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New spaces, new shopping experiences

Maria Segarra, retail specialist and director of Competitiveness and Training at the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce

When investigating a number of international shopping destinations, we realise that some cutting-edge and innovative establishments bet on up setting up in alternative areas – urban spaces which have been slowly but surely breathing new life into outlying city areas, in marginal and industrial zones.  

One reflection that is often raised is that while it is true that some public interventions boost this process of fixing up and revamping the urban space, it is commercial intervention which generates and accelerates this process of recovery and of making a city.

The commerce and city phenomenon is an equation that usually goes hand in hand – where people live, coexist and spend their leisure time is where we find commerce, because the key is not so much the public works but the appeal that a neighbourhood’s offer and experience holds for certain types of public.

Over the course of the retail tours we have been doing since 2004, we have found that some of these cities have commercially recovered new spaces, and the most significant thing is that it has been thanks to business intervention. At the end of the day, the real developers have to be the owners of the commercial activities who will generate business opportunities in these areas. Two examples are the Shoreditch neighbourhood of London and the Meatpacking District in New York.

London’s East End is an area that has undergone a major process of urban transformation in recent years. It has gone from being a depressed and marginal zone to one of the most dynamic neighbourhoods in the city. The presence of artists and designers drawn by an alternative space, the availability of premises and rents much cheaper than in other parts of town, have led to a flurry of small commercial establishments, restaurants and boutique hotels.

One of the most important public works in the area was the Olympic Stadium, built in 2011, which evidently played a fairly important role in this development, and it was accompanied by the resurgence of two neighbourhoods, Shoreditch and Brick Lane. 

Shoreditch is today almost a city in itself. A fairly groundbreaking commercial space, BOXPARK, opened up there in 2011, thanks to entrepreneur Roger Wade. The concept is a mall built on the basis of 61 shipping containers, 41 of which form the base of the shopping centre, with a uniform external image and where only the brand is identified. It is home to large labels and small designers keen to promote their collections in a pop-up context and who seek the reaction of customers and the potential of their proposals.

Bit by bit, other establishments have been opening in the mall’s area of influence, but what is obvious is that brands which may have other stores in prime locations like Regent Street, in the case of Nike, adapt their product and brand to a different type of customer when they launch in Boxpark, to match them to the shopping experience the urban space offers. This happens more often in large cities, because of the high population density and their appeal for consumers.

The other experience we have seen along these lines in recent years is the Meatpacking District in New York.

This is a city area with a longstanding industrial background. The Gansevoort Market opened there in 1884, followed by the first elevated railroad line, which every day  carried the food products that came off the lines at the many companies installed in the area, particularly the slaughterhouses. Indeed, by 1940 the Gansevoort Meat Market was the largest meat distribution market in the world.

Over the years, the downturn and abandonment of activity left the area with a string of empty commercial spaces. The neighbourhood became marginalised, reaching its most critical point in the 1960s through to the 1980s.

What happened to make it change? Simply the lure the area held for new business activities, especially designers, architects and ITC sector businesses, spearheaded by Google. But from the commercial viewpoint, a new business boosted the area: Chelsea Market, the mall that opened in the premises formerly occupied by the Nabisco cookies and snacks manufacturer. This facility, together with the presence of other brands, who saw in this urban space a chance to build an exclusive image, delivered the definitive reconfiguration of the new neighbourhood.

In this regard, and from the commercial point of view, of note was the appearance of the high-end clothing store Jeffrey in the 1990s, followed by Diane von Fürstenberg, Alexander McQueen and more…through to the hugely comprehensive offering we have today.

In this case, the revamping and recovery of the area was not exclusively the result of public intervention but was a grassroots movement of small operators at first (mainly restaurants), which were slowly but surely joined by other brands. Today the area enjoys commercial revitalisation thanks to the partnership led by private industry, in the form of the Meatpacking District Improvement Association business alliance.

New retail opportunities are predicated on offering new products to customers, seamlessly combining commerce, restaurants and services and therefore offering an alternative shopping experience. That’s why some brands adapt their designs in these new spaces – to capture a different type of public or to win them over in another fashion. The aim: new spaces to experience, to enjoy and, of course, to do more business.

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