated 37 new retrofit and refurbishment schemes, providing nearly 300,000m2 of workspace, the highest since Deloitte began tracking activity in 2005.

Recently released figures by Industry analyst Glenigan also show that planning approvals on detailed office schemes in the past three months were up 8 per cent on the start of the year, and 31 per cent on last year, in a clear sign that this sector is not showing any signs of slowing down.

With nearly 40 years of experience delivering construction services including PM and QS, Architecture and Design, in the commercial sector for clients such as WeWork and PVH’s UK Head Quarters , rpa:group is your ideal partner for your next office scheme.

Airport lounges are transforming – let us help you with yours

Business travel can be dreary and time-consuming and airlines, airports and other institutions are increasingly seeing the value of investing in better airport lounges to help make this experience more enjoyable, which attracts repeat business and enhances profitability.

Airline lounges have been around for a while, offering a place of respite, some light refreshment and internet access away from the hustle and bustle of the terminals, but opportunities are afoot to make these lounges destinations in their own right —think fully-stocked bars, spa services, gourmet meals, private TSA and immigration, and being chauffeur driven across the airfield to your flight.

We are also seeing a different design approach, with what were previously rather mundane spaces, now being approached by designers in the same way that a high-end residential or hotel concept would be. They are gearing towards creating more unique and personal atmospheres, with design elements that are not generally seen in commercial projects.

As travellers prefer a sense of the location they are in, consideration is increasingly being given to the design of lounges, to embody local flavours, rather than being identical around the world. As an example, last year’s winner of the Priority Pass Annual Lounge Awards was Club Kingston at Jamaica’s Kingston Norman Manley International Airport, which includes artwork and décor sourced from across the island, as well as traditional Jamaican food and drink.

Lounge buffets are also getting makeovers, with more stations manned by chefs and an increase in grab-and-go selections, or fine cuisine from a made-to-order menu. For those travellers with more time on their hands, options for distinctive dining are also on the increase.

When it comes to technology, airports have fast become some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world, with biometric enabled self-service check-in facilities and apps that help navigate airport processes. Airport lounges are moving into the digital field too with the likes of Etihad, Emirates and Aviapartner introducing VR entertainment technology. More than a form of entertainment, these airlines anticipate that this type of technology will enable more personalised end-to-end solutions and an enhanced user-experience.

The introduction of premium lounges is not limited to airlines; and we are seeing a wave of independent lounge programmes being launched all over the world.

rpa:group has extensive experience in terms of designing and project managing various types of Airport experiences. From First and Business class lounges to Retail, Restaurants, Airline check-in and Security combs and more, we are the ideal partner for your next airport lounge project. If you would like to know more, or need our help, please get in touch.

Bringing the hyperphysical to retail

This is where hyperphysical retail is coming into its own. The term “Hyperphysical” as business analyst Marie Dollé states for The Future Laboratory, is “about ‘giving a ‘higher life’ to physical spaces and objects and injecting culture to get us out of our cocoons.’” In other words, the physical world is becoming conscious of how it will connect with our feelings and emotions.

As a result, retailers now need to entice their consumers by providing them with meaningful spaces and experiential services that supersede the traditional habits of shopping in a physical store. There is no time like the present and customers are hungry for it. According to new European research, commissioned by global technology firm Epson, entitled “The Experiential Future”,  75% of European shoppers – and over 80% of Millennials and Gen Z – have said that they would change their shopping behaviour if high street stores were more experiential.

These are exciting times for physical retail, which is not just rejuvenating, but fundamentally reinventing itself. In the high-end market, we have seen brands such as Balenciaga clad their entire Mount Street store in pink faux fur to launch a range of handbags. Dior opened a Paris flagship, offering people the chance to see garments being made and our client Tommy Hilfiger has opened a flagship store in Berlin with its own cinema, while many of its stores now include cafes and cocktail bars, offering DJ sets. Axel Arigato offers a complimentary sneaker cleaning service to customers at five of their flagships, on the first Sunday of every month.

This change is not just happening in the luxury retail sector. The high street is also seeing a renaissance, with many pushing boundaries and using innovation and creativity. We are seeing examples such as “Play-tail”; dedicated areas that retailers are creating for children to play in, whilst their parents shop and “Hangout Hubs” – destinations focused on socialising to create brand engagement. There is also an increase in the use of Influ-sellers, through which brands are leveraging the audiences of micro-influencers, to present and curate shared shopping experiences. It is about brands taking an honest approach and reassessing themselves to deliver experiences that are true to the inherent values that they hold.

Of course hyperphysical retail might not fit every brand. It isn’t about throwing a lot of sensory stuff into a store and hoping that it sticks. Rather,  it should be about how the experience fits with the retailer and its brand. In other words, there’s a difference between ‘seducing’ or engaging someone with sensory input rather than just visually screaming at them. Sometimes, this just needs to be about an effectively laid out store, that offers an easy shopping experience. This is especially true of convenience stores.

We now live in an omnichannel world, with a boundless retail landscape, aided by technology. It is up to brands to create outposts that define communities, in order to provide an oasis of creative and expressive sustenance.

Designing for Daylight

Increasingly, daylight is being recognised as a key component of biophilic design, forming a ‘direct experience’ of it. The term “biophilia”  derives from the ancient Greek for “bio” meaning life, and “philia”, which translates to “brotherly love, friendship, or affection.” The concept examines how buildings can be designed and built in such a way as to provide a positive impact on people’s everyday lives. As part of this, good daylight design has been shown to improve health, mood, cognitive abilities, and productivity of occupants. It can create a connection between interior spaces and nature and helps to reduce the energy consumption of buildings. 

Regardless of whether it be for a home, school or commercial space, design for daylight needs to be carefully considered. Low daylight levels can result in gloomy spaces, which will require additional artificial lighting. Conversely, too much daylight can cause glare and increase the solar grain in a space, which will cause visual discomfort and may require additional space cooling measures. Good design involves a complex process of balancing the available natural light with artificial light, which can be achieved by utilising architecture, responsive lighting solutions and shading devices. 

Daylight modelling is one such tool that examines how daylight interacts with a building and behaves within the interior of it. When used correctly, it can identify where there is too little or too much natural light, also evaluating variables such as different times of day and weather scenarios, to create spaces that are perfectly balanced between light and dark.  

In addition, building performance systems such as the WELL Building Standard ® are used to measure, assess, certify and monitor features of the built environment that will have an impact on human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. 

Designers can utilise these tools and systems, whilst collaborating on projects alongside architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and lighting designers. If it happens to be a building project in the early stages, then building orientation can be evaluated around the schematic design phase, as this forms a critical part of the process of designing for daylight and energy efficiency.  

As daylight is the ultimate light source in terms of how it renders architectural features and colours, good design focuses on the optimum use of interior surfaces to enhance a space and absorb or reflect light where needed, to create the best possible environment for all those within it . 

Why a recession is a good time for a hotel refurb

One of the key factors when undertaking works is to avoid disturbance to guests. With many hotels experiencing reduced occupancy due to economic factors, disruption will be at a minimum and works can happen more quickly and efficiently. This is better than enforcing a decrease in occupancy by having to close floors for refurbishment during busier periods. In other words, this is a good time for hotel owners to put plans into action, so that they can offer their future guests an experience that they are increasingly coming to expect from their stay.   

Research is showing that guests are more likely to spend longer periods of time outside of their rooms, and hotels need to adapt public spaces to accommodate this. A refurbishment plan can see ground floor space being fully maximized and utilised in a variety of new ways, to become areas with purpose in their own right, helping to increase dwell time. This can include areas being given over to create workspaces and wellness centers and upgrades made to bars and restaurants, which are increasingly becoming destinations that attract customers beyond hotel residents. Other important criteria to update include proper entertainment, fast and reliable Wi-Fi and optimal technology. 

Having a strong procurement plan and committing to a programme with realistic deliverables and timescales is essential. This is where it is prudent to obtain the support of an experienced Project Management and Cost Management team. After all, there is no point in undertaking a rejuvenation scheme if it becomes sabotaged by spiralling costs and unnecessary delays. rpa:group’s Project Management and Quantity Surveyors have a proven record in driving value engineering, ensuring that project programmes align with low reservation periods to avoid hotel revenue loss. 

Working alongside a design team, they can utilise their experience to ensure that realistic solutions are achieved, without compromising on the creative elements that will give a hotel its own robust brand identity and customer appeal. 

Whether hotel operators are embarking on large-scale refurbishment schemes, or a series of small but important upgrades, they should be using this time to implement these, ready to entice future guests, when the country gets back to normal after these difficult times through the recession.

Sustainable Office Design

The pandemic has increased hybrid working and this looks like it is here to stay. With this in mind, employees and employers are more than ever considering the personal impact upon their environments and are embracing a ‘new’ approach to how and where they work. 

Maybe the time has also come to consider commercial space more as a commodity in the same way that an increasing number of self-employed and start ups do, which will bring our investment in these spaces into sharp focus – i.e. “if I’m paying someone to provide a serviced work environment for me, I’m going to want to be the most productive I can!” Brand choice from offerings such as WeWork and Work.Life etc is going to be driven by the provider’s authentic attempts to offer a sustainable space that promotes wellbeing and productivity  – just like retail brands have to fight for market share.

Sustainable office design goes beyond the use of construction materials and extends to adaptability of space, which will help give it longevity. Considering that the average organisation can undergo a physical change roughly every 18 months or less, and also has to adapt to the changing financial climate and needs of the workforce at that particular time – i.e. expanding and contracting to suit – requires adaptable design and the creation of reusable products for modularity, disassembly and re-assembly. This helps eliminate waste and provides a working environment that meets the ever-changing requirements of employees. 

Preferred characteristics include flexible workspaces, connective and reliable mobile technology and a setting that caters for different activities within the working environment. The provision of “sticky spaces” to enable deep collaboration are as important as providing spaces specific to eating and socialising and leisure activities. Rather than designing things that can only be used once, thought is now being given into how they can be disassembled and used again.

Environmental factors also have their part to play, blurring the designated barriers between inside and outside, and using as much natural light as possible. This will differ according to location, but good design is about understanding the environmental elements and creating the right solution in a ‘passive’ way. Greenery is an often overlooked but essential element in sustainable office design. Not only are plants aesthetically pleasing and help to absorb excess noise and purify the air, but they can also  be used to create natural delineation of spaces and function. In fact, various studies have shown that incorporating plants into workplace design can have a positive effect on perceived productivity.

Sustainable design ideally involves the use of recycled materials in construction. As an example, there are significant challenges to face when producing an entire flooring system using recycled materials such as abandoned fishing nets, or upcycling shipping pallets for office fixtures and furniture. British start-up Biohm is one such business working towards fabricating construction materials from waste products, such as paper and even dried orange peel and is working towards an off-site modular construction approach. The modular method of construction means very little waste product compared to onsite and traditional methods, so it looks set to play an increasingly important role in embracing sustainable construction methods. 

Technology has its part to play, as it can help enable businesses to evolve their workplaces into resource production and to be carbon neutral. This can include micro-harvesting energy through solar panels and wind turbines depending on location, or harvesting and processing rainwater, as seen in companies such as Living PlanIT, that uses AI water technology to help drive this. Overall, an efficient energy management system cuts down a building’s energy use.

The principals of sustainable office design are being incorporated across a variety of platforms. RIBA for example has launched a Sustainable Futures Group, which introduces these principles into their coursework and gives awards to designs that are both sustainable and humane. Increasing numbers of landlords are putting sustainability at the heart of their building design, and are targeting a BREEAM rating of Excellent. One thing is for certain, cutting-edge workplaces of the future will be designed with sustainability in mind.


Images courtesy of WeWork

Why the joy of shopping in stores is back – for good!


For starters, self-reflection and internalisation has been amplified during the pandemic. People have begun to redefine themselves, evaluating their fundamental values and life choices. As they emerge, they continue to flex their augmented identities online whilst also engaging in the ‘real world’ through common aims. In addition to realising personal goals, the media coverage of social issues has seen the number of subscribers and activists of ‘good causes’ swell.  

In a global study, 91% of consumers said they were likely to switch to a brand that supports a good cause, given similar price and quality. 92% said they would buy a product with a social or environmental benefit given the opportunity, and 67% said they had done so in the past 12 months.  

Beyond the noise of virtue signalling, people are looking for allies to emotionally support and align themselves with. Evaluation of a brand’s attitude to quality and value is now being applied to its response to a global society. Customers want a genuine commitment to all aspects of a brand’s presence in their lives and will jettison relationships that won’t commit. From Dunelm and the Retail Trust’s RIADA campaign to Nike’s Jordan Brand Wings program, there is a diversity of choice on offer. 

Sustainability has also become only one element of customer brand choice. Brand governance, and a 360 degree approach to sourcing, production methods and recycling are all non-negotiables for brands looking to maintain deep-seated loyalty. Inclusivity and diversity offers a world of acceptance and opportunity to engage. Our clients Tommy Hilfiger having their own collection of adaptive fashion, while Adidas has introduced their “Lasting Change Now” policy. 

Smart, human-centric brands will engage, continue to invest in their commitment and watch relationships with their customer community flourish.


