Why we need to look east to reenergise our struggling high streets in the wake of Covid-19

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Contact Simon Bee, 董事总经理 - 环球设计

Across Asia, the best retail concepts involve a riot of creativity; a rich mix of uses and experience that attracts visitors in their thousands.

As the retail sector looks to recover post-COVID, and as retailers contemplate the future of in-store shopping, experiential mixed-use models from Asia could provide the answer.

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In my work as Design Director at Benoy, I’ve spent the past six years working on iconic retail destinations across Asia. And as I’ve seen up close, the difference between retail in the Far East and Europe couldn’t be more stark.

The end of the department store? The death of the high street? Go to Siam Discovery in Bangkok, or Starfield Hanam in South Korea, and tell me the department store is finished. Go to Joy City Hangzhou, China, and tell me the high street is dead.

What’s dead is the mono-cultural Western retail model. The tired and one-dimensional shopping centre, the homogenous row of shop fronts. These formats, certainly, have had their day. But that doesn’t mean retail is over; it’s just suffering, in the West at least, from a lack of bravery and imagination.

Driving footfall through experience

In Asian retail, experience is everything. Starfield Hanam, for example, boasts car innovation centres and digital sports facilities. It has a 25,000 m² spa on the roof. These aren’t things you’d expect to find in a regular shopping mall. Funan Mall in Singapore has climbing walls, cycle routes, lecture theatres, fitness rooms and a rooftop urban farm. And the extraordinary retail development at the heart of Singapore Changi Airport, the Jewel, where Benoy led retail planning, features a live waterfall and rainforest (seen above).

Crucially, this bold mix of uses, spaces and experiences isn’t just about aesthetics. It also drives footfall and sales. At Jewel, for example, virtually every one of its 280 retail locations is occupied by top international brands and cool local independents. And its target of 40 million visitors in the first year was surpassed in under six months. Across Asia, in non-COVID times, retail destinations are full to bursting on a regular basis.

The logic is simple. Build it beautiful, build it different, and people will come. Good placemaking leads to improved experience, which leads to increased dwell time and spend. Indeed, studies show that a 1% uplift in dwell time boosts sales by 1.3%. It’s a win-win situation; the perfect marriage of aesthetics, experience and commerce. And it could hold the key to post-pandemic retail recovery.

Repurposing and cultural relevance

COVID-19 has led to a game-changing shift in the balance between online and physical shopping. With spare capacity in traditional UK malls, there’s now an opportunity to repurpose redundant retail space. Community functions, food demos, health facilities. Combinations of residential, workspace and entertainment. We need to explore these new adjacencies and uses confidently to re-engage the general public with in-store retail environments.

Above all, we need to reconnect the high street or department store to its wider city and cultural context. This approach, for me, is the key to long-term success. The global exemplar here is Icon Siam in Bangkok. Relevant, dynamic, phenomenal, Icon Siam is a mixed-use development incorporating one of the largest shopping malls in Asia. Steeped in the cultural history of Thailand, its engages people with the past while driving consumer spend in the present.

Asian retail is thinking bold, beautiful, experiential and diverse. It’s high time more Western developers did the same.