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Transformation Issue 1

State of the high street

Words By: U+I’s Chairman, Peter Williams

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When Louis Blériot’s aeroplane crash-landed in Kent in 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge bought the monoplane’s wreck and hung it from the ceiling of his newly opened Oxford Street department store. 

During the next four days, 150,000 people came through his doors to ogle at the plane. This daring stunt set the tone for a department store that would go on to become an instantly recognisable British brand.

A century on, another former head of Selfridges continues to draw inspiration from the bravery and fresh ideas that his predecessors displayed: Peter Williams gives his insight into iconic design, mobile phones and the state of the high street in 2016.

The best stores offer experiences (and some products)

The way to look at a physical store is not just as a store, but as a community centre, and this ethos is particularly pertinent nowadays, with so much trade taking place online. Electricals retailing, for example, used to be a horrible, macho sales environment, with white boxes piled up high. Then along came Apple, a manufacturer, to show how things could be done differently. Their stores take over interesting buildings and do creative things with them, exhibiting the art of their products. Visiting their stores is a pleasure, rather than a pressure.

Good building design in retail goes further than you’d think

When we opened Selfridges in Birmingham in 2003, we knew from stores such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Bloomingdale's in New York and our own Oxford Street building that people associated big department stores with iconic architecture. So we hired a firm of architects, Future Systems, to do something striking: they designed a façade (pictured above) inspired by a silver Paco Rabanne dress from the 1960s. The architecture is so prominent and distinctive that it’s possibly the most recognisable image that defines Birmingham today, which is  the best kind of free advertising you can get.

The retailer used to control the consumer…

When I joined Selfridges in the early 1990s, the retailer essentially controlled the consumer. Stores would be open 9am–6pm, with late-night shopping on a Thursday. Nobody would open on a Sunday. John Lewis would shut its doors at 1pm on a Saturday and chuck people out onto the street. The retailer had the luxury of saying “This is when you can come and shop in our stores.”

…now, it’s the consumer who controls the retailer

On Oxford Street today, stores open from 9am–9pm every day, and for six hours on a Sunday. Consumers are saying “I’ll shop when I want to shop; I’ll tell you, the retailer, whether I’m going to come into your store and buy, or come into your store and collect, or ask John Lewis to deliver it to the Waitrose near where I live, or deliver it to my office."

Shoppers won’t behave how we want them to behave

People make the mistake of thinking consumers go to the shops to look at products, then go home to buy them more cheaply online. But if you’re a girl looking for a dress for a party, you can flash through hundreds more dresses in just a few minutes online, knowing that no physical store could possibly have such a broad range. You might then go to buy it in store, so it’s often the opposite to what we might expect.

Mobile phones can only disrupt patterns further

Not all young people have a laptop, but they’ve all got a mobile phone. This shift makes behavioural patterns even more complex. Someone might go and try on a dress and take a picture, then send it to her mates, and they’ll help her decide whether to buy the dress, and she can check the price using her mobile then pay for it using her mobile. All we can safely say is that the dynamics around how people arrive at a decision to buy something are becoming more multifarious, enabled by ever more sophisticated mobile technology.

Future high streets will be fundamentally mixed-use 

How should property owners react? I believe the secret to future-proofing our high streets is in the mix of uses – creating somewhere alive 24-7. That means expanding leisure uses – eating and drinking out has become much more available over the past 20 years – but places need something more than just another coffee chain. Things such as art galleries and community uses such as dance studios or workshops will play a much bigger role. The most successful retail destinations, such as Covent Garden and Marylebone High Street, benefit from a single ownership that allows landlords to literally curate and tailor the mix of uses to cater for the changing habits of the consumer. That level of large-scale curatorship and control is invaluable for landlords and developers.

This article appeared in Issue 1 - Transformation

Download issue 1