Joy of Shopping


Whatever the store size, it’s an opportunity to celebrate moments of engagement

This is where we can truly learn from luxury retail, which has, since its inception, exclusively provided the ‘white glove’ level of service to its clients. Sales staff are, more than ever, advocates of the brand and need to be invested-in to be able to immerse themselves fully in brand, environment, and their reason for being there. Committed to this knowledge and belief, the investment is communicated directly to the customer in a genuine way and forms authentic engagement.

The physical journey starts with the storefront, traditionally analogue and criminally under- used. The potential for service windows, pick-up lockers or content-based showrooming is enormous. Content can be personalised through touch, AI or NFC and can use scale and relevance to wow and drive those snappable moments that support online interaction and multiple channels, even before entering the shop. This can engage all the senses and drive the decision to enter from the street in a way that scrolling or mannequins never can.

The reduction of stock-holding resulting from more sophisticated fulfilment allows for smaller stores. This encourages a more personalised or specialist service – perhaps an opportunity to develop appointment based shopping to deliver the ultimate personalised experience – including fully programmed and personalised sensory theatre that is derived from data profiling from online sources and choice-shared customer data.



Aside from levels of human service, how can physical spaces continue to engage? Agility and adaptation are the key, with cues from pre-covid trends.

Chief amongst these is the homogenisation of offers according to experience. Dwell spaces such as coffee or refreshment points are still valid as gathering spaces within apparel stores – Tommy Hilfiger’s German coffee shops on store premises offer some striking interiors that are anything but ‘flat-white’.

In-store cinemas or entertainment hubs extend the physical audience beyond the common demographic and bring depth and diversity to the brand experience. Traditional store functions need further disruption. With the correct technology, cash desks are defunct as a physical operation, whereas clear ‘hubs’ for human interactions never will be.


As this single point of service becomes assimilated into the overarching store experience, we need to consider its relationship to other functions such as the changing rooms. A subtle shift of perception may be considered. Perhaps the changing room becomes the ‘Dressing Room’ – a place to emerge from, having already purchased, primped, and preened, beginning your reinvention from the moment you step out into the space – becoming an intimate part of the retail theatre itself.


Joy of Shopping

Flexible and agile spaces allow for experimentation. They allow brands to TRY, knowing that human experience can result in success or failure; but always garners respect and that positively engaging with customers can lead to better things.

Showrooming allows brands to service the most niche of their customers – but widens genuine experience in the process.


Alongside a personal re-evaluation of a work/life balance, potential customers have come to treasure their time and make careful choices about how they want to use it. The workforce is increasingly rejecting overtime in favour of quality-time, so brands must work harder to bring value to their experience and deliver compelling take-aways, to support long-term relationships.  

Effectiveness of brand communication is one consideration in optimising this precious resource, and in-store the use of multiple channels is the means to achieve it. Rather than being a static wayfinding device, internal messaging needs to be able to respond instantly to the changing needs and expectations of the customer. In everything from recommendations, promotions, and personalisation, right through to behavioural expectation in this era of increased hygiene, brand communication needs to bring seamless, reassurance and ease in delivery. With this, the customer can focus on their key-decision making in-store and have the experience reflected on-line.  


During the pandemic, our increased adaptation to online connectivity and developing technologies, combined with our self-discovery to perpetuate our ‘analogue nostalgia’ – the same nostalgia that saw increasing vinyl sales, home-baking and home- making in the last few years. Distracted from our work-life “hamster-wheels”, we’ve rekindled a sense of adventure and with it, acceptance of the new and different.

A survey of 22,000 participants found that almost every single one has headed to a physical store after the pandemic, even if 80% said they would continue to shop online. Customers are carrying-on their search for this fusion post-pandemic, so it is the responsibility of brands to engage with this joy and realise the best of both worlds in their brand approach.

Joy of Shopping


We as humans crave a manageable level of tension, and we power it through self-discovery and rekindling our sense of adventure.

We talk about frictionless processes and seamless experiences. Technology supports this, but should do so invisibly, as the seatbelts on our retail rollercoaster ride. The other way technology will succeed and throw off its smoke-and-mirrors reputation is by enhancing the other senses within the physical experience, creating theatre and suspense and enabling fulfilment far beyond it.


If brands can listen and innovate, customers will respond with open eyes and hearts.

As sad as it is to see familiar long-established brands disappearing, it is human nature that all eyes are on the voids they leave, and the anticipation of the next big thing. The power and impact of ‘the different’ should not be underestimated, neither should the opportunity to evolve and improve.

Humans adapt organically, brands need to be cultivated to evolve. They provide food for the soul; experiences to make us rich, but not at a cost to the planet.

Whether through a surprise charity-shop find, a personalised big-ticket item or an in-store performance, the joy of discovery borne out of variety and physical human interaction will continue to fuel our imaginations and the direction of travel for brands post-covid for many years to come…

The department store dilemma

So, what is to become of these extinct department stores? Clearly something needs to, because space that is no longer fit for purpose has a materially adverse effect on society. Mark Burlton, MD of Cross Border Retail Ltd, a global independent retail real estate business agrees. “Even though many have heritage and are significant landmarks to which people hold an attachment, empty or abandoned buildings emit a sense of local economic distress and impact the perception of the surrounding area.”

This is when we can draw inspiration from the past. For hundreds of years, our high streets were buzzing and multi-faceted hubs, serving the local community with a thriving mix of retail, residential, services and hospitality. Over time, retail cannibalised these and the bubble has now burst.

Nigel Collett, CEO of architecture, design and cost management consultancy, the rpa:group states that what the pandemic has emphasised, is the value of community. “During lockdown, we have spent an unimaginable amount of time in our own neighbourhoods, relying far more heavily on local shops and services during this time.” He adds that this feeds into something referred to as hyper localisation, where the services providers and retailers of a community can directly understand and respond to the needs of the people living within it. “As the new normal will see many more of us working flexibly and spending more time at our homes and surrounds, it is the right time to reintroduce more community relevance and empty department stores can help,” he says.

This is because as we live a more local existence, our essential needs all need to be met and there is still a requirement for some retail, but it will be condensed. There is also opportunity for the introduction of more pop-up, adaptable event spaces, leisure and hospitality and the provision of fitness and healthcare centres. With flexible working becoming the norm, there is going to be a need for co-working spaces and “business hubs” and childcare facilities to support these, which can be accommodated by vacant department stores. “Large empty stores are usually spread over three of four floors and the space can be carefully divided up. Natural daylight is a challenge as their floor plates tend to be large, but there is scope to introduce light-wells, which make the spaces more versatile”, states Nigel.

“Structurally, many department store buildings having flat roofs, and there is opportunity to build onto these and have outdoor entertainment spaces and roof gardens or airspace hotels or residential units,” adds Nigel. Mark agrees  “Airspace construction tends to be more modular and more easily supported by the existing structure of the building. Including residential will bring more people back into towns and city centres, which is what we need.”

Like anything, there are challenges that need to be overcome.

At the onset, a detailed study would need to be carried out to foresee exactly what the needs of the local community surrounding the empty store are and to prevent any replacement being a “five minute wonder”, as Mark puts it. “Staying relevant and responding to these is the most important first step, to ensure the social and economic benefits of repurposing the retail space. A local solution needs to be taken into account and this will result in diverse outcomes”, explains Mark.

As an example, the old Debenhams site that occupied 80,000 square feet in London’s Southside Shopping Mall is being transformed into London’s first active entertainment venue, which includes a Japanese E-karting area, bowling lanes and various hospitality offerings.  Further afield, an old Macys store has been transformed into a secondary school. “In both of these instances, how these buildings are repurposed is in direct relation to answering a local need,” states Nigel.

Like anything, there are challenges that need to be overcome. Mark warns that landlords will need to be convinced that a change of use is in their best financial interest. “Local councils need to lend their support to help uplift the area. From a planning perspective, the recent government guidelines stating that planning permission is not needed for change of use needs to be approached with caution.” Nigel agrees and adds “Architects can help ensure that the character of the building is not lost and that the space is divided and utilised in the best way possible, with full safety and quality practices in place.“

We also cannot ignore the fact that repurposing multi-level retail stores is expensive and architecturally challenging and all the more reason why an experienced architect is essential. And yet, done properly, these present a strong opportunity to transform dead spaces into engaging and commercially viable ones that are adaptable and future proof, no matter what may lie ahead.

The Retail Roadmap to Recovery

What will this mean for retailers? A recent webinar at which Ernst & Young presented their Future Consumer report to the British Retail Consortium, dug deep into the demographics and psychographics of consumer behaviour during the pandemic, how it transformed their lives and what they now value. It revealed some interesting insights about how retail businesses will need to adapt and respond to what is steering consumer behaviour during this period of recovery and beyond.

Online shopping for instance rose over 80% during the third national lockdown and remained above 40% even when ‘non-essential’ retail re-opened between June and November 2020. It is anticipated to continue to be higher than before the pandemic, because this has sped up the digital transformation process, with what was anticipated to take 6 years occurring in just 12 months.  EY surveys revealed that many shoppers now like to mix and match their research and purchasing both online and in physical stores and retailers will need to be very strategic about balancing their in-store and online operations.

Younger consumers were also impacted by the pandemic, with over 80% of millennials and Gen Zs concerned about their finances, compared to 61% of baby boomers. However, younger consumers  also seem to be more optimistic about the economic recovery and research indicates that they aim to move forward with a more ‘purpose-led’ existence and a desire to lessen their environmental impact and to give back to their communities.

Purpose is therefore going to be a core consideration for many consumers going forward. Whether the stance is about local community or sustainability, retailers operating physical stores are going to be required to think of ways to signal their support for these consumer groups very clearly. They will need to harness the power of their stores and accept that their role has changed, quite possibly forever.

Many consumers also want to maximise their enjoyment, primarily through greater spending on products and experiences. Stores will be in an advantageous position to deliver a social and entertaining element, enticing customers with in-store experiences that cannot be replicated online. Supporting local relevance is also driving growth opportunities. With many of us set to work more frequently from home, we will spend more time shopping locally. Catering to the needs of local consumers, particularly given the possibility that international travel remains uncertain in 2021, could prove lucrative for the brands and businesses providing this.

There is also scope for retailers to increasingly form collaborations. These symbiotic partnerships such as Laura Ashley in Next and A in Tesco are linked to an  increase in dwell time of customers in stored.

There is no doubt that retailers set to emerge from this pandemic the strongest, are those able to anticipate changes in consumer behaviour and quickly adapt to it. Even as people are set to continue to shop online, they are craving interaction and this creates a strong opportunity for stores to re-engage with their customers on a physical level, as long as it also makes them feel safe. People are going to need this reassurance for a while yet!

The End of the World as we know it – and I feel fine…

The End of the World as we know itLet’s not for a moment believe that people queuing patiently for hours outside re-opened shops is a return to normality; but rather a genuine human desire for instinctive and recognisable patterns of behaviour and finding comfort in the familiar. It’s understandable in context, but not the reignition of the economy that the country needs. Though globally resonant, what these circumstances are doing, is accelerating and amplifying opportunities we have felt in recent years, to drive long overdue fundamental and positive changes to high street retail.  Thankfully we are still in the time frame to make these, driven by several factors.

How have we as consumers reacted to the crisis?

Amplified needs and desires

The crisis has amplified needs and stimulated aspiration with enforced change and helped us to revaluate what is important in our lives. A lot of our frustration now is having the means to realise these ambitions. We saw similar amplification in the last recession, where quality and experience dominated our evolution of retail, goods and services.

 Increased our sensitivity (and reduced our patience?)

When threatened, it’s helpful to remember that an individual’s fundamental psychological behavioural patterns come into play at a base level. We respond disproportionately, with our sensitivity to disgust increasing and so too our desire for increased cleanliness and self-dependency. This is why for instance there was a sudden rush on toilet paper, and we all reverted to home baking. At the societal end of the scale, we measure our self-worth and revaluate our place in the world. Social identity norms are challenged – keyworkers are heroes, law enforcement vilified, and minorities coalesce in reaction. Social media, more than ever, becomes a fundamental platform to perpetuate this and expose social injustice and invoke reaction.

The more it changes the more it stays the same …

Psychologically, the elements of our brain that we use to recognise and form human friendships and attachments are the same as those which we use when interacting with brands. This is why it is now so important for brands to use the same strategies that humans use to make friends, creating a genuine attachment, and tapping into genuine emotions.

What are the opportunities?

 Align through Genuine Engagement

Customers are evaluating and looking at brands as they would their friends – especially in behaviour during distancing. They are assessing them, and establishing if they fit into their own belief system and are worthy of their respect. They can spot woke companies but they can also spot virtue signalling and disingenuous actions. This evaluation has always been a rallying cry from consultancies – make genuine engagement a key requirement.

Agility (& Confidence)

With Covid enforcing social distancing and controlled customer flow in the short term, brands and services will have to realign their real estate due to customer caution or a preference for online shopping. Transparent safety measures and reassurance will help deliver this confidence. Digital signage signalling air quality, customer flow, in-store head counts and store cleanliness will play an important role in this. Long-term, ‘choice’ will be key to futureproofing against further pandemics or constantly evolving customer trends.

