Rationalising Shopping Debate Summary

Key takeaways from the fifth Urban Age Debate

On 26 January 2022 over 300 participants worldwide gathered virtually for the fifth and final Urban Age Debate of the Cities in the 2020s series – Rationalising Shopping. 

The hour-long event, jointly organised by LSE Cities and the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft, explored how the pandemic has brought about significant changes to the shopping districts of our cities. Thomas Heatherwick, Founder of Heatherwick Studio; Ewa Westermark, Architect and Director at Gehl; and Andrew Murphy, Executive Director Operations at The John Lewis Partnership discussed the effects on retail of the rise in ecommerce, the potential to rethink retail place-making, ethical concerns around hyper consumerism, and the changing nature of consumer behaviors. The conversation was co-chaired by Jonathan De Mello, Retail consultant and partner at CWM, and LSE Cities Executive Director Philipp Rode.  

Key Takeaway 1: Retail streets must embrace a mix of other uses to remain robust 

COVID-19 has catalysed ecommerce, with Amazon emerging as a winner, this has brought about economic challenges to shopping districts and retailers in our towns and cities who wish to operate from brick-and-mortar stores. “There is simply no need for that amount of physical retail space” explained Andrew Murphy, Executive Director Operations at The John Lewis Partnership. “So for retailers you have a choice, you can try and repurpose that space within your own business model to add sufficient value, or you can close some or all of it.”  

Murphy outlined that The John Lewis Partnership, for instance, closed 16 of their 51 shops during the pandemic, yet still saw their sales increase by 2% of which the majority was accounted for through online shopping (now making up 60% of their business). “If the overall business model is healthy the switch to online does not mean that retail as an industry is disappearing it is simply a format change,” said Murphy. 

Such format change consequentially disrupts the current monolithic functions of shopping streets in cities as retailers must pivot from offering direct transactions, into a nuanced model consisting of multiple uses in order to motivate footfall from customers. “I strongly suspect what we will see is a much more mixed mash and blend of retail, residential and hospitality, event space” explained Murphy.  

In response to Murphy’s comments Ewa Westermark, architect at Gehl, agreed that the survival of retail districts is contingent on localised needs, where a layering and mix of essential and recreational uses is necessary to strengthen shopping streets. She observed that “During COVID we could see a shift…the retail streets that were more mono-functional, were hurting badly...but the places that had a robust mix of uses, that had invested in adding everyday functions to their centres, such as bringing in schools, adding playgrounds and recreation, were more robust because they had wider reasons for people to come.” 

Key Takeaway 2: Localised shopping habits should prompt ‘Place-Making Retail’  

Small local grocery stores and local shopping streets were most likely to benefit from COVID-19 restrictions and government induced lockdowns, as the majority of urban residents shopped locally. Many neighbourhood stores have been boosted by the shift to working from home, which strengthened interest in supporting local businesses that assisted communities through the pandemic. “We can see that people are spending so much more time in their local neighbourhood” said Westermark, “we went from not even a 15-minute city to a 2-minute city, it got really local”. 

Westermark argued that hyper-localised shopping habits may be a catalyst to transforming local neighbourhoods, as common everyday places can become community hubs that address the specific community needs, outside of normative shopping. “Whether or not we go online and buy things there is always a place where we receive the goods” said Westermark, “I think there is a great opportunity to think about place-making retail, so you can help the local community to become more attractive to support authentic places, tapping into the needs of community in a stronger way.”  

Thomas Heatherwick challenged the dominance of mass retail shops which often create a local monopoly and don’t connect with local people and communities. Big retailers used to feel that they were “essential infrastructure” said Heatherwick, but, with the acceleration of online shopping pushed by COVID he suggested that this “lazy place making can’t happen anymore.” He argued that localised place making should be adopted to establish a more integrated experience between local communities and shops. This would not only benefit local communities, but also strengthen cities to become more resilient. 

Key Takeaway 3: “Emotion is a function” to shopping experiences and place making 

COVID-19 heightened the importance of public space and personal connectivity, as urban citizens turned to local parks and shopping streets for interaction during lockdowns. “We are hungry to see each other” noted Heatherwick, who went on to critique the design approach of the retail sector. “I find it incredible how insensitively most places are being made up until very, very recently” he said. “Shops have been too big for too long, the smaller spaces are more interesting, engaging your emotion and your senses.”  

In agreement with Westermark, Heatherwick also argued for a ‘place making’ approach to retail but also pointed to a deeper dimension to shopping experiences that is personal. “There is functional place making [but we] seem to forget that emotion is also a function, thinking about human motivation – why you go somewhere, and really understanding how you feel when you move around a place.” The choice to lead with emotion and sensory awareness illustrates Heatherwick's argument that physical as opposed to digital shopping is “a way that we see each other and connect with people,” it is “an experience that jumps and grabs your emotion in a physical in the way the flat shiny screen doesn’t.” In agreement with Heatherwick, Westermark went on to comment that public life on shopping streets needs to engage with emotion in order to make people feel safe, seen and included. 

