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.

What will 2021 and beyond hold for Architects?

A RIBA statement in October last year, revealed that over £3.5 billion of work was scrapped, with a further £7.5 billion on hold. There is no doubt that times are tough and as a result, competition is fierce, which is bringing about a “race to the bottom” on price. It is up to the industry to retain consistency and standards without compromising on quality, which occurs when costs and corners are cut.

For architects involved in retail, there are additional challenges due to the pandemic escalating the popularity for online shopping. The customer journey is changing, and we need to respond to this across both the retail and hospitality sectors, by looking into placemaking and taking a multi-faceted approach. The role of designers should be transforming experiences and collaborating in a more community-driven environment. There are going to be opportunities for architects as spaces need to be repurposed to adapt to the rapidly changing market and make them work differently.

Post pandemic, making people feel safe is going to be an important criteria in how space is utilised. Airport lounges for example will increase in numbers and popularity, as people feel safer in less crowded spaces and will be prepared to pay for this premium.

The pandemic has highlighted the opportunity to be innovative. We will start to see the regeneration of town centres, with vacant office and retail units making way for more placemaking facilities, with spaces for people to live, work and play.

What of rural areas? There is concern over the impact that Brexit has had on these communities, which have seen funding all but disappear. Rural estates need to be optimised to work a little harder, and to look into opportunities for change of use, such as including holiday accommodation, conference, leisure and lifestyle facilities.

And what of London and the larger cities? Interestingly, certain sectors respond more slowly to change, and what is referred to as “critical impact” can take up to three years. What we will start to see more of is changes to the profiles of buildings and some environmental changes, with more and more green spaces.

Overall, there is optimism about the residential sector. The large government debt will see the need for more jobs to be created, to generate taxes to help the economy recover. This will result in more employment in the construction industry. Advancements in construction methods will be explored more than ever, prioritising the use of off-site modern methods of construction (MMC) to deliver homes at a faster pace than traditional methods.  Schools can also take advantage of this form of construction to speed up the shortfall.

However, off-site needs to think very carefully about the environment and sustainability, for what is basically moving boxes of air over vast distances. A way round this is to source things as locally as possible.

There is no doubt that sustainability is going to be increasingly important regardless of sector. With government targets set to achieve net zero carbon by 2050, advancements in technology can support this initiative by utilising collaborative tools such as BIM level 2, which gives an accurate picture of  initial costs and whole life costs, encouraging clients to implement sustainable solutions upfront. BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) will become an increasingly important factor in architecture, being the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for master planning projects, infrastructure and buildings.

In conclusion, there are certainly going to be challenges, but also opportunities that arise from the shifting needs for buildings and spaces and how we will use them.

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.


six retail design trends to look out for in 2017

Here we share what we believe to be the top retail trends that will dominate in 2017.

James Breaks, Associate Director (Design) – rpa:group.


Why omnichannel retail needs real places for real people

A good idea, but perhaps nothing new. The first 1960s boutiques in Carnaby Street or trendy hot spots on The Kings Road had stores with a loyal and local following, as well as being trendsetters on a national scale. Retailing history can offer numerous examples of stores acting as social hubs, including the famous bookshop Shakespeare & Co in Paris, home to expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso – all Parisians at the time.

With such illustrious antecedents, the NBHD concept has been a huge success and from Berlin to Beijing, customers have talked positively about feeling closer to the brand. It’s a nice antidote to the impersonal ‘one size fits all’ stores that have grown up with the desire or need to globalise. Retailers that embrace their locality, realise there must be a genuine and convincing fusion of retail and dedicated community space within their stores, even if this means extended opening hours or new patterns of retailing.

The philosophy of locality retailing demands that the retail environment reflect where it is, by creating an authentic sense of geographic place.  Adidas has achieved this in spades through its store design, and the new Starbucks concept has done the same. Both realise that the necessary changes can be brought about through materials, colour palette, furniture and fixtures.  But alongside a standout retail design, there also needs to be a virtual community, offering the chance to create and be part of a tribe with its own turf and personality. Savvier retailers are already taking giant strides by making individual store managers responsible for product mix to suit the demands of a particular locale and some are even making them responsible for internet and PR in their locality. It all comes down to making omnichannel work in a seamless way. If this can be done, then a truly exceptional customer experience can be delivered that acts locally but thinks nationally, or even globally. The digital environment should be as tonally and conceptually close to the physical store experience as possible. A great website and physical store should allow you to discuss, learn and make a choice effortlessly from a whole experience.

