Retail parks need to shape up

Fighting a losing battle with the internet to attract shoppers, the design of retail parks must evolve to offer consumers a compelling case to visit. Gary Johnson and Paul Starbuck from retail, sport and leisure specialist architects LK2 describe why mixed use developments including sports, leisure and healthcare are the way forward.

Before retailers and developers are able to future-proof retail parks, they must first understand why the common layout, which has remained unchanged for many years, now needs to evolve. The current format is, in part, the reason that many of these developments are missing the mark for consumers, and in turn for owners and staff.

Typically, the layout of most UK-based retail parks is simple: a number of large ‘bulky goods’ units, occupied by big-name retail- ers, fronting a large car park. While this may be architecturally uninspiring, this formula has met the needs of consumers for many years. However, changes in shopping trends and consumer habits – including the rise of internet shopping and click and collect services – alongside busier lifestyles, have resulted in many of the large units becoming less desirable, leading to an increase in vacant space within retail parks.

These issues are all part and parcel of a general apathy in retail towards the change needed to meet the demands of the modern consumer. By failing to meet their needs, the ‘ripple effect’ is passed on to unit owners and staff. Vacant units mean job losses and business closures, and limited footfall and dwell time from customers impacts business turnover and job satisfaction.

LK2’s StreetLab and SportsLab initiatives are exploring opportu- nities to incorporate additional mixed uses into retail parks and build over existing units to exploit “air rights.” Retail parks with vacant land adjacent are particularly attractive in terms of creating opportunities to introduce community and commercial sports and leisure uses to create a true community destination.

Some retail parks are already working to address this, with larger retail parks introducing leisure and entertainment facilities such as multiplex cinemas, food and beverage units, and discount retail stores to fill vacant space and reflect the changes we have seen on the high street in cities and towns. More and more conven- ience stores and upmarket food operators are choosing to open stores within retail parks, which is a relatively new trend and a positive change.

In fact, this current trend has seen retail parks slowly increase footfall and decrease the number of vacant units, highlighting how the traditional model for retail parks can be easily modernised and evolved. With land for development becoming increasingly hard to find, retail parks offer a number of exciting opportunities, especially for more mixed-use schemes incorporating residential, student accommodation and office space. Retail parks can also be the ideal location for finance and business units, community and medical care facilities.

The offering of an over-arching ‘destination’ enhances retail appeal and in turn reaps dividends for staff and business owners. For example, the introduction of leisure, sport and entertainment facilities would improve the working environment for staff, boost- ing job satisfaction. Providing staff with a choice of after work activities would allow them to take part in sporting activities and improve fitness or socialise outside of work. The creation of new businesses through added facilities would also create new jobs and allow staff to choose to work closer to home rather than travelling into the nearest town or city centre.

‘Super surgeries’ are also a rising trend, with more and more doctors, dentists, opticians and physios opting to share space and work collaboratively. Locating surgeries close to a sport, leisure and recreation site can only be beneficial, with retail parks the obvious next step and one which we are starting to see already. Having these facilities easily accessible to staff would also help reduce sick leave or time off to attend medical appointments, and would relieve the pressure on staff to book medical appointments around work hours.

The creation of these sustainable ‘communities’ around retail parks would also benefit unit owners, as having a wider choice of activities for customers would lead to increased footfall, dwell time and ultimately spend. Extending the operating hours of a retail park would also reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

When looking at existing retail parks, our team of retail and leisure experts begin by conducting research, investigating how they could be transformed and regenerated to better suit the needs of retailers and consumers, providing a cohesive offering to their catchment area. As part of this research, we investigate current retail and leisure offerings, the opportunities which could be incor- porated into them and the space that’s currently available.

We also consider how initiatives from organisations such as Sport England can support the developments in bringing retail, leisure and sport together. Sport England is currently leading the

way when it comes to introducing ‘break-out’ sports areas into car parks and general public realm spaces. Developers working with Sport England to support its ‘Towards an Active Nation’ strategy, will see the benefits of a holistic approach that may even align to financial support. We work closely with our clients and developers to encourage and to engage in conversations with organisations, like Sport England, which are looking to revolutionise sport and leisure in the UK.

Often, out-of-town retail developments come up against a tirade of objections during planning, as they are seen as having a negative impact upon nearby town centres. However, by incorporating a strong sport and leisure offering, developers are able to overcome these challenges and in doing so, support organisations like Sport England in tackling dropping participation rates and addressing the in-activity of the nation in general. This is a key target in reducing the reliance and cost on the NHS; it’s a long-term objective, but certainly one that can be supported through this innovative way of creating sustainable destinations.

As the face of retail changes, developers and retailers should consider the impacts on not only consumers, but staff and business owners. Developers need to consider how sport and leisure can support retail within parks, helping to create more of a community destination, boosting staff morale and making them an attractive move for business owners.

With this in mind, there is huge potential for the wholesale repositioning of retail parks via the creation of a new model – which we called StreetLab and SportsLab, which will increase values, footfall and dwell time, thereby extending the life and viability for retail park owners and developers.