Paul Souber loves London shops – but not in the same way as most of us who browse the capital’s retail scene. He’s head of Central London Retail Agency at property consultancy giant, Colliers International, and for more than 20 years he’s been bringing brands and landlords together to create fantastic shopping experiences.
We asked him what the future has in store for London’s shop-till-you-drop culture.
Paul, it seems that even through the recession, London has enjoyed a retailing renaissance. How does today compare with when you first started working on the scene?
It’s changed out of all recognition.
Twenty years ago if I was an overseas brand looking to enter the London market, the choice of where to locate was actually quite narrow.
You had the established pitches of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Covent Garden - or Bond Street and Sloane Street if you were at the luxury end of retailing. But overall it wasn’t a decision that was made difficult by choice.
Today, it’s completely different. There are the two Westfield centres that book-end the capital to the east and west, there’s Soho and Carnaby Street, there’s edgy new retail in Shoreditch and Hoxton, and the Southbank is developing its own retail identity in places like Bermondsey Street and Borough Market. London is a truly global city and has one of the most eclectic mixes of shopping. It is entirely unlike anywhere else.
Even the long-established pitches are getting in on the act: Regent Street has transformed itself into a destination for international retailers while St James’s has shaken off it’s rather dusty, clubby image and is becoming one of the smartest retailing pitches in London.
It seems that shops and restaurants are opening up everywhere they can find space?
Yes, the old barriers about where you could trade and where you couldn’t are coming down. As retailers and restaurateurs have demanded representation in London, it has opened up new pitches.
Look at somewhere like Conduit Street. Despite being a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, for years its street level properties were mostly travel agents and airline offices. Now it’s lined with stores for Vivienne Westwood, Jimmy Choo, Dior, Oliver Sweeney, Yohji Yamamoto plus a world-class restaurant in the form of Sketch.
That line-up would have been unthinkable not that long ago, but, as demand and rents in the super prime shopping core have rocketed, so pitches like Conduit Street have come into their own. It’s a ‘virtuous ripple effect’ that we’re seeing spread right out into the London suburbs.
There’s a lot of new retail development going on in London. Westfield in Shepherds Bush is being extended and projects like the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and Earls Court will create new shopping centres in their own right. Will there be enough shoppers for all these schemes to thrive?
The answer is ‘yes’, and I say that because you have to look at this new shopping supply in the context of what’s happening to London as a whole. The city’s population has grown by one million in the past decade and it will grow by another million in the next decade. Something like 450,000 new London jobs will be created during that time. London will be the most populous city in Europe and is already the most visited by tourists – we overtook Paris last year.
This adds up to tremendous demand from both the resident population and the millions of visitors who come here from the UK and beyond each year. The developments you mentioned – Earls Court and Battersea Power Station – are not just creating new shopping areas they are establishing whole new communities with homes, leisure and all the other amenities that communities require. That will automatically generate and capture shopping demand.
So it must be quite bewildering for international brands looking to debut in London?
Yes, it can be and it’s absolutely essential that they take a precise and forensic approach to the decision about where they’re going to open. As leasing agents for more than 150 shops on the Carnaby Street estate, we’ve helped bring many international retailers into London and have seen up-close how important it is to get that decision right.
If you’re going to be spending millions of pounds in rent during the course of a lease, you have to be absolutely sure that where you’re locating is completely right for your offer. Is it somewhere that you’ll find your core target shoppers? Does the location’s environment resonate with your brand? Will it showcase you effectively?
We also advise a lot of UK and overseas retailers on where to locate so we know just how much has to be done before you sign on the dotted line.
Brands also have to make sure that they ‘make a noise’ when they come into London. It’s not enough just to open your doors and wait for the shoppers. London’s too competitive for that. If you look at the opening of J Crew on Regent Street: the story even made the BBC six o’clock news. That’s the kind of pro-active brand campaign that you’ve got to run to get noticed.
And you have to be prepared to be nothing less than excellent in your shop fit-out. We helped GINA shoes move to their new Mount Street store last year. It’s worth taking a visit to their store if you want to see what quality store design and attention to detail look like.”
So what’s your favourite place to shop in London?
I’d have to say Carnaby Street and its immediate area.
It’s not just because we work on it – although that is great! It’s the way in which the estate’s owners, Shaftesbury, have created a superb mix of shops and restaurants and transformed what had become a tacky tourist trap 30 years ago into one of the coolest, energised and individual shopping environments in the world.
For me, Carnaby is what London shopping is all about