These are exciting times for retail. By embracing the available technology, high street brands will be able to take the very best from the biggest changes to commerce and society since the Industrial Revolution.  Already an elite group of early adopters realises that the future of stores is real places for real people – let’s hope the rest catch on soon.

schools of the future

This is because in our highly connected world, students have ubiquitous access to quality, content and myriad ways to explore, study and interact. This rings true in both the digital world and the physical learning environment. As a result, we should see schools change exponentially over the next 20 years, to meet the challenges driving these educational changes today.

Herein lies an exciting opportunity to design spaces that better adapt to the latest ideas in teaching and learning, creating connected communities in which students feel they belong and want to spend their time.

World famous educationalist Loris Malguzzi has said, “There are three teachers, adults, other children and their physical environment,” a point that Salford University’s School of the Built Environment would certainly endorse, because a recent study conducted by the Salford team revealed that the built environment has a big impact on the learning progress, human performance and wellbeing. Technological advancements will also pioneer physical design change. The Future Classroom Lab for example, which involves big name independent IT providers, is already looking at how children should be taught in the connected world.

Schools will become increasingly ICT oriented as companies such as Oculus Rift, offer immersive 3D experiences for the classroom. Hardware and software that will put a child ‘inside’ an ancient Egyptian Tomb or amongst the ‘groundlings’ watching a Shakespeare play in the Globe theatre will become commonplace. Work tables will be super computer screens where a child can assemble from a kit of parts a Greek or Roman Temple, that will be projected on wall sized screens for others to view as it spins through 360 degrees. Sound and vision will be seamless and it will be possible to pull up images from the internet and literally swipe them onto the wall using your finger just like the track pad on your lap top. All of these techniques are available right now and are already being used in retail. If Audi can create a 3D car in a state of the art showroom and have that shown on a 3D festival sized screen then why not cascade that learning and capability into schools?

So what kind of space would we need for this? First of all something that extends the learning environment beyond the four walls of the classroom: a tailored design that fits its objectives and the characteristics of its learning community. The active classroom solutions that are coming out of the Future Classroom Lab’s work will need more space than traditional content-driven classrooms – and a requirement to shift away from the rectangle: rectangular buildings with rectangular classrooms full of rectangular furniture!

Individuals will be able to pursue different learning activities at the same time and the traditional ‘front’ of the classroom (represented by a white board and teacher’s desk) will be just one focal area among many. Space will become infinitely adaptable and reconfigurable; to better suit the needs of a new generation of peripatetic students who move or ‘flow’ through a school environment during the school day. They will be designed to be flexible and community-focused, with a multidisciplinary approach that considers teaching and learning models, the physical campus, future technology, and the students’ entire experience. I truly think we are entering the era of the agile learning environment – one that can be reconfigured or repurposed at will to engage different types of learners and teachers, one that can offer social learning spaces such as cafes and study or “break-out” areas to encourage learning through interaction. We can already see how effective this is with our recent project, Kings Maths School in London, which has various “pods” in which students can engage and share their learnings in a well-designed, flexible and relaxed environment.

It is also important to allow relevant experts to design and fit out different areas of a school, which will allow the school to benefit from their specific experience and expertise, rather than adopting a “one size fits all” approach. A company that is already pioneering this is Bryanston Square Holdings, with their “Fitout” service offer. Bryanston have built a portfolio of more than 120 organisations, who are expert in their own field and draw from these, to work closely with schools to design, fitout and manage inspiring learning environments. Schools, together with a Bryanston team of experts, redefine how learning environments should look and be managed. Success is then measured on how the spaces work and how effective they are in meeting the overall needs of the space and its users and occupiers.

Whatever ideas we come up with in education design, at the heart of all these should be the needs of the students and their teachers. In the school of the future, the environment will adapt to how children want to learn. It will provide children with everything they need to study, relax and play and it will give them a feeling that they belong there. This holistic approach to education design will create vibrant learning communities that thrive both in the virtual and real worlds.

retail revolution won’t be all click and no brick

Whoa! Hold on there, I hear you cry. What about all the savvy retail brands that are building omni-channel models, enabling their bricks and mortar offering to work symbiotically with their online activities? Well, I have bad news from Tim who thinks that omni-channel is no more than a term traditional retailers use to delude themselves that bricks and mortar retail spaces still have a role to play in the online paradigm of tomorrow. Is he right?  Well, before the palpitations get too bad let me put your mind at rest. The simple answer is, No! In fact, his point of view couldn’t be further from the truth and this is being evidenced by a number of successful retailers, one of whom I will talk about in a moment.