Supporting strategies such as BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick Up in Store) customers by setting up specific pick-up windows will drive a need for stock and storage to be more efficiently managed. This will support showrooming, promote experiential retailing and drive opportunity for pop-up or smaller estate requirements. Brands can stimulate their customers in fresh and interesting ways and in quicker cycles.

As our physical world became smaller due to travel restrictions we became more reliant on local shops and services, which strengthened our relationships with them. As many of us continue to work from home, we will continue to utilise and appreciate shops in our local communities, which will drive more life and footfall onto our local high streets – though we will see an evolution of these to support local communities that are multi-faceted, and offer additional diversity. Of course, this sort of outcome requires collaboration with retailers, landlords, local authorities and the local community on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.


It is time for retailers to reset the promotional stance. Due to the public’s ever-increasing consciousness about consumption levels – sustainability and environmental issues, brands need to carefully review discounting and focus more on quality and governance of products.

How do we respond?


There is a close focus on brands, which need to proportionately and genuinely clarify their social position, their environmental position and reflect that they understand what is important to their customer base. Most importantly of all, they need to be able to demonstrate it – an example of this being our client LEON (who amongst others) set about delivering not just free but healthy meals to the NHS workers, which reinforces its brand values about heathy fast food.

Generate genuine attachment

The nation’s mental health is under increasing strain. Factors such as a feeling of isolation for some who struggle to work from home, or those who are anxious about their financial security and future is adding to the pressure. Being cautious about expenditure is making consumers more considerate about consumption. Brands will need to provide value and demonstrate compassion and a feeling of worth, to reassure and engage with consumers, potentially through creating membership and communities where relevant.

Be seamless – use technology

Front end technology retains its role unchanged as a system of communication and delivery of the core message – nothing else. True innovation, generated in crisis, can deliver lasting potential when executed well –  virtual festivals are replacing cancelled events by celebrating live music and performance across many platforms – we know that these will never take the place of a live festival, but with current advancements in VR, may continue as events in their own right, post-covid.

More prosaically, with the increase in home delivery, technology has allowed efficiency in supply chains and logistics that allow smaller brands and suppliers the same reach as the larger. Additionally,  the increase in data around buying habits means we have more information to analyse and make positive use from. Focussing on aligning customer needs and corresponding stock, allows for a more accurate provision of fulfilling these needs.

Whatever happens, the world has insurmountably changed, but there will always be a need for social interaction and access to goods and services. Brands that adapt quickly to answer these needs will be the ones to flourish in these new times.

Generation Z are the unlikely saviours of physical retail

According to Bloomberg, around 95% of them visited a physical shopping centre in a three-month period in 2018, as opposed to just 75% of millennials and 58% of Gen X. Also among the researchers was The Grocer, which undertook a major pan-European study that targeted 50,000 adults across 11 countries. What was revealed, was that nearly 22% of Gen Z (aged 18-24) do their research and purchasing in-store, compared to the milennials (people aged 25-34) who came in at just 14%.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic further bolstering online shopping, the convenience of which already being long accepted; why would this group seek to congregate in shopping centres and on high streets? We strongly believe that it is the need for social interaction that is driving this. Think back to the typical “all American” teen movies and inevitably, the social setting for public interactions was “the mall”. However, back then a few fashion retailers and a fast food outlet or two sufficed in keeping the typical teen entertained, but not anymore.

The Generation Z shopper wants an experience that offers ease of use, entertainment, flexibility and immediacy; in other words, much the same as if they are having an online interaction and it is up to the brands to create environments that support this. It is all about breaking the mould, bringing down the barriers, using a lot of imagination and not being afraid of trying new things. In short, there is a need to facilitate the opportunities that create memorable moments and experiences for the Generation Z consumers, which when successful will make them the ultimate brand advocates.

A panel discussion about the future of shopping centres discussed this in detail at the RetailExpo in London. On the panel was Kathryn Malloch Head of Customer Experience at Hammerson, who summed it up by stating, “They must be entertainment venues and not just about shopping.”

Sue Shepherd, General Manager of London Designer Outlet in Wembley, part of the biggest urban regeneration project in the EU agreed. “More than ever, shoppers want an experience, rather than just the option to purchase.”

There is no doubt that retail landlords need to be supporting this and looking at the use of space, to allow for the diversification of the experience. As Kathryn explains, “Traditional anchors are moving. People are coming more for a day out and we need to look at the mix of leisure and retail.” She also went on to explain that there is an opportunity to repurpose redundant department store space, in order to facilitate this growing demand for a variety of experiences. “ People want to do more, rather than buy more,” she added.
A strong example of this is Birmingham’s Bullring, where the mix is constantly changing and evolving. Kathryn explained that there is a strong drive to support local brands, that is involving a move away from the mass market, into something different. This is being bolstered by offering less long-term and more short-term rents, an increase in pop-ups and space for independents, supporting the all-important appeal of localisation.

There are other things that shopping centres and high street retailers can do to attract the Generation Z demographic; events being one of them. Interactive digital displays, increased VR, light shows and artist and celebrity experiences go a long way in increasing the all important dwell time. If the shopping area is located where events happen anyway, then finding ways of making the customer experience easy and effortless, go a long way to increase loyalty.

Sue Shepherd explains. “In Wembley, there are events happening frequently anyway and our focus is more on the overall guest experience.” The solution was to launch a digital experience called “drop it”, which allows customers to leave shopping in the stores, which a concierge collects and arranges to have delivered to their homes. It is all about identifying “pain points” and responding to them.

Research plays a key part in discovering what drives influencers and spend. As previously mentioned, although this generation prefers physical retail, they still want the convenience of the online experience. Developing street style apps, offering click and collect and free delivery and using analytics, will all help to deliver this. Ibeacon and tracking technology allow the affinities between brands, based on consumer behaviour to be analysed, creating better zones and shopper journeys. The relevance and tailored communications that can be offered back to customers as a result of this, via for instance Geolocation software, cannot be underestimated.

In the shopping centres and high streets of the future, we are more likely to see an increase in curating consumer lifestyles. These may well include bespoke offerings such as supper clubs, sushi masterclasses and exclusive events and rewards for local residents only. We are also likely to see an amalgamation of areas, to include mixed-use developments more co-working spaces and possibly even medical and educational environments.

In conclusion, they will become giant “Ecosystems” that facilitate a lifestyle and answer a need. There will be a frictionless experience across brands. They will be very high-tech, but there will always be a place for good service, personalisation, and engagement.

Hotel rejuvenation and why hoteliers need to plan for this years in advance

Whether it is a chain hotel that offers the weary business traveller reassurance in its familiarity, or a boutique hotel that is the next “must stay” destination on people’s radars, consumers are expecting very high standards, and this will quickly have an impact on a hotel’s ratings and profitability, if these are not met.

I am not just talking about tired paintwork, sagging beds and indifferent staff having a negative influence on ratings. The bigger picture is that hotels are becoming more like hubs, serving a wider community and therefore needing to offer much more than merely somewhere to sleep. It is becoming increasingly important that hotels are relevant, up to date and of a high standard that is demanded by today’s customers, in order to stay ahead of the competition. This has the potential to increase a hotel’s overall revenue, but it comes at a cost, because the average life cycle for a hotel to be “trendy” is up to seven years and after this, the perception quickly starts to change.

A hotel which might have been a desirable place to stay several years ago, will inevitably start to look tired and out of date. The speed with which technologies, styles and trends evolve and progress is remarkable, even food and beverage tastes have changed. Think of how gin has exploded in popularity and become the current “big thing”, with trendy gin bars popping up everywhere – whereas a few years ago it was a decidedly indistinct beverage.

The truth of it is that people are fickle and things that appear to be out of date, quickly start to lose their appeal – and their market share to their competitors. It has also been shown that hotels that undergo a rejuvenation after approximately seven years, are least likely to experience a dip in profit. So it is essential that hotel owners plan ahead, anticipating the need for change and defining a phase of processes and budgeting accordingly.

Although it is not always easy to predict how tastes and expectations of customers change, keeping an eye on trends and appointing an experienced designer will help deliver an environment and experience that is as accurate and engaging as possible. Something we are seeing a significant change to in recent years, is how ancillary hotel space is transforming. We are increasingly seeing ground floor space being fully maximized and utilised in a variety of new ways, to become areas with purpose in their own right and helping to increase dwell time. This includes areas being given over to create work spaces, and an increase in the quality and importance of wellness centers; while bars and restaurants are becoming destinations that attract a host of customers beyond just hotel residents.

It is estimated that hoteliers need to start planning for this change as soon as three or four years ahead of the seven-year cut-off time. Having a strong procurement plan and committing to a programme with realistic deliverables and time-scales is essential. This is where it is essential to obtain the support of an experienced Project Management and Cost Management team.

After all, there is no point in undertaking a rejuvenation scheme if it becomes sabotaged by spiraling costs and unnecessary delays.  Working alongside a design team, they can utlise their experience to ensure that realistic solutions are achieved, without compromising on the creative elements that will give a hotel its own robust brand identity and customer appeal.

It also helps if the combined skills of project management, quantity surveying and interior designer fall within one company, such as here at rpa:group. Having a fully integrated services means that the rejuvenation process will benefit from a set of strong transferable skills and informed decision making, which ultimately leads to a saving on cost and time – something any hotel owner values highly.

Pop-ups are more about the R.O.E. than the R.O.I.

We are increasingly aware that pop-ups have multiple purposes and that brands are now more fully realising the benefits of using pop-ups to connect with their customers.  Comments James Breaks, Head of Design at rpa:group. “Many brands now look at return on experience or ROE rather than ROI. Short-term income is demoted in favour of creating authentic long-term relationships with consumers. They are seeking to develop relationships that are based on trust and the loyalty garnered from generosity of the brand experience and face to face contact, which can only be delivered in a physical retail environment.”

Storefront is a global leader in procuring pop-up space. Currently operating from apex cities around the world that include London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Hong Kong, it currently has 10,000 listings on its platform and truly recognises the impact pop-ups are having. When a brand is considering pop-up space, there are some important choices to be made and criteria to be considered.

Comments Matthew Greenwell, UK Director of Storefront “We have found that retailers book one of three options depending on their requirements.” The first is traditionally under a month and is very PR led. “These are all about creating a buzz, with celebs and influencers and an emphasis on marketing.” The second option offers temporary spaces for a range of between one month and a year. “This is the fastest growing type of pop-up and is so popular because it is all about reducing the risks, while testing the brand within a specific neighbourhood, “Matt explains. Storefront’s final option is all about showrooming, with brands booking private places to build an experience for their buyers in a tangible space. This can include an apartment that is taken over to showcase a brand or space within existing stores.

Over the past ten years, we have grown accustomed to an average of 10,000 pop-up stores springing up annually on our high streets. There is no doubt that location is extremely important. Matthew elaborates, “At the moment, things for retail are very tough – they have to be excellent to succeed.  Average cannot compete with online anymore. To be in the excellent category they need to be in the right position, and they need to be very careful about that.” Data and research can help with this. Etailers for example have the added advantage of being able to harvest vital information about their customers. They are thus able to assess customer demographics and utilise these to define target store locations.

 James raises the point that on-line brands are also not hampered by public preconception , which allows them to be more experimental. “Pop-ups are ideal to trial a format or a location prior to developing a final incarnation of the store,” he explains. An example of this is luxury outerwear apparel brand Mackage, who rpa:group helped to deliver their first UK independent store as a pop-up on London’s exclusive Sloane Street.  Over a six month period, the space provides the perfect platform to launch a stand-alone store, testing response to location and demographic, while being flexible enough to create an engaging and adaptable retail environment, to facilitate brand awareness and growth.

 Matthew stresses that although the right location is one of the most important factors, retailers also need to first and foremost fully understand their audience and what they want their brand to achieve. “Brands who don’t have a clear knowledge of what they want to accomplish are likely to fail, even with a pop-up in the middle of Carnaby Street,” Matthew warns.

He reveals that an interesting current trend, which some brands are doing extremely well with, is the use of  influencers. “When it is a pop-up space, it is short term and therefore more achievable and affordable to include a relevant influencer or celebrity as a brand ambassador. This really draws customers and helps make them more attached to the brand. It is very powerful,” explains Matthew. As an example, Storefront created a series of pop ups for Gymshark in New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam, which had sports celebs on site. This in turn created a real buzz and helped enhance brand connectivity and authenticity with the customers.

When it comes to design and fit-out, Pop-ups incorporate greater flexibility, allowing the product stories to change regularly, to maintain interest and intrigue. Much like a gallery would changing exhibitions. “People are drawn toward experiences and successful retail design is about creating meaningful experiences that tap into something deeper,” says James.  “Pop-ups become the touch point, the 3-dimensional face of the brand that helps to define its character,” he adds.

It is in creating physical interactions with the customer that lasting memories are created and a loyal bond develops between customer and brand. “The more human we make a brand, the more we emotionally relate and engage – physical presence is one of the strongest drivers of this”, states James, but he cautions that pop-ups need to be very much part of the total retail experience, working seamlessly with the online retail offer and social media platforms.

