The future of high street shopping is safe, especially in Croydon

By - Monday 24th April, 2017

Technological advances are rapidly changing the way that we shop, and Croydon will be at the cutting edge

Image by Westfield Group, used with permission.

Back in late 2012, when the union of Westfield and Hammerson was first announced and the Croydon Partnership (CP) subsequently established to take forward the redevelopment of both the Whitgift Centre and Centrale in the heart of Croydon, the key stakeholders in the town’s current regeneration had yet to really exert any influence. Boxpark was still establishing itself in the increasingly cool Shoreditch. Saffron Tower’s purple facade was yet to be manufactured. Croydon’s historic Allders department store was preparing to close after 150 years of business.

Many decried the proposed £1.4 billion retail development, claiming that the high street was dying and that the future of retail was solely the domain of Amazon, Ebay et al.

Five years on, and whilst the Whitgift Centre lies untouched by diggers and cranes, Croydon is nearing the end of the first phase of its transformation. The hors d’ouevres of Boxpark, Saffron Square and Ruskin Square have whet the appetites of locals and visitors, and dispelled fears that Croydon hasn’t the capability to attract employers and tourists.

There is still a market for those who want to buy on-site

The built environment in which CP will operate in has clearly changed. Alongside this, the retail experience has undergone a necessary transformation over the past half-decade. Whilst the idea of a shopping centre as a leisure hub is nothing new, the increasing importance of food and cultural choices to the success of a retail development has shaped the revised planning application submitted by CP in late 2016.

The continued growth of Amazon has seen the online giant gain the capability to offer same day delivery (and perhaps same hour delivery via drone within the near future), a service copied by the likes of Argos, may lead some to question the value of how much ‘retail’ there even is within a ‘retail’ development.

Clearly there is still a market for those who want to buy on-site though, and one half of CP, Westfield, has its own department set up to both create and inform the vision of the future of retail. Named Westfield Retail Solutions (previously Westfield Labs), the project partners with both retail brands and venues to create an excellent experience for consumers. Symbolising the evolution of shopping into an ‘experience’ comparable to an afternoon at the cinema or a sporting match, the traditional experience of visiting a centre just to shop is dwindling.

What e-commerce does not have however, at least in the same quantities as physical shopping, is the power of emotion

Undoubtedly, Amazon and its equivalents such as Alibaba will continue to grow alongside traditional shopping methods. What e-commerce does not have however, at least in the same quantities as physical shopping, is the power of emotion. Humans being humans, we are driven by impulse and emotion and subsequently there will always be a market for those who want to experience what they are buying.

Witness the resurgence, albeit at moderate levels, of physical books and vinyl records – people like to have ‘things’ which they can touch and feel. Indeed, Amazon itself now has a physical store, devoted to groceries, which opened in Seattle in late 2016 as a prototype of what could eventually be the biggest physical retail chain in the world. Significant funds are devoted to researching and analysing consumers in order to continue attracting visitors, and dining and cinematic experiences are hard to replicate at home.

Externally, CP will need to overcome the challenges that will be brought forward by driverless cars, which will decrease the need for car parking and increase the need for pick up and drop off points (think about airport drop off areas); the churn of local residents as the private rented sector grows, continuously changing the demographics of the town; and increasing automation in service sector jobs which may dampen the number of employees living and working in Croydon. Croydon’s relationship with London and the south east will be altered, with the town in prime position to act as the ‘capital’ of south-east England and to rebuild its reputation as London’s third city.

In many respects, the CP development will be a pioneer for western retail

Although Croydon is cautiously beginning to believe in itself as a good place to live, there is still a long way to go and the finished CP development will likely engender a new wave of regeneration within the town. Taking the example of Westfield’s other London developments at Shepherd’s Bush and Stratford, whilst there was some regeneration prior to the opening of either centre the years following opening have seen even greater development; Shepherd’s Bush will be further fed by the landmark regeneration of Earl’s Court, supporting the second phase of development at Westfield London, whilst arguably Westfield has done more for the regeneration of Stratford than the 2012 Olympics.

Helping to create a place where people want to visit logically influences further development, as Croydon is already realising. Encouraging even more people to visit will create an even greater market for culture, nightlife and places to live aside from the redeveloped retail centre.

In many respects, the CP development will be a pioneer for western retail. For those lucky enough to have visited the wealthy areas of the Middle East or the Far East, glitzy, pristine shopping centres with a range of luxury brands sitting alongside leisure facilities and playing host to landmark events are not out of the ordinary. The western shopping experience, comparable to the western travel experience, is playing catch up.

Croydon is, after all, London and rarely will you find the scale and expense of development in a leading world city comparable to that being undertaken by CP. For that reason alone, it will be worth the wait.

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Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. He is a strategic communications consultant specialising in the real estate sector, and counts a number of the world's largest investment and fund management companies amongst his clients.

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  • Andrew Kennedy

    Neither East Croydon Station nor the current plans for laybys on Wellesley Road take into account the prospect of driverless cars that will be available to pick up and drop off passengers. Driverless taxis in effect. I submitted this to the Local Plan which is supposed to last for the next 20+ years but I don’t think anyone has been listening. You are right to write about it now. These pods will be electric too and therefore not pose a “local” pollution problem. People want their personalised pods, a combination of driverless taxis and personal transport and both these needs to be taken into account, cheap parking too. If not fully accommodated then the Purley Way and other out of town retail parks will continue to be the preferred shopping destination and the town centre will continue die a slow retail death. No wonder Westfield Hammerson are taking a moment to pause for breath.

    • Anne Giles

      We avoid the Purley way shops because of the traffic. Also out of town retail parks. We don’t like crowds.