When East meets West - a few thoughts on 2022

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Contact Tom Cartledge, CEO Handley House

Waiting to board a return flight from the Middle East, Handley House CEO Tom Cartledge looks back on a busy start to 2022, and assesses the global opportunities for retail and the built environment.

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Airport departure lounges are often good places for reflection. A chance to think about where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what lies ahead. 

Over the past four days I’ve been meeting partners and clients across the Arabian Peninsula. It’s been a busy end to a busy first month of the year. A month of dynamic East-West engagement and dialogue. 

Just last week, Handley House hosted three international roundtables in our London and Singapore studios. Focusing on the future of retail and sustainable retail design, these events brought together clients from the US, UK, Kuwait, China, Dubai, Thailand, India and Europe. 

What struck me most during these discussions was how localised the world has become in the past two years. Lack of travel and face-to-face interaction has led to gaps in understanding about what’s happening in different markets and sectors. 

I was also reminded how uniquely positioned we are at Handley House, with a global workforce comprised of 39 nationalities working in 40 countries around the world. Focusing on three geographies (North America, EMEA and APAC) and three sectors (Consumer, Work-Ed and Movement), we have unparalleled insight into global trends and markets. 

From this vantage point, we’re able to help bridge those gaps in understanding. Between East and West, we can identify learnings to be shared, models to be emulated and, above all, opportunities for collaboration. 

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Investment, influence and inspiration

From our roundtable events, and from my conversations here in Saudi Arabia, it’s clear there’s renewed appetite among family-owned businesses in the Middle East and Asia to invest in Western retail. 

The recent acquisition of Selfridges by Thai conglomerate Central Group, owned by the Chirathivat family, is one example of this trend. And for those taking a long-term, patient capital view, now seems a great moment for opportunistic investment into a distressed European market.

According to real estate advisor, Savills, investor confidence in European real estate is strong. In 2021, European property investment volumes were up 13% year-on-year; the UK retail sector saw a rise in opportunistic interest; and secondary retail assets in Poland were being traded at double-digit yields. 

But as the East looks West for investment opportunities, the West should now look East for influence and inspiration. European owners and developers certainly have lessons to learn from Asia. 

The first of these lessons is that retail is alive and well. Yes, the monocultural Western shopping centre is defunct. Yes, the homogenous high-street has had its day. Yes, the rise of 
e‑commerce is a reality. And of course, covid has hit the industry hard. But retail is far from dead. 

One only has to visit Starfield Hanam in South Korea, Hangzhou Joy City in China, or Siam Discovery in Bangkok, to see the possibilities for in-store retail environments. The rich mix of uses and experiences; the colour, creativity and entrepreneurial flare; and the high footfall these vibrant destinations generate. 

Ironically, the mall’ was first exported West-to-East back in the 1990s, based largely on Benoy’s Bluewater model. Over the past 25 years, due to urban density, that model has evolved into the innovative mixed-use retail developments you see in Asia today. And with the pendulum swinging back the other way, it’s these bold and blended concepts that could now help to reinvigorate the Western retail sector. 

'..Retail is alive and well. Yes, the monocultural Western shopping centre is defunct. Yes, the homogenous high-street has had its day. Yes, the rise of e-commerce is a reality. And of course, covid has hit the industry hard. But retail is far from dead.'

Expanding our skills and expertise

At Handley House, we’ve spent the past two years expanding our skills and expertise to ensure we can continue to support our clients around the world. Having sharpened our analytical capabilities and creative edge, we’re excited about driving social, economic and environmental value through our projects in the year ahead. 

After endless months of lockdowns and travel restrictions, it’s been really good to get away. I’m looking forward to continuing our dialogue and engagement with clients in the East and West. But right now, I’ve got to catch a flight home.

Handley House is the group overseeing commercial and creative problem-solving by Pragma, Benoy, Holmes Wood and Uncommon Land.

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