Whilst he is correct that the Internet is forcing the traditional retailer to adapt and some are experiencing pain on the way, he misses the all important point that as part of their adaptation to a rapidly changing retail landscape, many of the savvier retailers are now delivering an omni-channel experience to their customers and  reaping considerable rewards. They have a unique advantage that pure play internet brands like Ocado do not have, and that is true brand engagement with their customers, in other words an emotional connection. An internet purchase without social interaction and the very tactile nature of a retail environment will always be largely driven by price, a decision made without emotion.

For the more traditional retailers who have not yet grasped the omni-channel nettle, let me demystify it for you. Basically, it’s a seamless approach to the customer experience through all available shopping channels, where all the channels form part of a holistic customer journey.

Successful exponents of omni-channel include the John Lewis Partnership with its £1 billion Internet sales. JLP is a huge omni-channel success story and the company’s commitment to the concept is underlined by its recent appointment of Mark Lewis the ex MD of eBay. Mark was once a pure-play internet marketeer like Tim Steiner, but there the similarity ends. Unlike Tim, he sees stores as vital to the future success of retail brands, particularly at JLP where a new trading model has been rolled out, which links ‘bricks’ with ‘clicks’ in a seamless way that benefits both. Their recently launched Exeter store for example, successfully integrates terminals into a ‘showrooming’ approach to their retail offer. The figures speak for themselves, John Lewis’ internet sales increase locally by up to 30% following the opening of a new format store. And, in an inspiring piece of management wisdom, the company has also made the raising of internet sales figures part of the remit of regional store managers, who are then responsible for both stores and internet sales levels in their geographic area. The ‘cherry on top’ is added with another little known fact, a very high percentage of those customers collecting  internet orders in-store also buy something when they collect their order!

So, whilst forming part of a holistic customer journey, the retail store has two other benefits up its sleeve that an Internet counterpart cannot offer; emotional experiences and true customer satisfaction driven by personal interaction and staff. Whether internet brands like Amazon, Ocado and eBay like it or not, we Brits still list ‘going shopping’ as one of our most favourite leisure activities.  It’s both a social and emotional pursuit. As designers, we can support the retailer in terms of the emotional experience, creating interiors that both entertain and inspire, but the customer satisfaction is down to the retailer and the quality and knowledge of their staff, again please refer to John Lewis, a very hard act to follow in this regard.

So, my message is one of hope for traditional retailers that create a truly omni-channel offer where the retail spaces emotionally engage and where customer service excels will not only survive but thrive. Old fashioned retail is dying out, long live omni-channel!

an end to clicks and bricks

Oh yes! We all know about the casualties of online versus online, the brands like Borders who fell foul of Amazon’s ability to trade out of football pitch sized sheds and cut costs across the board, but some products will never totally ‘fly’ in the purely online world.

Take clothes for example and shoes, people prefer to try something on in a shop, to know if those shoes are going to pinch without the hassle of having to return them if things don’t work out. Currently, 25-40% of all clothes bought over the internet are returned. Many shoppers order multiple sizes with a view to returning say 2 out of 3 items. It’s treating your living room like the old fashioned changing room in a store, with the added hassle of posting the stuff that is unwanted back to the supplier.

Some traders offer free returns, whilst others pass the cost on to the buyer. Whichever way, it’s a cost and hassle for retailer or consumer. The same applies to childrens’ clothes and accessories. If there’s a choice of being able to eyeball something, feel the quality, assess the safety, then parents will take it. This is probably why Kiddicare has taken over 10 ‘superstores’ from Best Buy (a victim of the clicks bricks struggle, a kettle is a kettle right? Do we need to touch it before we buy it?).

Kiddicare’s reason for leaving the sanctuary of the net for the choppy waters of the high street? To offer customers “A true multichannel experience” claims the retailer. In other words letting their customers shop with smartphones, tablets, laptops and even in stores as if waited upon by a single salesman, with an unfailing memory and uncanny intuition about their preferences.

