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March 16, 2016
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March 16, 2016

Covent Garden at Christmas

Retail districts with a strong sense of place, culture, and history are emerging in a luxury bricks-and-mortar fightback against the convenience of online shopping. Brands are creating neighborhood clusters of sector-specific shops to provide physical experiences that consumers cannot find online. They are reminiscent of the craft streets of medieval guilds. Neighborhoods are now being rebranded as any company might.

Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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According to futurist and speaker Thomas Frey, malls and big box retail stores have been struggling thanks in large part to the dominance of online giants like Amazon. In fact J.C. Penney announced last year that it would close 40 of its locations—about 4% of its stores—according to a CNBC report. In January, USA Today reported that Macy’s planned to close 36 stores in 2016. Earlier that year, teen retailer Wet Seal shuttered about two-thirds of its 500-plus stores. Additionally, a bankruptcy judge in Delaware ruled that Deb Shops could shut down nearly 300 stores as part of its liquidation, the report noted.

With so many stores closing up shop, “consumers are left with fewer options for out-of-the-home forms of entertainment, and a pent up demand for meaningful experiences,” says Frey. This collision of trends is creating “the perfect storm for the next retail revolution,” which Frey identifies as Maker Districts. Further, PSFK Lab’s Future of Retail 2015 report identifies retail hubs where complementary services and experiences that go well beyond products, offering transactions in culture and relationships, are the new norm.

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Converging with the New Urban Guild trend identified by LS:N, these shopping districts are emerging as a more authentic alternative to traditional malls and brick-and-mortar outlets. Luxury consumers want their favored brands to serve as a conduit to a strong and inspiring sense of locality.


While demand for easy one-click shopping, shipping, and doorstep delivery will continue into the foreseeable future, consumers are getting restless. Frey points out that “As mind numbing as it might have been to run to the store and pick up a bag of flour, there was always the chance of running into someone unexpectedly.”

As a result, coffee shops have replaced retail stores as the next best place to hang out, Frey notes. Most are busy, noisy places, but people love to feel part of an experience. For this reason as well as the following, New Urban Guilds are on the verge of turning traditional retail on its head:

[gdlr_accordion style=”style-1″ initial=”1″] [gdlr_tab title=”A Sense of Place“]Consumers are increasingly drawn to local, hand-crafted products and places that reflect a sense of locale. These new districts can best be described as “a cross between an artist colony, farmers market, woodworking shop, music festival, bakery, brewpub, and brainstorming session all happening in the same space,” according to Frey.

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People have a newfound interest in building their communities, and looking to reestablish connections that have been lost in digital translation. New Urban Guilds present destinations where people can not only shop, but re-connect on a more human level.

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Whether it’s a local boutique retailer selling intricate, hand-crafted wares or a musician at the corner coffee shop, consumers want to be inspired and participate in meaningful experiences that they just can’t find in big box stores or at their computer.

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This innovative approach to retail neighborhoods is informing the way that developers, local authorities, and architects conceive of urban place-making. As Niccolò Barattieri di San Pietro, CEO of Northacre, London’s leading luxury property developer, says: “Bringing out the personality of a building is the biggest focus in luxury developments now. People want to be somewhere that reflects something fundamental about who they are.”

An empathetic sense of place is a key requirement of these emerging Urban Guilds. For example, the 114,000-square-metre Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu is a retail neighborhood by Hong Kong-based Swire Properties that pays homage to traditional Sichuan architecture to blend in with the nearby Daci temple.

Housing brands such as Gucci, Hermès and Cartier, the complex cleverly offers fast and slow shopping lanes to enable consumers to make a quick, business-like purchase or stroll around as if they were exploring a collection of local shops.

Areas in cities are being rebranded in a way that is more often suited to companies. Recently St James’s, an area of west London, underwent a rebranding by marketing agency dn&co, commissioned by the area’s landlord The Crown Estate. The agency created a motif for the area, the pelican—used on material including the local quarterly newspaper The Correspondent, as well as commissioning a moving sculpture, The Cosmology of St James’s by Lola Lely, for one of the area’s landmark buildings.

Covent Garden, perhaps one of London’s best known and oldest shopping districts, recently entered the digital era by launching an app that helps people navigate its streets and shops. The Pass, created by London property company CapCo, is a one-stop shop for everything that is happening in the area. Users are able to store offers and discounts from restaurants, retailers and stalls for later, as well as keep tabs on the latest shows and entertainment.

Covent Garden at Christmas

Covent Garden at Christmas

In Australia, the annual Art, Not Apart festival, backed by property developer Molonglo Group, suggests how luxury neighborhoods may evolve to 2020 and beyond. In the 2015 edition about 200 artists and musicians performed to more than 15,000 visitors in a scattering of spaces amid the shops and luxury apartments of the revamped NewActon Precinct in Canberra.

“We need creative spaces that interface with the streetscape far more than they do now,” says Nectar Efkarpidis of Molonglo Group and Hotel Hotel. “The concept of luxury comes with a lot of baggage, so we’re more focused on delivering social activation and agitation.”


To harness this longing for place, create an anti-shopping mall that chimes with the history of its immediate surroundings. Also, applying the rules of branding to a district can be an effective way to add cohesion to the area. Finally, recreate the medieval sense of a craft district that is a destination in and of itself, to combat the lure of the digital world.

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