Key Takeaway 4: The economics of retail is a barrier to positive place making  

In response to the critiques and comments of the retail sector made by the design experts Andrew Murphy argued that due to the economic costs and current financial models, retailers wishing to develop place making solutions are restricted. “I would encourage designers and civic leaders to recognise that the economics of retail will limit or define what the retailers may be able to contribute, whatever shared vision we have for the future, the cost of change is very significant…The number of shop closures you see happening isn’t a result of people just giving up and deciding they would rather do something else. It an economic consequence.”  

Whilst Heatherwick continued to critique the nature of retail businesses “squeezing all the public life out to the edges” and isolating neighborhoods, he stressed that governments need to find ways to incentivise “the street world and regulate the online world,” as shopping districts are being penalised by a myriad of business rates, community levies and service charges that hinder their chances of expanding public life. The increasing privatisation of public space, by developers and landowners acts as an additional economic and operational barrier to the use of public space by retailers and citizens.  

Key Takeaway 5: Are repair economies on streets achievable? 

In the second half of the debate Jonathan De Mello raised awareness of the social and environmental cost of consumerism, discussing the harmful outcomes of electronic waste and failed fast fashion that accounts for 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.  

Murphy explained how the precarious chain of consumption has led many retailers to offer circular solutions where consumers can rent furniture or recycle items. However, Murphy is very realistic about these solutions taking off. “To reengineer the business model for a very big retailer takes time, and investment. Even if I chose to be optimistic about the rate of growth for those models and even if there was some aggressive help from legislators, I would still struggle to see this representing more than 10-15% of our business activity in a decade’s time.” Murphy also mentioned that such models are delivered easily online as it is a cheaper and faster option, which may be why we will not witness the growth of the repair economy on the street.  

Heatherwick felt that the culture of repairing items needed to be brought back to the streets as it fosters relationships and connections with people. “We are programmed to think that high streets are jammed full of stuff you buy and there is a real opportunity to rethink that. It's not just about literal repair, it's about relationships and exchange, not just exchange of money or things, but exchange of services and emotional connections with people...that grow each of us and make us feel integrated into something.” Westermark agreed that we need localised opportunity to repair, “there is a need to have jobs locally, to create local meeting places and hubs on a neighbourhood scale.” 

Westermark also called for the repurposing of physical space as an environmentally friendly solution. She mentioned the transformation of parking spaces into green spaces and the reuse of existing dilapidated buildings, pointing to the layering of functions she had stressed earlier in the discussion. “We have a really lazy use of space; we have to use what we have more efficiently…in the optimal way… to reduce space and increase use.”  

In response to these comments Murphy argued that there is not a unified solution to sustainability in cities. “There will be very few solutions that make sense on Oxford Street in London that also make sense in a small provincial town…We have to think in quite a discriminating way about some of the models and opportunities that we propose.” 

Thomas Heatherwick is a designer and Founder of Heatherwick Studio. A British designer whose prolific and varied work over two decades is characterised by its ingenuity. Thomas founded Heatherwick Studio in 1994 to bring the practices of design, architecture and urban planning together in a single workspace. The studio is currently working on approximately 30 projects in ten countries, including 1000 Trees, a mixed-use development in Shanghai; and Google headquarters in California and London (in collaboration with BIG). 

Andrew Murphy is Executive Director of Operations at The John Lewis Partnership (Waitrose Supermarkets, John Lewis Department Stores & John Lewis Financial Services) and a member of the Partnership’s Executive Committee, reporting to Chairman, Dame Sharon White. Andrew is responsible for all of the Partnership's technology, change delivery, property estate, supply chain network and customer payments. Andrew is also a Board Director of Clicklink - one of the UK’s leading eFulfilment logistics providers.  

Ewa Westermark is an architect and a partner at Gehl. She focuses on consulting with cities by developing Public Life and Public Space Strategies, Public Space Plans, Masterplanning Frameworks and guidelines which inform the quality of places. At the core of her work is the development of the Gehl methodology and thinking, within fields such as; regional planning, sustainable mobility, innovation quarters or smaller cities and suburban centres.  

Jonathan De Mello
is a retail consultant and Equity Partner at CWM. Jonathan specialises in providing tailored solutions to the retail, retail banking and retail property sectors. He leads CWM's Retail Consultancy team and spearheads strategic retail consultancy projects for clients worldwide; creating strategies to help clients to maximise their retail potential. He is a member of the KPMG/IPSOS Retail Think Tank and regularly provides expert commentary on the retail and property sectors in national and international media.  

Philipp Rode (@PhilippRode) is Executive Director of LSE Cities and Associate Professorial Research Fellow at LSE. He is co-Director of the LSE Executive MSc in Cities and Executive Director of the Urban Age Programme.  

 Note: quotes have been edited for clarity and cohesion.