It is interesting to note that technology plays second fiddle when it comes to pop-ups. “I think the importance of technology is the opposite with pop ups, because  pop-ups allow the brand to go back to the basics and make it super personal. It is all about delivering the human element and excellence,” says Matthew.

So it seems that the main reason why consumers respond well to pop ups is because the experience is human led – and offers something authentic and real, which we as a sociable and empathetic species value very highly.

UK high streets need to be more about creating communities and less about just retail

On a recent trip to Scotland, the difference between the high streets of two of the towns I visited was remarkable. My partner comes from the West Coast town of Ayr and when we decided to spend an afternoon shopping, he became increasingly despondent about what had happened to the high street. “This place used to be buzzing” he said as we walked past copious boarded up shops. Dotted between them, a few were still open, but so empty that the smiles of the shop assistants looked more desperate than welcoming.

Unfortunately, Ayr’s high street is just one of many in the UK suffering the same fate. According to the British Retail Consortium, vacancies in town centres climbed to a record four-year high of 10.2%. Rows of empty shops don’t help the situation because they deter consumers and this puts even more pressure on neighbouring retailers to try and attract business, who are often themselves forced to close, through lack of sales and so the vicious cycle continues…

The one part of Ayr’s town centre that was still thriving and seemed to have sucked in the majority of shoppers was Ayr Central shopping centre. It boasts the usual big name retailers such as Debenhams, Next, Primark and Topshop etc. that we have come to expect from larger towns, but here they are all located around a large, glass covered and pedestrianised central area, interspersed with places to eat and various public seating spaces. What this sheltered central area has created is a communal space, without pollution from passing traffic, that invites people to congregate – and groups of people having fun and socialising attracts others do the same.

In complete contrast to Ayr’s high street is the high street in Bridge of Allan in Stirlingshire. Here, it is lined with artisan galleries and independent restaurants, pubs and cafes, boutiques, gift shops and homeware stores. In fact, I did not see a single big name retail or hospitality brand anywhere, because these are all located in nearby Stirling – and yet the Bridge of Allan high street was bustling with shoppers. It is safe to ascertain that the very reason for this success is because it isn’t a replica of every other high street. Instead, it celebrates its uniqueness and its local authenticity – and in so doing it has become an integral part of the local community it serves.

One could argue that Bridge of Allan is an upmarket town, and its residents have plenty of disposable local income, which benefits businesses – but the fact remains that regardless of local wealth, high streets that celebrate being individual and cater for their local community are far more likely to be successful.

So, what do Ayr’s Central Shopping Centre and the high street of Bridge of Allan get right? Both are different to each other, yet both answer a growing need in consumers. This is because people don’t want town centres to be clones of each other anymore. The “one size fits all” approach no longer works and it is now about celebrating and offering individuality that is as unique as the lifestyles and the needs of the people they cater for. This is why retailers and other high street businesses will need to put in the work to really get to know the communities they serve. People are far more likely to respond to brands that have made a conscious effort to respond to their local needs; designing and creating environments that are synonymous with this.

The time is ripe to focus on creating varied communities in towns, that cater for the people who live in them. Other factors will help drive this. Rail fairs are continuing to increase and will mean that more people will be tempted to find work locally, or with the aid of technology and the advancements of 5G, will spend more time working flexibly in neighbourhood communal work spaces or from home. Also, fewer people are owning cars – and in the long term, this will create more opportunities to pedestrianise high streets, making them less noisy and polluted and therefore more effective in enticing people to spend time in these spaces – something Ayr Central shopping Centre has already got right.

It is time to return to the root of what people want; the creation of multi-faceted communities offering variety and meeting a diversity of local needs, rather than being purely retail. These communities will attract people and breathe new life into the area, but first, vacant retail spaces will need to be repurposed to serve a new function and answer a new need. High Streets need to share retail space with residential, working, leisure, health and educational spaces. These communal “hubs” will form part of a symbiotic community that won’t shut down at 6pm, so that around the clock there will always be life and purpose to them.

value and values…

The speed at which retail theory evolves has meant that the language and terms we use quickly become overused, obsolete and obfusticated. This means goodbye to ‘experiences’, ‘omnichannel’ and ‘phygital’ and our associations with them. This also reduces our ability to clearly define our brief and brand expectations. However, there is some enduring retail language worth investigating further, to gain a more insightful view of how we might approach this evolution.

Let’s consider ‘value / values’ as a persistent term, associated with retail…

A brand’s value could be said to refer to its customer’s relationship to the product or service and the financial worth attributed to it. As this is calculated on investment in marketing versus uplift, and is exclusive of cost and margin it is sufficient to measure Return on Investment. However it begs the question: Where is the longevity in the relationship? In this sense, Value is subjective and reliant wholly on a brand’s marketing skills to establish and maintain this. The ‘storytelling’ is unilateral, non-interactive and lacks true engagement. We experience this historically in the cosmetics industry, witnessing a pot of cold-cream, increasingly miniaturized, slathered with impenetrable pseudo-scientific jargon and afforded an exorbitant price tag related to perception, but not necessarily performance. Brand loyalty in this case is garnered only by the psychology of limitation and the need for ‘the latest’, not necessarily ‘the best’.

A brand’s Values however, when carefully considered and delivered, can significantly alter this dynamic. Values are inherent components of the human individual that govern selection in most things. They are subconscious and can be subjective, but share commonality that is regardless of gender, race and social background. If you are able to appeal to the fundamental psychological level of shared human values, empathy is generated, inclusivity prevails and lasting engagement is the result. Let’s not forget that humans process their relationships with brands, with the same part of the brain that they use to generate and evaluate friendships and social bonds. If brands and designers engage with and stimulate this process in the same way, through generating genuine empathy and understanding, a lasting retention of the brand experience is created. It results in authentic engagement, and trust – friendship in other words.

So, the ultimate question no doubt is how do designers appeal to these values? Reflecting on the time-poor nature of many consumers, the brand message needs to be focused both on individual relevance and wider cultural inclusion. Generosity, inclusivity and wellbeing are just three arenas in which we to battle for the hearts and minds of customers. We see brand generosity increasingly reflected in conversion of prime retail space, into complimentary service areas. L’Occitane and Lululemon, both on London’s premium Regent Street estate, dedicate their first floors to a focused extension of the main brand. Make no mistake, these are conceptually indulgent, committed, beautifully designed environments, devoid of direct sales and suggesting a wider world beyond the brand. Inclusivity and empathy with alternative social and cultural sectors generates that fundamental feel-good factor, especially alongside the feelings of indulgence during purchasing. US online retailer Zappos understands this and parallel with their retail website has a compelling, but most importantly, easily realised methodology of donating used goods. The customer simply prints and attaches their own label to a box of donations and drops them in the post. Domestic and foreign charities benefit, and allow selection of specific destinations. Physical ease and altruism are a winning formula

Wellbeing and social conscience continue to be enduringly historic on the high street. Arguably, Anita Roddick began to extol the virtues of brand Values with the first UK Body Shops in the late ‘seventies, infusing the brand with ethical sourcing and moral leadership. That trend extended to physical health over a decade ago with Innocent Smoothies 5 for 5 cafes, aiming to serve 5,000 people their 5-a-day for a fiver. We now see slowly increasing focus on mental wellbeing, with active wear brand Ivy Park consulting mental health charity MIND, to help positively empower women by increasing self-esteem. Similarly Boots is focusing on positive engagement with teens regarding their mental and physical wellbeing.

How do designers initiate this process with clients? It all leads back to Values. We need to remember that our clients are human too. Engagement and empathy with their brand aspirations is just as important as translating it for their customer. Understanding the traditional ‘goods-for-money’ transaction is dead. We need to embrace the fact that information is the new currency and investing in understanding any customer or client, taking time to listen and empathise is going to give us a return on experience.

essential retail design trends for 2019 that can’t be ignored



The speed at which things change visually with shopping websites and the constant advancements in technology, mean that customers have come to expect the same frequency of change in physical stores. This means that with the exception of grocery stores, (where customers want and expect familiarity), “Bricks and mortar” retailers need to allow for the customer journey and experience to be refreshed regularly. Because, when it comes to retail environments, flexibility drives engagement so there is a very real need to create environments that are easily adaptable. This means that the displays, the spaces around them and how these are used, is more important than ever.


It is during the design process that the need for flexibility first needs to be considered, and it is both the designers and the manufactures who need to fully understand what the retailer motivations are. There is essentially a hierarchy of needs to be taken into account. These are: delivering engagement, experience, flexibility, convenience and using quality materials that are fit for purpose, all of which when implemented collaboratively, will generate well designed, flexible and engaging retail environments.


Store design must support experiential and personal environments, that resonate with each consumer on an individual level. We are sensory creatures and sight, sound, touch, taste and smell when utilised synchronistically, deliver an engaging sensory experience that naturally leads to empathy. This in turn creates longevity of a relationship with a brand. In other words, stores need to be created to “sell from the inside, as well as the outside”.


With many physical retailers continuing to pay premium rents, stores need to be designed to allow for the maximum use of space and purpose. With customer perspectives of physical space in stores also changing, selling space is morphing into experiential space – and the proportions of purely sales versus engagement space, needs to be adapted as such.


We are seeing stores becoming show-rooms and distribution centres, as well as conventional purchasing platforms. Offering fulfilment services such as “click and collect” is increasingly important and innovative physical retailers are merging online and offline experiences with the offer of convenience and ease of access. Here, customers can choose how much they wish to engage with the store. They can obtain product information directly from knowledgeable staff members face-to-face, (something online shopping cannot provide), or simply pick up a pre-ordered online purchase from a locker, while passing by.


An increasing number of online retailers are opening physical stores. The function of these are not necessarily to buy product, but to provide an all important physical interaction with the brand, offer customers product trials and the opportunity to acquire product knowledge from informed brand representatives. This strengthens the customer relationship with the brand but for this to truly work, the design and fixtures need to bridge the gap between the online and physical stores – creating an easily identifiable synchronicity of themes and colours that are inherently recognisable within both the online and the physical stores.


Technology used accurately, will continue to go a long way to deliver engagement. The use of touch screens, in-store tablets, virtual reality and devices such as smart mirrors, are all helping to deliver this. Mobile usage continues to grow and retailers are increasingly seeking to capture the attention of customers in-store by utilising tools such as iBeacon technology, to “push” information specific to them. Some brands are opting for portable tech, which continues to create opportunities for brand interaction, even when the customer is no longer in the store. Tommy Hilfiger, for example, is using smart tags in their clothing, that the customer chooses to activate. These then track how often and where the item is being worn, rewarding the wearer accordingly.


If anything, good service interactions are as critical as well-designed environments and also need to be “designed” to form part of the entire store experience. Training and support is becoming increasingly essential, to ensure that staff have the brand and product knowledge that allows them to be a key part of the delivery of the full sensory experience to shoppers.


evolving retail: why retail brands are moving from traditional retail spaces

We will see physical shopping undergo a dramatic transformation and in the next few years, it could morph into an activity that is driven almost entirely by experiences and interactive technology.  Stores will become places where customers get to try things on, or test and interact with products in person but don’t actually buy anything at the time, opting instead for the convenience of delivery of their purchases at a time and place that suits them. So, if shopping is becoming all about the experience, then for some retailers, there is a need to adapt their stores,  in some instances even extending their presence beyond them, in order to deliver a truly immersive and flexible experience to their customers.

Pop-ups have been around for a while now and won’t be going anywhere fast, because how better to offer flexible and immediate engagement with prospective customers? We see pop-ups within larger “host” stores and within shopping malls, but what about within transport hubs, gallery spaces, markets and at events? The beauty of the pop-up is that intrinsically the essence of it is temporary, providing intrigue and a sense of urgency that will entice customers, who by the very nature of being human, do not want to “miss out”.  Benefit Cosmetics recently devised a novel way to boost brand experience, by opening the world’s first “Beauty and Brows Popup Shop” close to the Glastonbury festival. The drive-thru format enticed festival-goers stuck in crowds and traffic, to meet beauticians and shop assistants, who provided them with advice and goodie bags.

A step beyond a pop-up, is offering mobile shops, that actually take the brand to customers –  something we think we will be seeing more of.  An excellent example of this is Casper, a USA mattress firm, who has rolled out “napmobiles”, where potential customers can road-test foam mattresses inside a refurbished camper van, before electing to purchase online. However, retailers don’t all need to be mobile or have a pop-up to offer immersive retail experiences to their customers. As long as they can delight and engage and leave a lasting resonance, then brand loyalty will be formed and retained.

The Museum of Ice Cream is a great example of this.  Being neither a museum nor a shop, it sells tickets to a series of garishly coloured installations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Once inside, the very essence of the joy associated with ice-cream is morphed into an experiential interaction, as visitors find themselves immersed in a theme-park type of experience, with engaging things to do rather than buy – such as a giant pool of sugar sprinkles to jump into, an ice-cream themed climbing wall and a giant banana swing.

