Harry Selfridge was ahead of his time when he opened his eponymous store on Oxford Street in London in 1909. His underlying philosophy was that his store shouldn't be seen simply as a space where goods were sold but rather was a social and cultural centre where people could commune, relax, browse and enjoy the experience.

Fast forward to 2019 and we discover that successful retail spaces are destinations in their own right, stimulate the senses, surprise us, offer human interaction and still thrive. The upper end of the department store market has captured this sentiment well and subsequently reports consecutive quarters of strong results around experiential retail. However, those that have been slower to adapt in the middle of the market face drastic store cuts, CVA’s or complete overhaul under new ownership in a struggle to survive.

Vacant to vibrant space

Undoubtedly traditional, mid-market department stores in Europe and across the globe are living on borrowed time if they continue to “be all things to all people.” 

Their gradual departure offers a legacy of redundant, urban fabric around the world. However, the need to re-purpose and extend this space offers a great opportunity to revitalise city centres, embracing the live/work/play environment and supporting the 24/7 economy by attracting footfall at all times of day. This requires a re-thinking of the current city centre offer as a whole to create revitalised, mixed-use locations and multi-use spaces. Simply reallocating and sub dividing existing space without consideration of the impact beyond the red line will not draw footfall and support the creation of a sustainable, urban environment.

In bringing back to life department store carcasses, we are moving beyond the base food and beverage incorporation into vacant space, accommodating the new food market place concept as well as a wider leisure offering. This includes family entertainment centres, new interactive leisure and wellbeing start-ups which thrive off existing footfall and supplement it in their own right. Live music, events and hospitality venues are starting to add a new dimension to our retail and mixed-use destinations and existing department store space, particularly in super regional locations, is ideally placed to receive them.  

Authentic repurposing of department stores 

There is not one specific solution to fill the vacant space in town centres and if we try to impose a ‘one size fits all’ option we will fall into the same trap as the cloning of towns and cities over the last thirty years that has led to over provision of imposed and subsequently failed retail space both in UK and USA.  

The spaces once filled by mid-market department stores, which acted as anchors, drawing other retail tenants and consumer footfall, now need to be filled intelligently and to the best possible use for each town or city. Prime, mixed-use development is on offer, and we have an opportunity to reinvent this space, maximise its use through building upwards, and reflecting what the local community and wider catchment actually needs. PRS and commercial use within and above existing space is actively being considered. Community, medical and educational facilities are again becoming credible occupiers, making city centres necessary, compelling ‘go to’ destinations once more. 

Sara Boonham

Sara Boonham
Head of Cost Management UK

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