Shifts in shopping habits have transformed our city centres – Can Southampton adapt to the changing trends?
From the first faltering steps of the dotcom boom in the late 1990s to the great strides made in recent years towards digital led, on-demand, quick delivery, I-want-it-now wish fulfilment, retail has transformed at an incredible pace.
It’s not hard to see why, and we have all played our part. Feel the impulse to buy? Push a button, or bark an order at Alexa, and it’s there the next day – or even in the next hour. We might feel guilty about packaging, or travel miles, or our local communities, but that doesn’t stop us.
Combined with the online threat is the rise of the out of town retail and leisure park. Take Whiteley for example - with unrestricted, free parking, the whole family is able to shop, eat, go to the gym and visit the cinema without worrying about staying too long and getting a ticket, or getting snarled up in the city congestion.
With these two factors working in a perfect pincer movement, how can Southampton city centre address the change in habits and continue to bring social and economic value to the region? The high street is dying, isn’t it?
A premium retail experience
Well…no. If the experience is right, consumers value the high street and are quite prepared to go there. Successfully adapting Southampton’s iconic West Quay retail centre to include the new leisure quarter draws the consumer to actually spend longer in the city due to the convenience of everything being in the same vicinity. Making the city centre a destination is key.
However, one of Southampton’s major flaws is accessibility. For Southampton to adapt and evolve into the destination it should be, it is key to ensure that all of the city centre’s offerings are easily accessible. This has a major impact on the overall experience and enjoyment of the city for any user; be that a tourist, resident or worker. We have been based in the city for three years and have seen change beginning to take form with improvements to the Cultural and Station Quarters, but there is much more that could be done.
Making the city accessible
So – make it worth going. That’s an approach that applies to town and city centres as a whole as much as it does for individual stores. Southampton is a case in point - how many shoppers travel to West Quay, park, shop, maybe eat, and then travel out again? What if the city centre as a whole, rather than its flagship shopping centre, was the destination? What if it was more a case of drive once (or not at all), park, shop, and then use easy public transport links, pedestrian routes and bike hire to explore the waterfront, city centre, theatre, restaurants and more?
Changing the focus of our streets from the car and giving priority to cyclists, pedestrians and buses will make these sustainable travel choices a more realistic proposition. The good news is, the movement has begun. In Southampton, a Green City Charter has been launched, encouraging the use of sustainable and active travel. Park and Ride schemes are helping reduce city centre congestion, while events such as Let’s Ride Southampton, are helping to raise the profile of the city as a place to realistically travel around on two wheels. An indirect benefit is the increase in healthy living – a reduction in noise and pollution as well as an increase in physical activity, can only contribute positively to those in the city.
It is already encouraging to hear that £5.7m from the Transforming Cities Fund has been secured to improve public transport links in Southampton. Linking the city’s features will also inevitably help boost the city’s hopes of becoming City of Culture 2025 – another potential boost for the city’s economy.
The future market
To keep the city as a choice to work, invest and play, one of the challenges is to retain this student and young population. Given the city’s two universities, the success of a bustling, vibrant centre still requires high-skilled, high-paying jobs, reflecting the importance of sectors like finance and legal services. Identified by the Good Growth for Cities Index as the third best place to live and work in the UK (2018), Southampton is already home to accountancy firms such as PWC and Deloitte as well as law firms and a renowned marine biology sector. Yet, without the growth of these skilled industries there will be a limit as to how many of the young generation are retained here. Making the city accessible and attractive for all aspects of work and leisure is fundamental.
Delivering the Vision
Development on the historic waterfront at Town Quay is designed as a mix of retail, leisure and employment space – reducing the need to travel far to meet all of these needs. This kind of joined up development is going to be increasingly important as we seek to minimise the need for travel, with all the time and environmental benefits that change can bring. Sustainable transport which simply connects parts of a city, and attractive and accessible public spaces that encourage people to stick around, are a vital element of this strategy.
The key to this progress is clear objectives, communication, collaboration and long term investment. The consumer is already here – and we’ve seen some success in evolving the city already. To future-proof Southampton, the challenges now are improving the city’s connectivity, collaborating on employment, commercial and industrial-led development, and the housing offer. There is a definite missing link for the connection of Southampton’s offerings in order for the modern market to experience the city as a one-stop destination. With the right approach and a commitment to change, we won’t see the death of city centre retail – this could be the opportunity for a renaissance.
As featured in the Southern Daily Echo.
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Retail, Southampton, Connectivity, Placemaking, Town Centre