In the UK, a pioneering social enterprise called Meanwhile Space has forged a series of ground breaking partnerships with local authorities, public bodies and companies to utilise vacant and unconventional spaces, such as disused office blocks and vacant railway arches, turning them into retail and hospitality spaces.  Similar to Box Park, Blue House Yard is one such example, and is a redevelopment and re-imagining of an empty and underused site near Wood Green station, that today offers the local community a bustling mix of retail, hospitality and social spaces, creating local interest and breathing new life into a dying area.

The House of Vans in London is another thriving location and one where art, music, BMX, street culture and fashion converge. The 30,000 square feet building encompasses a cinema, café, live music venue and art gallery, while the bottom floor holds a concrete ramp, mini ramp and street course. Designed by skaters, the park is free to use and customers are encouraged to walk in on the day. What The House of Vans has very cleverly done, is create a space that epitomises its brand identity, by creating a fully interactive and experiential space where young people can shop and socialise.

Whatever the space, retailers need to ensure that they offer quality, as well as originality,  creating a point of difference from competitors. In the same way, customers have also come to expect the unexpected, and providing this will help deliver a key point of difference and form an all important lasting impression.

educational environments: 5 key drivers of change

Form follows function” a principle associated with 20th-century architecture, denotes that the shape of a building should relate to its intended function. Problems arise when the function no longer fits the form for which it was intended. Previous teaching methods involved a teacher needing to be seen and heard, demonstrating what was being taught via a two dimensional surface. The best way to accommodate this was rows of desks in a rectangular room, all facing the front. However, numerous factors have influenced and changed the way we teach and learn; and trying to squeeze these into traditional teaching spaces is like forcing a square peg into a round hole…



Why Symbiotic Retail Space Works…

There is no doubt that big changes are afoot and retailers need to adapt in order to prevent themselves from toppling over the edge.

Customers have come to expect more from their retail experience than just the exchange of goods for cash. They can easily undertake this sort of transaction online, so if they have taken the time to venture into a store, they want to be entertained, engaged with and to be made to feel part of a community. With the interaction between retailer and customer becoming more personal, and technological advancements meaning that stores are becoming more like showrooms; stores no longer need to tout everything they offer. Gone therefore is the need for gigantic retail spaces in which to display lots of merchandise. With many retailers still beholden to long term rentals or not wishing to give up prime locations, what does this mean for all the resulting surplus space?

The good news is that excess space can be turned into a great opportunity for retailers. Increasingly, we are seeing some of this being used to accommodate “pop-ups”, which is a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship in that the host retailer benefits from extra capital, the pop-up retailers are provided with a low risk platform to trial their brand to a relevant target market, and customers are offered a more varied environment to engage with.

We are also seeing space used for integration of brands, such as Sainsbury’s incorporating Argos concessions in their stores, which in turn drives footfall and looks to transform the grocer into more of a department store. Not to be left behind, we are seeing some department stores also adapt to new demands and expectations, such as Selfridges incorporating a “silence room”, the perfect antidote to a busy and often overwhelming retail environment.

Utilising space to incorporate coffee shops and restaurants also increases customer dwell time. Book shops have been successfully doing this for years and our client Tommy Hilfiger has recently added a People’s Place café for customers to linger over a latte. The House of Dunhill was an early pioneer to offer some “non retail” space to add value. We worked with their internal team to develop the retail and club concept in their Mayfair flagship, which gives members access to a suite of facilities; including a historic humidor, traditional gentleman’s grooming salon, private club rooms, dining and a private cinema.

Lululemon offers free yoga and fitness classes in many of their stores and we helped our client Adidas transform an original bank vault in a listed building in Barcelona into what has been dubbed “The activity room”, which is used for fitness classes, product demonstrations and guest appearances from sports celebrities.

Ultimately, whether extra retail space is utilised for pop-ups, hospitality and leisure space, or as a social “hub”, it is essential that it both compliments and reinforces the brand ethos of the retailer that offers it.

omnichannel is the only road to success for car dealerships…

For many of us, the stereotypical notion of buying a car involves an over enthusiastic salesman, peddling his deals among rows of shiny motor cars on a large forecourt. But changes are afoot…The technological advancements that can be seen and felt in retail and hospitality environments, combined with the relentless march of online selling; have not spared the motor sales industry.

For starters, consumers are increasingly embracing the web as a means of purchasing goods and services. According to research, in 2017 approximately 87% of U.K. consumers have bought at least one product online in the last 12 months, with the UK being second only to Norway in making e-commerce purchases in Europe.

Car purchasing is becoming no different. Accenture recently reported that some 80% of all research into buying a new car is conducted online, with car buyers subsequently visiting fewer than two dealerships on average. So, while physical car dealerships are still relevant, it is crucial that automotive retailers find innovative ways to address this change in consumer behaviour. It is more important than ever that car manufacturers and dealerships create brand exposure in not only the digital, but also the physical world, before the actual need to purchase arises.

The Millennial generation is the fastest-growing auto retail segment, with 35% of all loans originating from this generation and a 49% growth in Millennials’ share for lease contracts from 2012 to June 2016. This generation is clearly interested in acquiring new vehicles and represents a lucrative segment for those dealerships who can make the connection with this group of car buyers, being fully aware and prepared for the fact that they are arriving at the car purchasing process with some completely new expectations.

Older generations are also picking up some new habits. This is because we are all conditioned by Amazon and other online experiences, and increasingly follow omni-channel customer episodes: We research, select and buy cars in different ways to our non-digital predecessors, and increasingly expect the same capabilities and quality of service when shopping for cars as we are accustomed to experience in other aspects of our digital lives.

In the physical world, the wealth of technology is becoming more prominent and is increasingly being used in the automotive industry to drive customer engagement. There are various examples such as Audi launching their very first Digital Showroom, bringing virtual reality (VR) technology and with it a rich and interactive experience, through simulated test drives on London’s Park Lane. Similarly, Jaguar Land Rover offers potential customers a virtual tour of life-sized, as-yet unreleased models, illustrating technical details through added animations. BMW, was also an early adopter of in-store digital technology, offering dealers worldwide a multi-lingual solution, displaying information and promotional material in showrooms, that can be controlled at a local level to meet the specific needs of a dealer’s demographic.

These days, more and more car manufacturers and dealerships are also electing to trade away from the traditional “out of town” forecourts and are instead taking up residence alongside other retailers in shopping centres and on high streets. The benefits to consumers are that they are offered more diversity while shopping, and that they get to touch and experience these cars, creating a connection and a familiarity with the brand, before the purchasing need arises. For retailers and landlords, it is a valuable use of excess space, and leads to an overall increase in dwell time.

For instance, if you visit Bluewater shopping centre, you’ll see a Hyundai store among all the usual retailers. The location of all of the cars out on test are displayed in-store, which creates an engaging visual for passing shoppers. Customers can visit the store to research Hyundai options and make their purchase, with the cars delivered to a place of their choosing. Bentley has opened in the middle of Westfield Stratford, with the introduction of their luxury studio that allows customers to design their bespoke Bentley onsite. BMW Mini has a presence in Westfield Stratford and Tesla has opened showrooms in Westfield White City and Canary Wharf respectively.

There is no doubt that car dealerships are here to stay. However, it will be the ones that continue to evolve, bringing technology, staff and online strengths together and creating a truly omni-channel automotive retail experience in order to meet the purchasing patterns of today’s customer, that will thrive.

New breed of hotels & restaurants want to be one of the locals…

Airbnb’s rallying cry, “live like a local,” is now being applied by hospitality brands to both hotel and restaurant chains, with owners happily embracing the idea by developing localised design that has extra Millennial appeal. All this is changing the face of hospitality, not just in the UK but across the globe. Millennials, with their desire for something new and authentic, are demanding a new style of venue that offers homely, comfortable and interesting looks, often with a retro or vintage twist.

It may all be artfully designed, choreographed and perhaps even ‘curated’ but it certainly has the gravitational pull to attract the right audience and keep them coming back for more. The evidence is certainly there for all to see with successful ventures like the Hoxton group expanding each year.

Hoxton now has two hotels in London and one each in Amsterdam and Paris. Actually inspired by a neighbourhood, closely associated with graffiti artist Banksy and the original White Cube Gallery, the Hoxton ‘brand’ majors on the looks and ambience that intellectually, emotionally and physically engages both the laptop and latte hotel guest and locals who come to enjoy the restaurant and bar. Hoxton and other brands like Ace are taking design to a hyper-local level by using themes that closely mesh with the locality of each site.

Firmly in the vanguard of hospitality’s new radical chic they both challenge their designers to create a venue for guests and locals and above all to create something that enriches the neighbourhood itself. Like others in the new hospitality vanguard, the brand realises that it needs to imprint a strong brand on each of its venues and this is done largely through typography and a ‘look’ that is rendered, albeit with a twist, in every venue. LEON has even dedicated a page on its website to its changing faces which beautifully illustrates the point.

In conclusion, by tapping into the ‘zeitgeist’, with good interior design and excellent service, hospitality brands will be able to deliver the  surprise, standout and authenticity that Millennials want, creating a unifying brand that will fit both the times and the audience.

the future of student accommodation

Overseas students currently represent 1 in 5 of the student body in the UK and have been prepared to pay more than £160 per week for accommodation where concierge services, private gyms, pools and cinemas are considered standard. Post BREXIT, has seen the numbers of foreign students falling, with 41,000 fewer wanting to study in the UK this year. Developers face the prospect of empty accommodation or slashing rental fees.

Future projects will have to adapt to a rapidly changing market. The challenges differ across the regions. Like other areas, London still suffers from fundamental levels of undersupply, with The London Plan suggesting a need for up-to 31,000 additional bedspaces by 2025. In the capital, development has been impacted significantly by high land costs and competition from other uses forcing developers to acquire secondary stock to recycle, rather than build from scratch.

rpa:group have long been involved in repurposing buildings such as redundant office blocks, as well as refurbishing existing student accommodation schemes in response to the demand for elevated student living. We are now involved in addressing a more affordable future where cluster flats of 2 bedrooms and more are proving popular, creating a communal living opportunity rather than isolated studio “boxes” and breakout spaces that reflect the needs of modern students, such as raised seating and work stations with multiple power supplies to support their technology.

As the Huffington Post recently pointed out, when they surveyed students’ expectations; “ students just want good wifi, a large bedroom and a double bed. Even a dishwasher and a tumble dryer could not crack the top 5 student accommodation desires let alone the desire to have a porter service, a gym and a nightclub on the ground floor. ”

Clearly, higher end design will still have a place in some parts of the country but going forward, a more streamlined version also needs to be considered.

If you would like our help with your next student accommodation project, please contact us on 01784 256 579 or send an email to

Seismic changes can help secure retail’s future…

With so much happening, so quickly, in the world of retail we thought it was high time to delve deeper into the seismic changes affecting our industry, what they really mean for bricks and mortar retailers and how they can be leveraged to improve the future of retail, both for brands and customers. So, in October we held our first ‘Retail Indaba’, staged in Amsterdam, which met with a very positive response from some of the world’s leading retail brands.

Based on a Zulu word, literally describing a gathering for discussion, our Indaba’ was designed to provide an opportunity for brand owners to put some tough questions to both rpa:group and its partners. To this end we selected an expert panel that included a retail psychologist, our own head of design James Breaks and a technology specialist, all under the watchfull eye of Matthew Valentine, the Editor of Retail Design World, who acted as Chairman.

Our overall aim for the Indaba was to stimulate discussion that could be taken back to boardrooms to inform strategies that would drive positive real life applications. It soon became clear that attendees were grappling with some big issues, ranging from ‘omnichannel’ to AI, and that for some these represented untold opportunities whilst for others they represented challenges that must be met head on. We were delighted not only with the willingness of attendees to share experiences and talk frankly about their business challenges, but also with the challenging questions this led to such as, ”How do we ACTUALLY make fundamental changes within big business?” I think we all agreed that change now typifies retail. In the last ten years the humble high street store, still the preferred destination for 85% of shoppers, has gone through more changes than in the past one hundred.

Now a union of online and bricks and mortar, the once simple store is now an immersive brand theatre, incorporating a glorious cocktail of showrooming, digital entertainment and ‘sharable’ experiences. To deal with this change however requires not just a new mind set from retailers but also a new skill set, one that goes far beyond the old transactional paradigm. There was a general feeling from attendees that the Indaba broke new ground for them and that working collaboratively with our expert panel provided the strategy and insight to help them come to terms with some of the tricky issues that can affect all aspects of their brand identity.

“Knowing the unknowns” has become a constituent part of 21st Century problem solving and our Indaba addressed plenty of unknowns presented by the audience. For many attendees, it signposted a way to investigate complex areas such as brand development, retail design and store function. Above all the event illustrated how a team of experts, all from different disciplines, can address retail challenges in real time, delivering insight and strategy into how brands can interface with their customers.

If you would like our help with your next project, please contact us on 01784 256 579 or send an email to

crossing cultures…

The countries that I grew up in are a melting pot of many nationalities living and working together in relative harmony. It is testament to the human desire (and necessity) to collaborate for the common good that obligates people to understand and respect different cultures, before putting into practice various coping techniques.

