Saving our high streets “doesn’t have to be about completely rewriting the rule book”

The state of the great British high street has been a constant feature on the news for the past few years as everyone pitches in to discuss why brick and mortar retailers are struggling and how we can save them. Account manager Charlotte Dove sits down with John Morgan, director at Leonard Design Architects, to get his view on the high street trends for 2020.

High street trends for 2020

We’ve worked with Leonard Design Architects – an award-winning, international architecture practice that works across a number of sectors, including: retail, residential, mixed use developments and master planning schemes – for more than three years. Therefore, when we started to look at high street trends, we knew their insight would be invaluable.

John Morgan, director at Leonard Design, is a chartered architect with more than 20 years’ experience. He is knowledgeable on both the design and delivery side of the retail, sports and leisure, commercial and residential sectors, having worked at Westfield Group for 13 years before joining Leonard Design.

How do you think we can save our high streets?

We keep being told: ‘the high street is dead’. So, rather than just continually stating that, we need to discuss what we should be doing.

My answer is simple: get more people living in towns and city centres by offering them a greater quality of life and convenience so there isn’t a need for them to go elsewhere. Ask local people what they want and really listen to them – you cannot just guess and hope for the best.

The key thing when we look at any project is to find the positives, no matter how small. You then need build on them and ignore any negativity – but it will take time.

A continual cycle of urban regeneration has, and always will be, crucial to the successful growth and evolution of our town and cities. Only through innovative design and investment can their decline be reversed. This can be done by investing in infrastructure and buildings, housing stock and ultimately the local economy.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to urban regeneration. It’s not a case of putting five popular shops or chains into a centre but about understanding the DNA of the people and the place to create something unique and relevant.

Regardless of technological advancements, market changes or high street trends, the retail sector must always adhere to the rule of putting the customer first, but be genuine about it.

What do you think are the key high street trends for 2020?

Often our clients will set us the challenge of coming up with the next big, exciting thing. Actually, the key is about understanding your audience demographics and taking whatever that looks like and doing it well. This requires a lot of hard work and takes time; you cannot be lazy or complacent.

Nevertheless, there are a number of emerging high street trends that, if executed right, could help steer our high streets in the right direction.

   1. Develop new concepts for shopping centres

Shopping centres at their core have some really great features. They have good quality space, decent floor to ceiling height and solid structures but we need to populate these buildings with creative, exciting and relevant activities for people.

Let’s use artists as an example. Historically, artists have often been the first group to move into an area and start new communities. This is something we’ve seen with Second Floor Studios and Arts taking up a studio space at places like Wembley Park and across London. This attracts a further group of artists bringing creativity, vibrancy and life into the centre.

In 2020 we expect to see more investment in shopping centres and physical high street retail stores from brave, disruptive and entrepreneurial investors in order to convert these buildings into mixed-use developments. Those that grasp this concept will ultimately survive whilst others will unfortunately continue to fall by the wayside.

    2. Create neighbourhoods

This trend involves looking at the ground floor space once the need for density, usually achieved through conversion of space and populating the airspace above existing developments, has been established.

Creating a neighbourhood and sense of place is key to activating the high street ground floor. More and more, we are working on masterplans where we take control of the bottom two floors of a development. We look at the surrounding landscape and develop a unique strategy for the space, which is key to the success of the scheme. It forms the part of a building that people immediately look at, feel and touch.

In 2016, the Leonard Design team was chosen by client OSU to do exactly this for Oslo’s Bispevika. It is a mixed-use development that offers culture, retail and dining, as well as office and residential space.

The team was tasked with using their expert knowledge to activate the ground floor of the entire development. Here we created a unique district and neighbourhood on the city’s waterfront to work for residents, workers and tourists. This is a hugely inspiring project for our team to work on and we’re are spending time and effort, alongside OSU, to ensure we get this right.

3. Give shoppers an experience

This has been spoken about a lot, but it really will be key in 2020. High streets cannot match the convenience and ease of online shopping so they must offer something different, something more seductive.

Retailers and developers need to work hard, invest in their venue or store and innovate to give shoppers a reason to visit. This can be done by using the high street as an opportunity to entice customers in with leisure, pop ups, craft food and drink, community facilities and the arts. Offer people a personalised experience and atmosphere that cannot be matched through their screens. Again, it’s about working hard and not being lazy.

So, is the future of our high streets positive or bleak?

I believe it’s clear that urban regeneration doesn’t have to be about completely rewriting the rule book, or tackling a whole city or town in one go. It’s about the smart use of available space to create places that people naturally want to visit, work, live and play.

In Sheffield, the Heart of the City II masterplan is being currently being delivered to great success. However, we are approaching it one or two buildings at a time. The team is spending time getting each element to work and have the right use for the city before being built.

By taking our time and breaking the project down into pieces, our clients – Sheffield City Council and Queensberry – have successfully secured an office for HSBC as well as Monki and Weekday – two of the coolest retailers on the planet – as tenants. Traditionally both brands would have looked at a shopping centre location, however the masterplan enticed them onto the high street.

It’s incredibly rewarding to see our masterplan come to life in this way and the ripple effect of success it’s sending across the city.

How can we turn it around?

The owners of retail buildings have to stop thinking: I have a vacant building and I’m trying to sign a lease for 15 years of secured income – this isn’t happening in today’s tough climate. Think about the shop as a building in a great location and the possibilities it holds.

Our team have recently worked on a number of presentations where we have applied this thinking. The feedback from clients has been that they’ve been so focused on decline and vacancy that they forgot they owned a great building in a great city. As soon as this change happens “the vibe” of the project shifts. We get into an optimistic mindset and start to build on these positives. It has been great to see this happening and so rewarding for our team.

Tomorrow your competitors may launch something completely new and ground-breaking that will entice your customers away. Brands must keep trying to innovate, work hard and offer shoppers what they want. I know it’s exhausting to think this way, but the online competition is fast, responsive and seductive. The high street and physical retail need to keep up.

Therefore, in order to grow and develop, retail leaders must think like the customer. They need to put themselves in their shoes to constantly improve the customer experience and ultimately drive sales, which our team do in every project we approach.

If retailers and developers can do this then I think our high streets have a much more positive future ahead of them.

Get in touch

If you have a retail asset that you need support with then get in touch with John and the team, they’re all excellent and a joy to work with. To find out more about the work we do with Leonard Design, check out this piece we did on global retail trends via Retail Design World or this video we created, which really brings it to life.

By Charlotte Dove

Charlotte supports a number of clients across health and beauty, construction and architecture. She has experience creating engaging content on social media, as well as copywriting for SEO and securing extensive coverage for clients.