Owned by Morrisons, Kiddicare is not the only retailer to take this step. Screwfix, the Mecca of plumbers and electricians, has opened no less than 270 shops since 2005. They realised that customers wanted both on and offline service when they spotted tradesmen sitting in the car park of their first store ordering online and then dashing in-store to pick up their purchases! Apparently, the queue for online orders was shorter than the other one! There’s an old maxim in retail, “Want to know know to do the right the thing? Ask the customer,” and in this instance they screamed “MULTICHANNEL.”

Even the mighty Amazon has cracked (just a little bit) under the pressure and is tip-toeing into the real world by installing lockers in shopping malls where customers can pick up deliveries. They also have a partner program where customers can return unwanted items to local shops across the UK, where they will be picked up by Amazon couriers, first steps towards bricks-and-mortardom? Let’s wait and see.

Matt Truman of True Capital, a fund that invests in consumer companies believes that all this suggests that online and traditional retailers are eventually “migrating to a middle ground.” Certainly John Lewis, which posts very healthy profits in a recessionary market has pioneered a hybrid trading paradigm that works for both company and customers. JLP claims that on and offline shopping spur each other on and that when a new shop opens, online sales in the vicinity jump by 20-40% “overnight”. Plus, nearly a third of all people who order online prefer to pick up their purchases in store and apparently 40% of those make an extra purchase when they pop in. The secret to online/offline trading? You do the maths!

The question for envious e-tailers is how to pluck the benefits of physical stores without incurring the costs. Most proceed gingerly, armed with high-tech weaponry. “Pop-up shops” generate buzz and then vanish. Ebay has tried them, and Winser London, a fashion website, plans to. Amazon’s ghostly high-street presence helps make delivery cheaper and more convenient, but so far it offers nothing more. Kiddicare plans 15 stores at most in Britain, a fraction of the number operated by its struggling competitor, Mothercare. They will be nimbler than traditional stores. Prices will appear on electronic labels and change with the push of a button.

Bricks-and-mortar merchants are likewise paring space and bulking up on technology. In Britain the number of outlets a retail chain needs to have national coverage has dropped from 200 in the pre-online era to 50-80, says Adrian D’Enrico of AXA Real Estate, an investment manager. House of Fraser is experimenting with shops that are little more than a changing room and rows of screens to order clothes. Hointer, a Seattle start-up, provides just enough space to display a sample of each type of jeans it sells; robots fetch the right size from the stockroom. On today’s high street, shopkeepers who stand still are unlikely to survive.

ASDA pull 3D bunny out of the retail hat!

Whilst it’s all well and good running a yoga studio, offering people the chance to have a cuppa and a pizza, have their blood pressure taken or book some winter sun; these are all a bit run of the mill when it comes to real customer attraction. What get’s people excited are the virtual changing rooms, the cat walk events, and of course the 3D printing! No it’s not a misprint…..ASDA has just pulled the bunny out of the in store entertainment hat and is trialling a 3D printing service in York, its biggest store. Customers can pop into a booth, have a 360 profile made of themselves, do their weekly shop and pop back later to collect their perfect 3D mini me – all for the princely sum of 40 quid.

Judging by feedback on the ASDA web site, customers are desperate for the service to roll-out into a store near them  and ASDA is hinting that they intend the service to be nationwide. It would certainly save a lot of people a lot of money on petrol, as my kids are already pestering me to jump into the car and drive to York…250 miles away! Apparently anything can be scanned – including people, pets and even cars – and the models can be produced in full-colour, white or a bronze-style coating. The technology produces highly realistic ‘mini me’ figurines at whatever scale you like, but most people opt for the 8 inch version!

Asda has been working with parent Walmart for the past 18 months to make 3D printing possible for UK shoppers. To build the digital model, the whole surface area of the subject is scanned with special cameras in two minutes. The shape is then recreated in 3D by spraying ceramic fluid in thin layers to build a solid object. Mark Ibbotson, retail director at Asda said: “We are thrilled to be the first supermarket and best value retailer to offer this new shopping experience in the UK. Our customers are always looking for the next big innovation and 3D printing is a guaranteed talking point amongst friends and family this season. With limitless printing options available, we’re very excited to see how our customers will take advantage of this groundbreaking piece of technology.”