Language is the obvious main difference, but surprisingly has the least impact as most of the educated workforce speaks English. While making the effort to learn Arabic is rewarded with great affection from the locals, it is largely unnecessary. What can cause greater impediment is being unaware of the different nuances of communication needed when engaging with different audiences. There are enormous benefits to interactions between people of different faiths, backgrounds and experiences and I look upon my time in the Middle East with enormous affection. As expats we often expect people to adapt to our way of thinking and approaches to work and life, but we would be very well advised to embrace cultural differences for the benefit of all.

Above I outline some customs and etiquette to bear in mind when doing business in the Middle East.

the mutual benefits of taking on interns…

Not only do they enhance their practical applications such as Revit/Drawing and how the industry works, they gain more psychological and no less important skills such as time management, communication and confidence building. Says Emma Sharp, HR Director at rpa:goup, “During their placement with us, our interns are able to put their skills and theories into practice and we support them in gaining invaluable, hands-on experience in the field of Architecture”.

Nicola Szczepaniak, studying at the University of Portsmouth and coming to the end of her one year placement with us agrees. “In my time here, I have gained more knowledge about the industry than I could ever have hoped for.” She adds, “The wide range of expertise amongst my colleagues has helped me develop many skills, from learning how to use the software more efficiently, to managing myself to complete various tasks professionally, on time and to a high standard” Nicola was also able to gain practical knowledge by visiting construction sites, in order to experience how the work produced in our offices is applied on site.

Michael Pearce, studying at the University of Brighton, and also nearing the end of his one year internship says, My time here has been extremely important in terms of progression for my career. I was urged to begin working on live projects from my second day so I could get a feel for these kinds of projects. In only a few months this allowed me to become an integral part of the team producing work to a high standard”. He emphasises that his responsibility has been no less than any other person in the team, which has been hugely important to his development and learning. As a company, we will continue to give interns the opportunity to work with us for many years to come. It is without doubt a mutually beneficial exercise. Mark Cherrett, Director of Architecture elaborates. “Interns bring with them new perspectives, fresh ideas, and skill sets. We in turn benefit from the “injection” of fresh thinking and it can ultimately help us gain valuable future employees.”

Our interns can certainly face their future with confidence, after their time with us. Says Michael “This internship has taken me to a new level and it has allowed me to feel confident about going back to finish my degree. I have no doubt that it will improve my work efficiency and my final product. Also, as I have experienced full time working life, it has prepared me for the future before I have even graduated, which feels like a head start.” Nicola agrees. “I think that working here has given me a great advantage when it comes to completing my degree and hopefully achieving the highest grade possible. I believe that it will also make me more employable after I graduate, as not many other graduates will have had a whole year of real experience in the workplace.”

We are currently recruiting replacements to continue this process. If you are an architecture student seeking an internship, please visit our contact us page for further details and contact information.

chain reaction takes fast food to a new level

The ‘one look for everywhere’ approach, which traditionally made sense and helped to underscore a brand’s identity has begun to look downmarket rather than consistent, and impersonal rather than recognisable. Consumers expect a more premium experience and the cookie-cutter strategy that dominated the sector is rapidly losing traction. Part of the reason is the artisan ethos pioneered by the smaller players. Brands like Bill’s and Leon – both of which have less than 100 UK sites, tapped into the zeitgeist by borrowing design cues from aspirational domestic interiors and as a result made ambiance the essence of the brand. Fashionable industrial lighting, quality natural materials, quirky buildings, intriguing props and unusual artwork give customers an authentic sense of place.

Big brands are tapping into the trend and are making the expression of their identities far more nuanced. KFC, the epitome of a fast food brand – have also been able to make the strategy work. It’s Bracknell outlet launched a radical new look with brick panels, copper lighting fixtures and handwritten signs. The sense of stylish domestic interior is evident through ‘kitchen tables’ with pendant lighting, which evoke the idea of shared family meals, while the semi-open plan kitchen makes food preparation feel more intimate. The iconic KFC colourways, graphics and visual identity take a back seat and allow the environment to become the brand hero. Burger King has also chosen to move away from full on corporate statement with a new scheme that combines copper, brick, bamboo and reclaimed wood. Branding is subtle with logos embossed into solid wood tabletops. These sorts of environments pick up on the UK consumer’s longstanding love affair with property design and interiors.

We have become less impressed with monolithic faceless corporations and want businesses to demonstrate honesty, authenticity and a more personal service. Branding is now about capturing an ambiance rather than corporate colours and a logo count. The fast food sector is particularly vulnerable to this change in consumer expectation and we can expect to see the trend for more intimate, almost domestic environments to continue in the future.

Nigel Collett – CEO, rpa:group.

“Phygital” – blending the physical and digital worlds of retail

The real purpose of phygital design is to create meaningful transactions and here I mean not only the exchange of money but the exchange of information, a limitless transaction without boundaries of physical space and time limits. The presence of this transaction extends into home, work, leisure and all the spaces in-between. Smart Technology is the means of harnessing this endless transaction in our lives, through smartphones, tablets, PCs, TV’s, wearable and even kitchen appliances. By far, the most important part of this connected culture is the two-way nature of the modern Transaction. In exchange for ultra-personalised service, the consumer trades with their personal information. The retail ecosystem uses this to target future transactions and perpetuate the phygital relationship. How then do we harness the power of this Transaction in a Phygital Design? The answer requires a true understanding of the consumer, the shopper tribe frequenting your store and a willingness on behalf of the retailer to embrace change.

First, we must create an experience, not a website, not an environment. This experience needs to deliver three desired outcomes: immediacy, immersion and interaction. Immediacy and Interaction are relatively easy to provide. Immersion, on the other hand, can be delivered through retail theatre, creating incredible environment and amazing spaces. Truly effective, phygital brand immersion needs to be linked with emotion: a bond made at a sub-conscious level and therefore stronger than any consciously generated suggestion. Understanding and addressing all the senses at this level drives massive commercial potential and it’s the clever use of technology that enables it. An unforgettable retail experience is what we are aiming for here, as the visionary Seth Godin said, “If we’re going to shop, then, there’s an imperative to make it engaging, thrilling and worth the resources we put into it.” With a fresh outlook and the willingness to think outside of the retail box, we can create compelling phygital environments. We certainly have the right audience in the 21st century. The tech literate generations X, Y and Z are ready to engage with something new. We live in a world where customers have grown to expect as opposed to desire. Now shoppers simply expect 3D environments to ‘raise the bar’ of retail experience year on year. We are rapidly reaching the point where a lack of phygital innovation will seriously impact the bottom line of brands that can’t keep up. As ever it will be the innovators who set the pace of change and therefore of consumer expectations.

What constitutes excellence in customer experience is being re-defined by the shopper and often goes far beyond a friendly greeting and helpful service. However, I would sound a note of caution here. It’s easy to be led by what you think the consumer wants, or by fads and fashions. There is no substitute for knowing the shopper who buys your brand. Don’t take them on a journey they feel uncomfortable with and don’t disappoint them when they show interest in a destination you have never heard of! Ultimately, Phygital is flexible but you must always make it meaningful.

why are stores being redesigned more often?

This means individual elements have to be completely compatible with existing products, so that they can be used without difficulty and facilitate the renovation and remodelling of the store with as little time and effort as possible. Today’s stores no longer just have to stand up to comparisons with other retailers on location, but are also in a global competition thanks to the Internet. Merchandise and products are available anytime and anywhere thanks to modern mobile devices. Customers get updated with frequently changing content and have come to expect the same in a physical store environment. Flexibility and engaging retail design are by no means irrelevant; customers still want individual and pleasant shopping experiences. Even if many retailers are now also online, the store remains an important component in the marketing mix.

Through store design and store furnishings, central marketing messages can be directly communicated to customers. In addition, they are indispensable to create unique incentives to buy that differ from those on the Internet and from other competitors. Environment, product and customer service defines brand and forms the connection. More than ever, retailers today have to worry about which target audience they want to reach and which channel enables the best and most direct sales approach in certain cases. However, modern shop-fitting does not just cater to the customer, but also to the purchasing situation and the type of products.

In any case, digital presentation media and a comprehensively arranged, flexible shopfitting concept facilitate a perfect target audience adaptation of the store and enables for quick remodelling to support special sales campaigns. This flexibility is also more economical and allows for continuous engagement with customers because it can be evolved and also allows for bringing in local relevance to the environment. With a direct focus on the customer and their needs, retail design creates emotional buying incentives and effective need satisfaction, which online retail is not able to offer customers. After all, sales promoting emotions are still best created directly at the point of sale.

school rebuilds should be about collaboration, imagination and budgeting…

Time and time again we have found that it is entirely possible to improve older buildings, retain their intrinsic character, and even incorporate current and future trends in teaching. As a team we are no strangers to innovative repurposing of buildings to create outstanding educational spaces that deliver a ‘wow factor’ for both educationalists and students. All it takes is inventive and resourceful use of budgets and real collaboration between all stakeholders.

So, what delivers a great school and what are the ingredients that make something leap beyond the mundane and enter the territory of the inspirational? First of all, partnership is vital. Architects, consultants and designers need to work together in a truly symbiotic way and they all need to work with (and understand) those who will use the school – namely the teachers and the students. Understanding their requirements, desires and challenges will go a long way. Secondly, the team needs to both understand and embrace change. All parties should address where teaching will be in say 10-20 years time. This throws up all manner of topics such as, will we still have classrooms as we know them or will we have more flexible spaces?

Our work for King’s Maths School supports a ‘break-out’ strategy, with brightly coloured pods allowing students to work alone or in small groups. We also need to think about some real fundamentals like the use of walls in the classroom. Currently walls are a vital teaching aid that provides show-space for students work, particularly in primary schools. However, walls can be made to slide and fold so that space can be reconfigured. The question is whether this adds to or subtracts from the ameneties on offer to teachers? Overall It’s vitally important that architects and designers challenge schools to think outside the box and if they do, some great things can be done. All it takes is collaboration, imagination and a sensible budget.

How to reach customers not interested in in-store technology

Do we really understand who uses technology and how they want it to operate within a retail environment? Does everybody want their store to have the latest gadgets? Having taken an initial ‘giant leap’ for customer-kind, many stores have become a committed part of the technology vanguard, pioneering in-store solutions that have the ring of science fiction about them: iris recognition, smart changing rooms, near field communications and clothing that can read your moods. They have seen the ultimate promise of ‘big data’ and are working on how to personalise their stores in order to get to know their customers better than anybody had ever dreamed possible.

All this is exciting territory, however, despite the overall trend, it’s inevitable that a significant number of customers will feel disgruntled and even at odds with a brand to which they have previously been loyal. This group will be quite diverse in attitudes: some will not want to fully embrace IT in their own homes and daily lives, let alone want to experience it in-store. Others may actively enjoy technology but be turned off by it in certain situations or environments. Retailers have to think carefully about how to respond to this situation – after all some ‘techno-phobics’ may be their best customers. For a retailer, it’s now all about understanding ‘tribes’ that make up their customer base. Tribes are not brought together by age, gender or geography or even income, but by being like-minded.

We have identified over the past year or so a number of key tribes to assist our clients: the ‘style-conscious tribe’, the ‘value tribe’, the ‘urban chic’, the ‘collaborators’, the ‘iconoclasts’ and many others. Within any tribe there will be sub-tribes and there will also be members of the tribe that cross over between their tribe and another. For example, research has revealed that 63% of shoppers welcome a mobile app personalised to navigate stores and 43% find in-store location deals (where their location is tracked in order to trigger personalised promotions whilst shopping) positively “cool”. Some are delighted to have intelligent fitting rooms that ‘talk’ to them but would be horrified by the prospect of a salesperson greeting them by name when entering a store, after receiving a signal from the consumer’s mobile phone.
In fact, an overwhelming 73% found the thought of that service ‘creepy’ when asked. In addition, 68% of UK shoppers find facial recognition unnerving.

In the light of findings retailers need to identify the tribes in their customer base and create the ultimate retail environment for them, based on an understanding of their motivations, IT habits and general psychology. That is just as important as being up to speed with the latest techno inventions.

impulse purchasing – creating the right store environment for impulse buyers

First and foremost, you need to define the values that make your brand relevant to your customers and differentiate it from competitors. Then it’s about developing an interior concept that communicates those values, attracting customers and enticing them to spend more in-store, via both planned and impulse purchases. To achieve this the store must become a seductive, compelling environment that tells the “brand story”. Getting the right interior look is critical and interior architecture has got to be exactly on brand.

Creating a unique ‘signature’ environment is often about creating an aspirational environment, a sense of belonging.Tommy Hilfiger for example recently converted a listed building in Berlin, which the design team loaded with beautiful antique light fixtures, interesting pieces of furniture, beautiful rugs and comfortable leather sofas and armchairs. These make some parts of the store feel like a very chic home, one that you are excited and privileged to be in. In fact, the store is so beautiful that you ache to take a part of it home with you, and of course you can, because the gorgeous clothes hanging on the rails are for sale! Also, make sure that your store has “speed bumps”: merchandise displays that work much the same way as speed bumps in parking lots: they slow customers down.

