It’s not just the high street that’s changing, it’s the entire retail landscape.
In the same way as new purpose is being sought for hard-pressed town centres, retail property owners more widely are rethinking their propositions.
Intu, owner of shopping centres such as Lakeside and Metrocentre, this week said that it was looking at alternative uses for some of its space.
With 470 acres of car parks and other land that could be redeveloped in six out-of-town centres, Intu is considering housing, hotels and flexible workspace. Potential for 5,000 residential rental units and 600 hotel rooms has been identified.
The initiative follows Brent Cross and Grand Central owner Hammerson’s decision in the summer to quit the retail parks market and to scale back car parks in urban locations and turn the space over to “more mixed-use lifestyle venues”.
The changes reflect dramatic technological and societal shifts in how people shop, what they want to buy and the sort of places they want to spend time in.
A driverless world
But the revolution may still be in its early days. The relevance of car parks is indicative both of increasing urbanisation and another tech shock on the horizon – the arrival of driverless cars.
On the same day as Intu revealed its thinking, John Lewis published its annual study, How we shop, live and look.
In it, the impact of driverless cars was on John Lewis futurologist John Vary’s mind.
He wrote: “As driverless cars become the norm, the need for car parks at retail outlets and shopping centres will become irrelevant.
“Instead, these spaces could be repurposed for 3D printing and manufacturing. Houses and even city farms could also replace parking spaces.”
If the decline of driving seems far-fetched, it’s not. Car service Addison Lee said on Monday that it was teaming up with driverless software company Oxbotica – which has also worked with Ocado – and hopes to provide self-driving taxis in London by 2021.
For retailers still struggling to adapt to the demands of omnichannel – and there are many of them – the prospect of further waves of disruption to established ways of doing business may prompt more uncertainty and even fear.
However, rather than wringing their hands retailers need to grasp the nettle of change because there will be so much more to come.
Focus on tomorrow’s shoppers
While new technology may bring threat and discomfort, it will also bring exciting new opportunity.
Vary raises the prospect of consumers sharing their DNA with retailers to enable products to be tailored to individuals, and of smart technology in the home that “will act as your very own personal shopper, alerting shops in advance when you are running low on something or looking for a gift or special product”.
For some, such a vision might represent a utopian brave new world of possibility. For others it’s the stuff of a dystopia straight from the pages of JG Ballard.
But retailers should never fear the future – an ability to anticipate consumer needs and desires has typically transformed businesses and galvanized innovation, whether that was the advent of self-serviced supermarkets or the exponential growth of Amazon.
As a difficult year for many draws close to its end, it’s perhaps unsurprising in the wake of turmoil and business collapses that industry debate has occasionally been inward looking.
That’s partly because of the refusal of legislators to reform outdated systems, such as business rates, at the same pace as retail is attempting to reform itself.
While retailers should continue campaigning against the unfair and punitive cost burdens they face, they need also to focus relentlessly on tomorrow’s shopper.
If there’s one conclusion to draw from the events of recent years, it’s that the future will come faster than you think.