The UK’s two most successful examples (both by Westfield) bookend London at Shepherd’s Bush to the West and Stratford to the East. This shift to the use of sheltered streets and squares, public art, close links with public transport and prioritising a carefully curated retail offer can also be seen in more recent airport developments. Heathrow Terminal 2 opened in 2014, three years after Westfield Stratford City and whilst similarities between airport terminals and shopping centres are often drawn, less common is the comparison with railway stations.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of reinventing many high streets is that of fragmented ownership obstructing the development of a coherent vision. Here train stations, airports and shopping centres have a distinct advantage. However, while airports have followed the lead of shopping centres in carefully constructing their offer, London’s stations have only relatively recently embraced a transformation in retail thinking with the result in recent years that station retail has consistently outperformed the high street.
Key to the success of transforming the retail offer at stations is articulating an overarching strategy, providing a coherent retail vision which makes the most of what is often heritage station architecture. St Pancras International was perhaps the turning point for retail at London stations and our current work for HS1 at the station builds on this legacy.
In developing new station retail schemes, an understanding of the station user is fundamental in ensuring the retail offer is absolutely relevant to customer segment, journeys and mission. This differs from that in shopping centres in a number of ways. In stations convenience is key, queuing must be minimised and communication must be clear and direct. Visibility of information screens, platforms and exits for passengers provides reassurance which gives comfort and encourages spending, especially in food and beverage (F&B) outlets. Known brands are a shortcut to understanding an offer and typically the F&B offer is controlled by a small number of key players.
Future passenger flows also need to be understood in order to maximise strategic opportunities, whilst curating the tenant mix and controlling the retail fit-out are key to delivering on these opportunities.
This is particularly relevant at Paddington Station, currently one of London’s top performing stations for retail, experiencing sales growth of 10.7 per cent over the Christmas period in 2018. Here the Weston Williamson + Partners designed Crossrail station will change the flow of passengers and therefore drive huge potential additional retail footfall. Working for Network Rail, we have been developing proposals for new retail schemes alongside a station-wide retail tenant design guide which will ensure the future fit-out of units at the station adhere to principles of visual hierarchy, transparency, visibility and consistency; decluttering shopfronts, controlling branding and providing visual harmony which ultimately creates a more pleasant environment for all station users and a more successful retail environment.
With the right retail offer, stations also have the potential to become a local amenity and a destination in their own right. At Fenchurch Street Station we are developing designs for the operator c2c which seek to do exactly this. Through celebrating the station’s historic frontage, opening up its triple height windows to flood the concourse with natural light and create new visual connections with the recently remodelled station square, a new F&B focused offer will provide local workers with somewhere to spend time (and money) whether or not they are catching a train.
So what do these trends tell us about the future of station retail? We see the offer expanding from pure ‘retail’ to the broader possibilities of ‘commercial’. The convenience of getting to and away from stations makes them an ideal place for meetings, mobile working and co-working, embracing emerging work trends. Stations could also form part of the health, fitness, wellness and mental wellbeing regime of customers: gyms, health centres, therapies, based on the convenience of undertaking many of these activities before or after work. This could position stations at the centre of emerging trends in healthy living and new modes of work and play, ideas we are currently exploring with Network Rail for Charing Cross.
Looking further into the future, our IF Lab (Innovation and Foresight Laboratory) has undertaken work for various clients. One such project involved the proposal of the world’s first mixed-reality shopless shopping centre, a scheme for LCR to provide a ribbon of floor-to-ceiling digital hoardings which would activate the levels under the former Eurostar terminal at Waterloo for two years whilst the retail units behind are constructed and fitted out.
Whatever the future may hold for the sector, the rise in convenience shopping looks set to continue and means stations, with their guaranteed footfall, are perfectly placed to capitalise on shifting attitudes toward retail and leisure.
This article first appeared in London’s Retail: Exploring what works. A research paper published by New London Architecture.