One of the best ‘speed bumps’ is the changing room area. If the customer has made it this far, they intend to make a purchase and one might assume that all spontaneity has now been used up. However, this is vital impulse territory. For example, ‘smart’ changing rooms, that suggest items to go along with the one selected by the customer, frequently unlock our impulsive side, bringing what retail anthropologist Rich Kizer calls “merchandise outposts” back into the customer journey. Although, they may have passed the handbags five minutes earlier with no interest at all, having a compatible handbag suggested at this point can often promote the “I need that!” response, which goes on to secure a sale. If you own a retail store you will undoubtedly understand the simple idea that if customers spend more time in your store, they are more likely to spend more money.

US company, Path Intelligence, recently published a report that shows that extending a customer’s visit by 1%, will see a 1.3% increase in sales. Basically, the longer they stay in store the more unplanned or spontaneous their purchases become. So, get the look right, bear in mind dwell time, make people feel happy, indulged and relaxed. You have now set the scene to encourage very profitable impulse behaviour!

showdown… or showroom…

A recent article by market observer TNS claims that mobiles can be used to tame the risk of showrooming by boosting brand interaction with consumers and converting them from browsers into customers. Of the 38,000 people surveyed across 43 countries, 33% had visited a store to try out products without buying them, with 21% using their mobile devices to showroom. This represents a huge opportunity for brands to approach consumers in a buying environment, as these activities say loud and clear that they are ready to interact with brands whilst in a store.

A staggering 20% of mobile users participating in the poll said that they were willing to receive mobile coupons during their shopping trip and 13% would be interested to use the services of a ‘virtual sales assistant’, which could provide additional information about items. Rather than being the IT devil incarnate, showroomers generally just want to find out more about the price of a product and its suitability and they successfully achieve this by reading reviews in social media, from friends and family and sales staff. This suggests that brands need to adopt a more integrated approach that allows for reaching consumers and meeting their needs at all touch points.

Matthew Froggatt, Chief Development Officer at TNS, rounds it all up quite nicely when he says, “Rather than seeing mobile as a threat to in-store sales, brands and retailers must embrace it as the most immediate and personalised way to engage shoppers to ensure that they don’t leave empty-handed.”

Another interesting piece of research, this time from retail training company Beyond The Box, makes another point that can easily be tackled by retailers. It claims that consumers showroom not just to save money, but because staff are unhelpful and ill-informed. The majority of those surveyed felt that retail staff, were failing to ‘connect’ with them or their needs, and that staff failed to ‘explain products and services’ to them. If this is true, there is one major dynamic being overlooked by retailers, today’s customers want information, lots of it, they are price savvy and, both online and in-store, they are looking for exceptional service. Sadly, the research shows that if customers are unable to find an empathetic and informed retail professional to talk with, there is a very good chance they’ll take their business online.

To sum up, UK retailers need to culture showrooming, encourage it, embrace it, and if they do they will benefit, honest. Make friends with the mobile, encourage people to use your store in a more high tech way, and make sure your staff deliver the experience that today’s consumers are looking for.

restaurants: high street newbies get a slice of the action

Established chains like Pizza Express, Mr Pretzels, Hummingbird Bakery and Starbucks are doing well, but there’s no doubt that restaurants still need to find exactly the right interior design recipe in order to succeed. More than ever diners are looking for added benefit, both in the food they eat and in the restaurant environment itself and it’s only those that can tap into the zeitgeist when it comes to their look that will survive the choppy waters of an uncertain economy. Two of the most interesting eateries that we have come across recently are MASH and Moment.

MASH, or the Modern American Steak House, may just be one of those right time right place offerings. The hugely successful Copenhagen Concepts, plumped for Soho as its first foray outside of Denmark and looks like its got a hit on its hands. However, restauranteur Peter Trauboth comments that the brand is going to take it’s time considering whether to stick or twist when it comes to a UK roll out, “it’s one thing to play like a world champion at home but it’s another to go to Wembley,” he says modestly. However, at the moment with rave reviews, things are looking good and the 300 seat restaurant that brings style to steak, is a far cry from your local Angus. But, having said that, a big hit calls for broad appeal, and MASH’s interior design has set out to appeal to women, an American inspired trend that is happening throughout the steak world at the moment.

Can we support the growing numbers of steak restaurants? It would appear that MASH is not life threatening to London’s other high end steakeries although its kind could just sound the death knell for the few remaining Angus Steak Houses. Also, on the wave of a new look is Greggs which has launched ‘Moment’, a Newcastle coffee bar concept that leaves the doughnut and the almond slice far behind. More restaurant than corner cafe it sports chesterfield sofas, discreet lighting, and elegant
coffee tables. It deserves to catch on, but I cannot think why they have retained the Greggs identity on the fascia.

All of this is a far cry from the bakery I knew and loved as a 6th former and, as I pause through my first bite of a perfectly frosted cupcake, I wonder if I’ve fallen into a  parallel universe. It’s only the picture of Greggs fascia board, uploaded by a puzzled Geordie onto the brand’s Facebook page and succinctly captioned: “Explain?”, that brings me crashing back to earth. With its low cost food and high comfort surroundings, Moment is right for an age of austerity where people are looking for alternatives to expensive high street coffee shops. But does it have the magic that’s needed to hack it on the high street? Some soul searching is obviously going on as Tony Rowson, formerly a senior executive at Costa Coffee, has been asked to look at the brand’s potential for a UK roll-out. So, we shall see.

…the future of retail

Apparently women in their 30’s are most likely to rage at the unsatisfactory space allocated for trying on clothes (72%). The study, commissioned by isme, found that fully 75% of women are so fed-up with cramped, cluttered and exposed fitting rooms that they’ve stopped trying clothes on altogether, and 60% of women admit to angrily leaving garments on the nearest rail rather than endure changing cubicle. This is surprising given that according to separate research, 71% of those who try clothes on buy (according to London consultancy Envision Retail), as opposed to just 10% of those who do not try the clothes on in store. And retailers widely acknowledge the importance of the changing room experience. Therefore, stores need to really step up their game in respect of dressing rooms, because that is where the emotion happens with a product. A display can make you fall in love with something, but when a shopper can try it on, in a beautifully furnished and well lit space, then they fall in love with the item on themselves.

Stores need to be designed in a way that features the changing room as the focus of the experience – and added value services are being provided to shoppers as they make their way through their purchase paths. Yet when asked about their emotional state upon visiting a high street changing room, 58% of women expressed feeling disappointed in, and 48% feeling frustrated with, their experience. The major changing room gripes highlighted include curtains that don’t shut properly (55%), long queues (41%), no hooks to hang own clothes on (41%) and not enough space (40%). Other top ten gripes include ‘poor lighting’. But this is a good example of how a seemingly simple expectation by customers may not be all that it seems… While studies have examined lighting on the sales floor, there is very little data on the effects it has on shoppers in dressing rooms.

A recent study by Baumstarck, of female shoppers aged 18 to 35 who tried on clothes, showed a clear preference for frontal lights (those installed along the sides of the mirror) to overhead lights, which were ceiling mounted. Women complained that overhead lighting created shadows on their face and made them look unattractive. To avoid these unwanted shadows, shoppers had to step back from the mirror. Overhead lighting also makes a room seem smaller, creating a ‘claustrophobic’ experience. With frontal lighting, dressing rooms appear bigger and shoppers are willing to stay longer and even try on more clothes. Adult behaviour psychologist, Susan Quilliam says: “Beautiful clothes will always make a woman feel more beautiful and therefore more positive about her appearance, and more optimistic in general. We often use shopping to offset disappointments in other parts of life, or to balance out the negative emotions we feel about ourselves and others.

But if the shopping experience itself is negative, the whole event can be utterly destructive. Instead of boosting our self-esteem, it saps it; instead of making us feel good about ourselves and our lives, it brings up frustration, irritation and anger.” At a time when retailers are looking to every part of their businesses to improve performance, there is no substitute for good design based upon research. The use of space, lighting and brand identity within the changing areas have to make it easy for the consumer to buy into the brand ethos as much as the clothes themselves. The whole experience has to be appropriate for the shopper and their expectations of the brand. Outside of the changing rooms, the lobby needs to be inviting and designed to facilitate an attentive interaction between staff and customers. And in the era of multi-channel retailing, interactive technologies such as the magic mirror, virtual closet and other interactive dressing room technologies need to be appropriately integrated into the shopping and brand experience. In changing rooms and adjacent areas the application of expert design and input will, it seems, inevitably reward retailers with higher sales and happier customers.

a luxury retail bric in the wall

Part of the fall-out of such rapid economic growth is that the established rich and emerging BRIC middle classes are now enjoying their wealth through buying into Western luxury. According to Euromonitor the BRIC economies accounted for 11% of all global luxury sales by value last year, and will achieve 16% by 2017. China, by far the star of this trend and the big prize in the luxury goods market, has seen its consumption triple over the last five years. Forecasters say that by 2017 China will double in value again, overtaking Western Europe and Japan and establishing itself as the second biggest luxury market in the world after the US.

The country is the Holy Grail for luxury retailers, with innumerable Western store launches, not just in the major cities, but also in second and third tier markets too. Some names dominate: the forty year old Mulberry brand has a Beijing flagship and plans thirty more stores for the region, Dunhill which opened its first store in Shanghai twenty years ago now has one hundred stores and Burberry has fifty five stores across the country and nine in Beijing alone. But, will the High Street brands be able to replicate the success of their designer and luxury counterparts? Many American and European clothing brands have ambitious plans for China and others are entering the market for the first time this year. They are competing in an apparel market that was worth £150bn last year and if they get it right there are undoubtedly profits to be made.

Inditex, owners of Spanish fast fashion brand Zara, definitely lead the pack with 350 stores across mainland China. Sweden’s H&M opened 32 outlets last year and now has 78 stores in China. Analysts believe the brand will treble its store numbers over the next 3 years. Meanwhile, Gap aims to have 45 stores by the end of 2013. Others have so far embraced expansion on a more modest scale. M&S opened its first store in Shanghai in 2008 and now plans to increase numbers to 18 across the country. Top Shop has been even more tentative, making do with a pop-up store during last year’s Beijing Design Week, albeit a move that could herald a more permanent foothold. Hollister, a sub brand of Abercrombie & Fitch, is also eyeing up the Chinese mainland and Forever 21 has flagships in both Beijing and Shanghai. John Lewis Partnership is also exploring shops in China, a move which would mark its first foray outside the UK.

Closer to home, western retailers have not been slow to grasp the opportunity presented by Russia’s fast growing economy. There is also very good news for challenger European and American brands, as pointed out by Per Kaufman, chief executive of Russian operations for Ikea, who says, “It is a bit like the Wild West a hundred years ago. There is such demand and dynamism in the market that you can succeed even if you’re not the top retailer.”

Our own involvement in Russia with Nokia’s Vertu brand and Tommy Hilfiger shows that upmarket stores in Moscow and St Petersburg are already no different from those of any other major capital. Russian consumers, like their Chinese counterparts, see Western brands as a means of self definition. With the average Russian income having increased sixteen fold in the past 12 years it’s no longer only those on the biggest salaries that can wear foreign clothes and use foreign cosmetics, even though it may still be the preserve of the rich to drive one of the 15,000 Jaguars and Landrovers that will be sold in Russia this year, or to own an i-pad. Again, like China, brands such as Zara have responded to the increasing middle class desire for western fashion with aggressive growth plans. The company has a plan to open 50 new shops a year, and names like Hamleys and Debenhams are rushing to join early entrants like M&S.

It will be interesting to see what other developments take place in the two most dynamic BRIC markets over the course of the next 12 months. But, one key thing is evident right now, western retail expertise will be in high demand alongside the influx of western products. rpa:group for example have been working with a major Russian retailer on their corporate identity and the retail concept design of one hundred plus stores. And the message is clear, Russians like the reassurance of western design, even if the goods they are buying are Russian.

Big Data or Big Brother?

Maybe too many retail brands are so heavily focussed on the sophisticated techniques which can slice and dice data, that they are beginning to overlook the ‘softer’ skill of understanding the customer? An American professor was explaining on the TV just this week how a mobile phone switched on in somebody’s pocket or handbag, can gather endless data on consumer behaviour patterns in a cityscape. How and when consumers travel, where and what they eat and drink, where and for how long they congregate – there was no end to the information. The spy-like invasion of consumers’ everyday life is compelling, but what happens when this intelligence is put into a retail marketing strategy?

It is easy to assume that once the complex task of analysis has been completed, all that remains is to attach a logical marketing communication and your work is done.

For instance, mobile-watching might reveal the group that walk the least and spend the most time in fast-food outlets and would therefore be high risk for obesity and diabetes. It would make sense to target them with ads for diet foods according to the data.

But data is ultimately meaningless if not informed by insight into the customer. No one likes to think they are being tracked down by the data’s Big Game Hunters and if you happen to be overweight, with a weakness for a Big Mac and fries, you are probably going to be insulted by finding diet food ads dropping through your letterbox or popping up on your computer screen. “Why me?” you might think, “Are they trying to suggest I’m too fat?” Equally, if you are over 50, it makes for a depressing self image to be bombarded with offers of life insurance, care homes, and incontinency products! You may be overweight and you may be getting on a bit, but you don’t need to reminded of it every time you log on to Facebook!

