New build under threat, but is property waking up to the digital reality?

Last week was the retail property industry’s annual hurrah at Cannes-on-Sea as agents rubbed shoulders with developers who shimmied with retailers, all intent on celebrating the heady world of new shopping schemes. But hang on a moment. Aren’t there are loads of shops that are sitting empty in the UK currently and isn’t the relentless rise of e-commerce and m-commerce (apologies) making at least some inroads into the ability of shopping centre developers to open new space?

The answer is ‘of course’ and in private, off-the-record moments, there were many at MAPIC who were quite prepared to admit that the space race is indeed over. It seemed clear that there were more than a few MAPIC attendees who either don’t or won’t get digital. And while there were plenty of sessions outlining whizzy websites and rapidly changing shopping habits, ideas to make this world meld with retail property were conspicuously thin on the ground.

The truth may well be that retail property heads for the Pacific Rim, where rather more digitally-enabled shopping centres are rising out of the ground and look set to continue doing so. But back in the UK and Europe, the story will be more sobering. The appearance at MAPIC of the unusually-named popitup.eu, which finds temporary space for retailers and which is looking to launch a service that offers temporary tenants for shopping centres, may well be symptomatic of the future.

And the comment by the head of property of a very large retailer that he didn’t think there would be another major new scheme opening for at least a decade seems about right. “Can you think of any city or town in the UK that hasn’t got a big shopping centre?” he asked. It was impossible to name one and perhaps for MAPIC future, companies that can offer new ways of using surplus retail space may find themselves in heavy demand.

In fairness, “Experience”, was the event’s buzzword and perhaps this is a way forward - if anybody can actually tie down what it means and how it can be made a reality for shoppers. For what it’s worth, and if you have an idle moment, take a look at the Porto a Mare mixed-use scheme that’s being built in a former industrial part of the Italian port city of Livorno, it really will be an Experience - the Livorno developers thought so anyway… and there seemed little reason to disagree.