Repurpose or reposition? The future for high street department stores
The collapse of a string of big names has been seen as the death knell for the high street. But with a string of exciting repurposing projects in the works and opportunities for redevelopment, will high street department stores become extinct or evolve into something bolder and braver?
Covid may have been the final straw, but the high street has been declining through lack of footfall and the rise of ecommerce for some time. However, declarations of the death of the high street could be premature as a series of innovative transformations take place.
What more exciting way to reinvigorate the heart of our urban spaces than be reimagining thousands of square feet of prime commercial space? Rationalise, rightsizing and redeveloping are all helping to redesign the look and feel of our high streets.
Schemes range from retaining a high street name while changing the retail offer to something more current, like the Sheffield Co-Op department store that now plays host to a co-working space and food hall, to reconfiguring units into residential and commercial units like the Leicester Debenhams building. In Edinburgh, Frasers department store will become the Johnny Walker whisky museum, while in Kingston upon Thames the Fraser Group building will be repurposed into an open plan store with residential apartments above.
Is redevelopment viable?
Financially, repurposing such large spaces requires a significant capital outlay but it may be worth it for landlords who otherwise face an uncertain future. And the income from alternative uses like residential and commercial can be compelling.
However, knowing where the financial liability for redevelopment lies, particularly where there are challenges introduced redeveloping listed and historic buildings, means there are often limited resources. Landlords are often hit by tenants who either no longer require full occupancy or who expect a financial contribution to their fit out costs. The result is often the sale of assets to a developer, but the decline of department stores doesn't have to result in them passing out of the high street landscape altogether.
Renewing the department store
For department stores to survive they need a renewed offer and a repositioning of their supply chain proposition. Ecommerce may be on the rise but so is omnichannel and the importance of customer convenience. The smartest chains like Next and Primark are blurring the lines and expanding their ranges within a large footprint. Others are improving their customer fulfilment and Click & Collect offer.
But where the sophistication of warehouse fulfilment is way beyond many brands, a retail store remains a prime asset with access to transport hubs, consumer amenities and employment. This also increases their value as part of the distribution network and we may see future stores minimising front of house sales to concentrate on their 'dark store' component. This could help brands continue to trade as a store on the ground floor while upper floors are repurposed as logistics space, creating a compelling proposition for the wider supply chain.
So while the traditional department store may no longer work thanks to its sheer size, repositioning, repurposing and redevelopment offer a lifeline for the high street behemoths.