Mary Portas, the British retail guru made a comment this week on national radio that shops are frequented by people. That may sound a bit daft, but think a moment. Regard your customers as people and treat them with respect and you can’t go too far wrong. Regard them merely as ‘targets’ and see them only as a possible quick sale and you run the risk of alienating them forever.

Big Data is all well and good, but be careful about the insights you take from it and the actions that arise from these insights. Quantitative data is a useful tool, but at the end of the day advertising is about real people connecting with real people in a meaningful way.

Advertise to people with too much surgical precision and you may risk causing them annoyance and these days, when customer reaction is quick and far reaching, you may run the risk of unleashing the darker side of the social media genii. Personally, I have always believed the old adage that a happy customer tells three people whereas an unhappy customer tells ten, and now, in the age of social media, the ten carries on to be hundreds if not thousands.

So, don’t hunt your customers down and get too much into their personal space. Don’t make them feel that a Retail Big Brother is always watching them and has cynically sliced and diced their habits to reveal every strand of their shopping DNA. Be polite, be friendly and respectful, and consign the pushy and too familiar side of marketing to the wastebasket.

a load of old crystal balls?

Apparently, Argos shoppers are in for an in store treat soon when they will be offered the chance to shop via an interactive crystal glass ball.

The retailer claims that the ball will measure body temperature and moisture to assess stress levels and then using unique ‘destiny’ algorithms it will read the customer’s mind! Once the crystal ball has calculated what product the customer desires it sends an order to staff in the stockroom who will prepare the product. The plans follow Amazon’s move, revealed in January, to send packages to customers before they have ordered them using predictive demand analytics! The technology has been developed in its Future Purchasing Lightbulb Eureka lab, located in a converted warehouse off the Silicon Roundabout in Shoreditch.

Argos chief digital fortune teller and innovative innovator of technological solutions April Day said: “It’s going to transform the way retailers react to customer needs, customers won’t want to waste energy making up their minds on what type of ear phones or food processor they buy next, they can just use the crystal ball to tell them what they need.” Argos plans to trial the technology in a handful of stores before rolling it out. Spoof or not one thing in this story sounds really good – the Eureka Lab – more companies should have one!

olympic torch lights up the economy…

After playing our own small part in the mega event of London 2012, RPA is settling down, like so many others, to evaluate the legacy of the Games for Britain.

The euphoric wave of medal winning, creativity and showmanship delivered by The Summer of Sport gave us something more fundamental and longer lasting than a few weeks of top class entertainment. It gave us back something of the confidence and self-belief that had been slowly ebbing away over the past few years of recession.  And, perhaps more importantly, it gave us an excellent opportunity to rebuild ourselves, not just at home but abroad. Now British business needs to work hard to take advantage of our new found confidence and build upon it. We need more initiatives like the ‘British Business Embassy’ run at Lancaster House alongside the Olympics. The “embassy” arranged for 4,000 business leaders to attend the biggest trade event ever held in the UK, and helped to generate £1bn of the £11bn of trade and inward investment so far expected as a result of the Games.

As we officially leave recession behind us the economic benefits of the Games have started to kick in. Now, something needs to underpin what we have achieved so far and it’s the perfect time for British brands to embrace being British, associating their products and services with the fundamental values of heritage, passion and style that were illustrated so well in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Maybe it’s time that we revisited the advertising campaign, created by Mother for the British Government in 2011?  The campaign, centered around the word ‘Great’ was intended to send out the message loud and proud that this is a great place to do business. Then, against a backdrop of rioting hoodies, it didn’t strike the right note, but now it would be a perfect fit. If there was ever a time and a place to put the ‘Great’ back into Britain it is here and now.

The feel good factor should also help lift the mood on Britain’s High Streets, as the success of the Games is predicted to bring more visitors to the UK in coming months and years. Stores should be planning to take a leaf out of Danny Boyle’s book. After all, he showed the world how impactful ‘theatre’ can be, and that theatre can be translated into the retail environment. It’s important to remember that we are not just feeling different about ourselves we are also being viewed differently overseas.  Feedback from colleagues and clients across the globe all boils down to buzz words like quality, innovation and success. There is a universal feeling that Britain can punch above its weight and still has what it takes. Once again global investors are prepared to listen and willing to invest in BrandGB, and that is a legacy worth having.

a brit of luxury….

Until now that it is.

Britishness is definitely hip again and companies like Burberry are steaming ahead with spectacular growth revenues up nearly 30% last year, Mulberry profits are up over 300 % and even huge ticket item like Rollers are seeing huge growth with the luxury car company reporting 40% growth thanks to high demand in the emerging BRIC economies. Some of the smarter old wave Brit luxury brands are reinventing themselves nicely on the back of this new wave of cash and popularity. Barbour for example has collaborated with a series of very “now” designers such as the Japanese Tokihito Yoshida, and is in such demand that Anne Pitcher, managing director of Selfridges, says she “can scarcely keep it in stock”, so fast is it selling.

Whilst over at Barbour’s headquarters, figures confirm another success story – turnover has risen 20 per cent. Everywhere one turns, one sees Britishness being celebrated: Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, the cast of Downton Abbey feted like rock stars in the US, then of course there was the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. It’s interesting that sometimes it takes a foreigner to see what’s so great about being British. Ed Burstell, an American who is now managing director of the London department store Liberty, which has always leveraged Britishness as one of its great themes, is convinced something new is in the air. “I see many customers who want to own a piece of something British, and they’re willing to pay a premium price for it.” Changing tastes certainly seem to be running in Britain’s favour.

Throw in a bit of heritage and genuine quality and 2013 could be a great one for all that we do best.

launching the bim revolution

Colour coding would vary from organisation to organisation. Designers wishing to share information with contractors would have to explain their standards on each project. There would be no continuity from job to job, massive duplication of effort between parties and inevitable conflicts between designer, contractor, facilities managers and clients. Clearly such a system would be unworkable. A common standard is a must to optimise efficiencies, safety and cost effectiveness. Pity then the architects, engineers, contractors, clients, et al, who are tasked with working from shared BIM information…

Designed to avoid conflicts, optimise efficiency through materials and time savings and provide valuable data after the initial build for the operation, maintenance and modification of the buildings, the lack of standardisation (or “social BIM”) makes the full realisation of the BIM’s potential impossible. “My business was an early adopter of BIM and we have for some time been realising significant efficiencies on behalf of our clients. Nevertheless, the lack of common standards outside of our organisation can be extremely frustrating. So who is going to drive this need for standardisation?” asks Derek Pratley, director at rpa:group.

Government is capable of forcing the issue, of course, through legislation or economic imperatives. David Philip, Head of BIM implementation for The Cabinet Office, has stated that government tenders will soon require BIM. “We are developing simple guidance and templates through the first tranche of our (funded) work packages, which will be complete by Q1 2012, allowing BIM tenders to start entering the pipeline… towards full adoption by 2016”. Adam Matthews of Autodesk’s Government Affairs team and supporting the BIM Task Group, asserts that while the Government is not saying BIM is mandatory, it is specifying outcomes and deliverables that add a commercial imperative to the adoption of BIM for those wishing to work on public sector projects, and so creating impetus for change.

Matthews points out that, in a quest to meet its target of reducing the cost of constructing and running public buildings by 20% by 2016, the Government has, as part of this strategy, adopted a five point plan. The idea is to look for savings in the key areas of inter alia procurement and facilities management, something that BIM lends itself readily to the pursuit of. Accordingly the Government now requires building information to be offered in a format called COBie (Construction Operations Building information exchange). It’s a long description for something quite straightforward: the COBie file contains the information required by an owner/operator to manage a building through its operational phase. Additionally traditional drawing submittals to public clients are not going to be acceptable simply in PDF formats; going forward BIM models will be required in native file formats along with the COBie file. And in June the British Standards will publish the new PAS1192:2 standard: a guidance note for how the supply chain on public works can share information and collaborate with themselves.

But if the Government, while falling short of making BIM mandatory, is encouraging its use by the construction and FM industries, who has the influence necessary to put BIM centre stage in the private sector?

An example of large organisations making the running would be the BIM For Retail forum. Comprising Asda, Waitrose, John Lewis and 3 others, with advice from architects HOK and engineers Romboll, the forum is designed to “agree standards and processes for BIM that will improve the quality of design information, what standard to work to  and how to manage it”, according to James Brown, head of model and specification for Asda. Wal Mart, owners of Asda, is of course an American company. It is worth noting that in the US the application of BIM has been more readily seized upon and the level of advancement there is now some way ahead of UK practice. There companies in the Retail, Healthcare and Education sectors have readily embraced the value realisable from BIM, in terms of the supply chain, and are much more inclined to mandate the delivery of BIM.

Another view is that contractors themselves should be responsible for agreeing common standards. Chris Gilmour of BAM Construction UK, says “contractors need to accept the responsibility of being the integrators.”

“There is no doubt that there is a swell of activity across the industry responding to the government’s BIM strategy. The clear message I hear from those already adopting it is that it’s better to start early and gain the internal efficiency and value benefits from BIM rather than trying to play catch-up”, says Adam Matthews. Whoever drives it, there needs to be a standard for BIM. There’s a convention for AutoCAD; everyone knows that. If you pick up a drawing anyone can work from it. And with an estimated 68% of firms stating that they have shared BIM information with firms outside of their own organisations, the urgent need for common standards is clear.

an “olympic year” for the hotel industry

However, Michael Saunders, of Citigroup, has examined the data from ten Olympics held between 1964 and 2008. He finds that growth tends to rise in the run-up to the tournament, but the effect starts to fall away even before the games begin. Then afterwards, growth tends to be weaker.

Visa Europe’s report concedes: “This is a first for an Olympic Games host market, which usually experience a domestic spending slump during the Games. This will be driven by the public’s enthusiasm for the Games, demonstrated by the high demand for Olympic tickets.” Who is right? We shall see. It is perhaps ironic that a year that brings the largest sporting event that the UK has ever seen may also herald a break up of the Euro. The hotel industry is, of course, international by its nature. If a Eurozone break up was to occur it has been estimated that we could see national currencies devaluing by up to 40%, impacting profits derived from Euro transactions. Fingers crossed…To add to the litany of others, there is the potential threat of the “staycation”, where people choose to spend their vacation time at or near home in order to save money.

However, “holidaying at home” has boosted UK demand, with Butlins and Haven holiday parks seeing a 6% rise in pre-tax profits to £93.4 million in the year to December 2010, thanks to Britain’s ‘staycation’ trend as the weak pound makes it relatively expensive to go overseas. So actually, perhaps that is a good thing. Whatever your take on prospects for the future, it is a fact that the UK leads the way in hotel property sales and investment. In 2010 it topped Europe in terms of hotel transactions, with a figure of €1.9 billion.

In recent years, private equity firms have made big profits through aggressive acquisition strategies. However, they no longer have the influence they perhaps once did at a time when funds are hard to borrow and valuations declining. Some funding is moving back towards traditional models, such as the Feathers Hotel Group, one of the fastest growing hotel chains in the North West of England. They announced in October 2011 that they are to invest further money into their portfolio of three
and four-star hotels with the continued financial support of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Corporate and Institutional Banking (RBS CIB) team.

Other funding models, increasingly popular with the value hotel chains, are a little more complex. The concept is that a developer, who is often also a contractor, builds the hotel and then leases it to an operator for 25-30 years at a predetermined rent level. The operator never actually owns the hotel. Containing cost is an essential part of making these arrangements work, and so a particular approach is necessary. Planning costs can be minimized by an appreciation of the appetite each planning authority has for such schemes, be they new build or the increasingly popular conversion of 1960’s and 70’s office blocks. An understanding of the necessary occupancy levels and room numbers, together with an operator’s preferred location criteria, footprint and mix of retail and accommodation on a development avoid wasted time and money. Construction utilizing modular techniques may cost a similar amount to that using conventional techniques. However, construction times, even on complex projects, can be substantially truncated – perhaps by as much as 60% – greatly reducing the overall cost of the building. This innovative approach can make otherwise unworkable schemes viable for both developer and operator.

One such value hotel chain, Travelodge, announced in December 2011 that they would target 146 new UK sites for openings in 2012, including 26 new hotels throughout London to be opened ahead of the Games – all within walking distance of the Olympic venues. So clearly the model can be successfully employed. The boutique hotel sector, after undergoing a period of expansion over the past few years, is also proving resilient. Smaller properties commanding higher revenue per room have proved attractive to operators grappling with the economic downturn. Research suggests it is the fastest growing hotel segment in London and is expected to have doubled in size by 2013. In conclusion, it has been said that if you took all the economists in the world and laid them end to end… they still could not reach a conclusion!

Despite uncertainty in the market, smart hotel operators are continuing to invest; to take advantage of the many opportunities that come their way, and to build their businesses. Now is the right time for all operators to identify what opportunities are available to take advantage of, whether through acquisition or redevelopment. Every operator should be looking for a positive advantage, not just preparing for the worst, which may never happen.