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What will shopping districts look like in the future?

Retail is important, not just because it is a major part of the global economy, but also it is a fundamental part of what we do. From essential shopping for food and health to improve our lives to wild impulse purchases. It isn’t just this, we must recognise it is part of our social history and culture.


There are so many places where we go to shop – the major supermarket, the high street, the out of town retail park, the shopping mall and of course the corner shop. Each is important with its own characteristics but over the past ten years each is being increasingly challenged by social change and the rise of the internet, which allows browsing and buying from the comfort of the home or indeed from almost anywhere by using the ubiquitous smart phone. This is a huge challenge not just to retailers but to our social lives.

Will internet shopping take over with the inevitable demise of the high street as we know them? Or perhaps the two will learn to live happily side by side, each complimenting the other. I favour the latter, but shops and shopping districts need to change and change quickly to ensure their economic survival. Each retailer will need to adapt their offer to ensure that it is still relevant in the market today. Similarly, the major shopping districts will have to undergo some fundamental change to ensure that they continue to attract the volume of visitors that their retail tenants demand whilst maintaining and enhancing the value of their real estate.

The experience economy

Essential shopping is becoming fractured and based on convenience and already the major food retailers are adjusting to this with smaller ‘convenience’ stores. This trend is likely to continue. For discretionary shopping, 85% of consumers report that they like to visit stores as they like to see, touch and feel the product before buying. Shops then must sell an experience, rather than a product, and ensure that their range is available to see, accepting that the shopper can buy online once they are happy with the product.

Shopping districts need to become an attractive destination to facilitate this change to an experience economy and to attract shoppers to their district. The essentials for this are food and leisure offers, which must be of a high standard. Successful examples will create a social space in itself that includes shops, restaurants and leisure.

The Middle East has led the way here for some time and the shopping districts that we designed in this region have had significantly higher food and leisure percentages. Moreover, each district has sought a broad range of food outlets from the traditional food court to high-end restaurants and importantly a unique leisure experience.  For example, at the soon to open Mall of Egypt in Cairo (below), we have designed a snow park with ski slopes and snow play areas. At Dubai Mall there is the famous fountains with overlooking restaurants. 

How will we get there?

A major part of the destination experience is making access a pleasant, easy experience. This relates to the amount of traffic, ease of car parking, ease of getting in and out, how connected the public transport system is and the ‘feel’ of the space. This is all changing, fast! 

Recent investment into electric vehicles is huge and the pace of development is accelerating. We can now envisage the future where electric, autonomous vehicles are the norm, the vast swathes of car parking currently designed for shoppers will become temporary, and overnight charging areas for these vehicles and destinations will have large arrival areas where people are dropped off and picked up. Excess car park areas may become leisure and major goods collection depots for online shoppers. New issues will arise and The power requirement for electric car charging will be more than required to run the destination until the ‘super battery’ is finally developed and this will bring its own issues.

Freight consolidation could reduce the numbers of vehicles coming into town centres by up to 70%. For example, large electric lorries would delivering goods to a consolidation centre in a non-congested area with smaller electric (autonomous) vehicles shuttling goods in and out of the main centre and to the collection depots. You could see this further develop to on site consolidation locations using the redundant car parks with deliveries coming at night and combine with the click and collect depots. Then shopping districts really become an integrated destination with online shoppers coming to a centre for lunch, a leisure activity and to collect their shopping.

Data Revolution

The data revolution is already here. Mobile phones have changed the world. We are tracked by our credit cards, store cards, internet roaming, security cameras, footfall counters and so on. The traditional way of renting retail space by turnover is over. Retail outlets are marketing stations creating brand awareness and actual sales can be made anywhere using data. We have the ability now to base shop rents on ‘how many potential customers pass your door’. Thus good design will be all about how to get maximum footfall in maximum areas to allow the retailers to maximise their potential and our clients to maximise rent. Using technology our modelling can now predict future footfall, which can then be validated by data collection. This in turn can also be used to masterplan new cities or fix old ones by using footfall modelling  to show how strategically planned uses can ensure people will flow round the city to give it increased vibrancy and wealth.

Simon Harden is UK head of retail at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

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