Home Retail Reviving retail by bringing a community feel back to the high street

Reviving retail by bringing a community feel back to the high street

by Ozva Admin

Following confirmation that Cambridge BID will continue for a additional term of five years After a vote by members, Roger Allen, who combines his role as manager of the Lion Yard mall with that of chairing the BID board, considers the future of the city’s retail stores.

Malls should be destinations that offer a positive experience, says Roger Allen.  Image: Keith Heppell
Malls should be destinations that offer a positive experience, says Roger Allen. Image: Keith Heppell

Everything comes to the starting point. When I think back to 20 or 25 years ago, when I started my career in mall management, there was always an area designed to provide an experience for local shoppers. This could have been a children’s play area or a nursery, playground equipment (remember those?) or maybe a food court with a dozen or so vendors offering everything from Chinese and Indian food to burgers.

These areas did three things: increased traffic, increased dwell time, and increased spending. They made shopping a day out, an experience.

increasingly clinical

But about 15 years ago that began to change, for the worse, in my opinion, when developers began buying up shopping malls for quick returns. There are two types of retail investors: Institutions like banks and universities who buy for the long term, and real estate developers who roll over quickly to sell for a big profit in three to five years.

In the short term, commercial units generate more rent than experiential areas, so children’s areas began to be phased out and shopping malls became much more clinical, losing their family-friendly feel. Food courts were replaced with individual food outlets, scattered among stores. The nature of these food outlets has also changed, with cafeterias and cafes replacing more diverse kitchens to ensure that food odors do not spread to the retail units on either side. In public spaces, kiddie rides were replaced by retail merchandising units, or RMUs, which generated £40,000–£50,000 in rent per year instead of the £5,000 that kiddie rides could. It all turned to profit, and not necessarily to customer needs and wants.

We got to a point where you could walk into 10 different malls and see the exact same stores in each one. Many malls have lost the sense of community that attracts visitors.

The impact of covid

Recently, Covid has woken up retailers to what they probably should have been thinking a few years earlier, which is great news for shoppers.

Due to the pandemic, our shopping habits have been changed forever, and that goes for young people, adults, and everyone in between. During Covid everyone bought online at first because that was the only option available. After lockdowns, people “objectified” shopping: visiting specific stores, like Timpson’s shoe repair, to buy what they needed and then leaving, back to the safety of home. When this type of behavior lasts from 18 months to two years, as it did, it becomes a habit. And while people have been going out more over the last six months, now they need a reason to skip the convenience of being online: Amazon Prime even offers same-day delivery! – and shop in person instead.

Whether or not people come back to shop at the store depends on what retailers offer to entice them. Apple is an example of a company that has gotten it right. The staff greet you at the door; they are polite without being overbearing; the store is well designed, neat and beautifully clean. If other stores don’t take a similar approach, they are going to lose out. We have to make it worthwhile for customers to leave their homes to shop, making shopping a great experience again. Cambridge BID can help retailers here – we offer an excellent mystery shop programme, which allows local businesses to prioritize and improve their customer service year on year.

Analyzing every aspect

Malls should be destinations that offer a positive experience, says Roger Allen.  Image: Keith Heppell
Malls should be destinations that offer a positive experience, says Roger Allen. Image: Keith Heppell

Retailers that were slow to adopt the internet during Covid have really suffered. They will have to catch up because, going forward, it will continue to be important to have an internet presence and the ability to deliver.

However, the Internet will never replace shopping in the store, because people will always want to try on clothes, touch and feel the fabric, maybe take a photo before buying. This is why retailers need to keep a close eye on their internal operations and audit them regularly. What makes your store experience unique? Do staff still feel like smiling at the end of an eight-hour shift when their feet hurt? How can you improve the customer experience?

Customer focus is everything: When a customer has a bad experience, they not only take their custom elsewhere, they take five of their friends with them. If retailers are going to spend time and money attracting customers, they must also take charge of the end-to-end in-store customer experience.

These days, retailers want smaller properties, like the ones we have at Lion Yard, because they want to reduce their overhead and minimize risk. I’ve been inundated with major retailers wanting to come to Lion Yard – there’s hardly a month in the last three years without a national chain asking me about options. Instead of a 20-year lease, they are looking at reduced leases from five to 10 years with a break clause.

Restoring a family atmosphere

Five years ago, before COVID-19, Lion Yard was ahead of the game in returning to experiential shopping opportunities. Planning takes time, but now we are starting to see some of the fruits of the decisions we made back then. We have a hotel on the way where there used to be offices and, in a few months, we will announce the arrival of a major leisure attraction. In the meantime, we’re prioritizing local merchants and expanding our leases with unknown and independent brands, not just the big chains, to make sure our mall has a community feel.

We are very excited to also develop our nightly offer. Watch this space: In a year or two, our business hours could be 10 am to 7 pm or 8 pm at night. We are in the process of opening five to six quality restaurants that will make Lion Yard much more than retail, providing families with a choice of options to combine leisure and shopping with dining. We already have Kineya, our hugely popular Japanese restaurant, which is next door to Oseyo, our new Korean supermarket.

Cambridge BID has worked hard to earn Purple Flag accreditation for the city, a great accolade that shows that the city is safe to enjoy at night. So let’s make the most of the opportunities we have for night trading and family fun.

And I have always felt that Petty Cury has the potential to become Covent Garden. It could have a fabulous vibe, and a lot could be done to create an experiential shopping experience there; we could have bands or buskers playing on the weekends, for example. We’re a bit far from that: all the units will soon be filled on the Lion Yard side of the street, but there are still vacant units on the opposite side, waiting for new tenants.

seeing the whole picture

Behind the scenes, it’s the little things that help make the city look great. Cambridge BID is responsible for improving street cleanliness each month, and our rapid response service helps all retailers keep their storefronts looking smart. Together, we take pride in our city.

Looking ahead, I think we will see local independents come back front and center, as was the case 20 years ago. It’s really no surprise, as there is nothing better than buying a pen, hat or children’s toy that you won’t find in the big chains. Cambridge BID recognized early on that independents need support, and we have always been active in providing it, unlike many BIDs that are after big money.

The future will be both online and face-to-face. Those brick-and-mortar retailers that survive and thrive will be those that are analytical and critical, seeing everything from their customers’ point of view, and trying to deliver a great customer experience at every step. We need to put the community back at the center of the customer shopping experience.


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