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High spec, high tech: retail in Asia and lessons for Europe

By Justin Taylor, Head of EMEA Retail, Cushman & Wakefield

Justin Taylor, Head of EMEA Retail

Justin Taylor, Head of EMEA Retail

It’s not every day you have the opportunity to fly 6,000 miles with three clients on the hunt for innovation and inspiration. But that’s exactly where I found myself on a cold Sunday in February – headed to Asia for a fast and furious five-day retail study tour to see why the malls of the East are so successful, and how owners and occupiers have reinvigorated the high street. From Tokyo to Seoul and finally Shanghai, the experience really challenged our preconceptions about what a retail location can do, and be. Here’s a snippet of what we learned.

No developer should be afraid of the dark

Confined by the limitations of space – more than any European city can possibly understand – Eastern developers often build towering monuments to retail, without so much as a single window to shed natural light on the cavernous interior. Artificial lighting is used so effectively to reflect and highlight that the customer journey is actually enhanced. Surfaces shine and glow, curved shop fronts flow and all to entice the shopper at every turn. Throughout the ‘illuminating’ experience, not once did our lack of UVA make us feel confined or claustrophobic.

The only way is up

With little land available, developers look to the sky for square footage. The shopper is greeted with layer upon layer (upon layer…) of retail trading floors. As a customer, it’s a surprisingly manageable set up because the tenant mix is calculated to precision. Each floor has a specialist offering, within which a more distinctive segmentation is achieved through finishes. Think of it, if you will, like an oversized department store. Ground floor – Luxury; Floor 3 – Ladies Wear; Floor 5 – Catering, and so on.
Even the food and beverage floors (of which there are can be multiple per mall) are clustered by price point. And how do you get there? By vertical circulation adapted for speed – using escalators which skip floors and high-speed elevators.

Make an entrance

What could be more welcoming (and, as a developer, more strategic) than giving your shoppers a designated entrance, no matter how they get to you? This is mixed-use development on an ambitious scale. Shoppers in Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai are led directly into the mall. Whether you’re one of the masses travelling on the rumbling subway, an employee in the surrounding offices or a guest in the neighbouring hotels – there are direct entrances into the hub of retail without ever needing to step outside. And if you’re a driver, the valet services ensure you make your entrance with style.

Hey, good looking!

Retailers: don’t wait until your shopper has come inside to wow them with your identity. In Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai, retailers parade their brand from every brick, lining the high streets and malls with a diverse and interesting topography of metals, woods, glazes, elevations – and all completely ‘on brand’. Who can ignore the colossal white petals encasing the Dior store in Seoul or Shanghai’s Apple store with its eponymous fruit suspended in a looming cylindrical glass case? The retail in these locations is memorable, distinctive and experiential before you’ve even thought about heading inside.

The glass ceiling

We left Asia feeling that perhaps we lack ambition in Europe, with a tendency to stay within the safe, standard design model. For example, you have to look hard in Asia to find a department-store anchored mall, but you don’t have to look hard to find two or even three trading levels below ground. We need to challenge preconceptions to break through our ‘design glass ceiling’. We all talk of the future of retail being experiential and, while the interaction between shopper and shop is changing at pace, this trip opened our eyes to what is possible when the concept is truly embraced.

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