This is Spain’s second city and, as such, should be compared with Birmingham, because that is how the Midlands megalopolis styles itself.
Unlike Brum’s relationship with London, however, Barcelona functions as a real rival to Madrid in terms of architecture, culture and – just as notably – retail. OK, so Birmingham’s city centre has undergone something of a renaissance, but even allowing for the hubcap-studded marvel that is Selfridges, it suffers from a lack of good raw material when the two cities’ urban fabrics are put side by side.
But here’s the thing. Shopping in downtown Barca is a pleasure, for the simple reason that you never quite know what you are going to see next. Like many European destinations, the primacy of the small shop is still apparent – this is a place where outposts of large retail chains are dotted around parts of the centre, but not in such a manner that you see little else.
And people are sitting outside, taking the air, a coffee maybe, and perhaps making an ill-considered impulse purchase. This is not what happens in Birmingham. The climate is against shoppers and there is a general lack of choice for no better reason than that UK towns are the homes of big chains.
This all adds up to good news for retailers and store designers who end up with time to spare in Barcelona. Not only is the environment alluring, but the sheer profusion of choice means you will always see something new. Armed with little more than a digital camera, a measure of curiosity and an hour or two, the diligent will come away with a fistful of ideas that can be implemented in-store back home.
It’s often remarked that the UK is the home of retail innovation and new formats, and in London this is in no small measure the case. But step away from the capital and the clone-town cliché is immediately apparent.
Still, look at it this way. Birmingham and Barcelona both have Bullrings. It’s just that while one is somewhere where people gather to watch a spectacle, the other is a place where spectacle is, in its best sense, in short supply. Not every bullring draws a crowd.