Rethink: How to sell the high street after lockdown

For a sector already in crisis, Covid-19 looked like the final straw for physical retail. But four specialists see a chance for growth and change for the better. Adam Scott weighs in.


Adam Scott is founder and creative director of experience masterplanners FreeState

‘A much greater blur in terms of operations,’ Adam Scott

Covid-19 shines an extremely uncomfortable light on what we already knew: that for retail, uncertainty is the new certainty. The crisis has exposed an urgent need to move away from stratified mixed-use planning to a much more adaptable mixed-activity approach, one that may well spell the beginning of the end of the anchor tenant – at least in the traditional sense. We need to plan for unpredictable times and for unpredictable spaces. We need to substitute a build-and-they-will-come planning mantra for a much more fluid and adaptable approach to retail.

This all begins with a ramping up of what could be thought of as a fusion in masterplanning between different types, not only combining retail with workplace and leisure, but less obviously with education, healthcare, and experience-based pop-ups. This is not a call for a richer mix of uses, but rather for a richer mix of types of activity. Done well, it promises to be the model for the new retail norm come post-coronavirus.

Secondly, faced with the post-Covid prospect of whole streets of empty retail space, planning authorities will need to think much more in terms of the event. We are going to see more hireable sites programmed for work events, live events, community and retail events. This will be especially relevant as we pass through the various lockdown exit strategies, where we will need to spread the constantly morphing retail offer across 24-hour timespans, as opposed to the customary 12-hour fixed-concept day.

Thirdly, we will see a much greater blur in terms of design and operations. Expect the rise of the super-curated high street, which will see a blurring of pop-up, short, and very short tenancies. These start-ups and independents will be underwritten not by the traditional anchor tenants, but by a new type of retail sponsor in a genuine mix of profit, social responsibility, and membership.

None of this is entirely new. It’s all out there already. These trends precede Covid-19, some by decades. What is new, however, is the rate with which the present crisis has accelerated the inevitable – the blurring of different types of activities, of statutory permissions, and of the programming of our retail sites. What were counter-cultural trends are now the means by which we will ensure that real-world retail is alive and relevant in whatever follows lockdown.

To design for this, we need to better understand the suitably complex interests of the post-Covid retail audience. This means thinking much less in terms of monolithic destinations, and much more about the real-world customer’s journey across a day, month and year. In thinking more deeply about the quality of the experience, we are much more likely to attract and involve people, and in attracting and involving, so the product evolves to further attract and involve.

Stick with the traditional build-it-and-they-might-come approach to retail and people may indeed come – perhaps once, possibly twice. But if instead we embrace a much more agile approach to retail, they will keep on coming – again and again and again.


‘In thinking more deeply about the quality of the experience, we are much more likely to attract and involve people, and in attracting and involving, so the product evolves to further attract and involve.’ Adam Scott


See Adam Scott of Freestate speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on retail


This extract was first published on RIBAJ’s ‘Rethink: How to sell the high street after lockdown’.
Read the full article here.