Shopping Centres ..or Retail Temples ?

If you are face to face, and you don’t know the face that’s facing you, then fess up .

Well I didn’t know The Face, or at least I had heard of it but never read it. It was a magazine first published in 1980 but closed down in 2004. Now subject to a rebirth, I came across an article which seems rather out of character but nevertheless intriguing.

The magazine originally was known for its articles on fashion, style, arts and culture. This article perhaps covers all of the above and a bit more. So how come it has something to say about retail. Don’t really know ‘cos I don’t read or rather I don’t read it but I did read this article of which I have nicked some paragraphs as they have some relevance. Apologies for taking chunks out and just repeating them, but there’s not much point in paraphrasing if the real thing better.

To drift through the middle of Leeds is to drift through several versions of “town” all happening at once. The city centre is almost entirely atomised, separated into distinct districts, each with its own name, history and target audience.

Trinity, which opened in 2013, is the largest and most popular of these shopping precincts, and the aimlessness we call “shopping” is everywhere: parents and children abandon Jack & Jones for lunch at Giraffe; vacant sixth-formers sift through the slim pickings of another Urban Outfitters sale. These are scenes of the unremarkable; the sort that fold away entire weekends like receipt paper.

In other ways though, Trinity is a future vision of “going into town”. The centre’s smooth walkways are wrapped around an atrium, at the heart of which stands a 15-foot metallic sculpture of a packhorse, drenched in dazzling silver light. This is still “town”, but more pristine than in the past.

So far so good . Or rather, in terms of retail not so good. But is a reasonable representation of our current stock of shopping centres. ‘Architectural’ attempts of regenerating retail but not very successfully.

Five minutes’ walk away from Trinity is Leeds’ newest shopping precinct. Built in 2016, Victoria Leeds looks more like an art gallery than a mall and has machines permanently buffing the floors. While not designed by Chapman Taylor(designer of Trinity)it has similar qualities: it’s smooth, open and glassy. As well as Calvin Klein, COS and Charbonnel et Walker, it contains the largest stained glass window in the country, created by the artist Brian Clarke, and there’s a Damien Hirst angel, wings spread, cordoned off by a low-hanging rope. A cluster of passers-by take photos while two smartly-dressed security staff watch on, walkie-talkies crackling.

What’s most striking, though, is the almost total quiet and lack of crowds. In the old shopping centres this minimal footfall might have been a cause for concern – a hallmark of irreversible decline. But in the retail world of the future this doesn’t matter. Since internet shopping precipitated the “death of the high street”, shops have taken on new meanings. Rather than focusing on selling things, they’ve become tools for building brand awareness. Mary Portas, the so-called Queen of Shops, coined an unintentionally chilling name for this new model of shop: the “brand temple”. It’s a phrase that speaks to the repositioning of retail as an experience, rather than an exchange.

This is, I think, the most interesting or perhaps relevant. Shops not actually selling anything. Which is a little disingenuous, as they are there to sell, but you don’t physically take anything away . This has vague echoes of a concept I described in a post last August, concerning a development in Dubai whereby the experience, as opposed to the shopping was paramount. They are only feint echoes as the Dubai concept is a lot more ‘Dubaish’.

The last excerpt from the article tells of a more significant aspect to this type of development. There are other similar ventures that are detailed in the article which just reinforces the trend. The last paragraph of this excerpt , is the most telling if these ‘new temples’ are successful.

Whether shopping centres can be understood as public spaces is questionable. They are ultimately businesses, so to consider them as sentimentally as we do parks or plazas is perhaps naïve. But they are also significant. For better or for worse, our towns and cities are built around shops and shopping culture. If we accept a future where cheaper shopping takes place entirely in the digital sphere, and where familiar brands like M&S and Debenhams are replaced by big-brand temples, then we accept a world in which the everyday shopper is tacitly edged out of civic life.

We’ll always be drawn into town. Even if the day comes when trainers are drone-flown directly onto our feet, there will always be time to kill. There will always be a centrifugal force pulling us back to the splash of fountains, the smell of candied nuts, the cackle of doomsday preachers through amplifiers somewhere in the middle-distance. What is waiting for us – how welcome we feel – when we get there will play no small part in defining the changing surface of our lives. Call it experiential retail or enforced window-shopping; the future, it seems, may not be for everyone.

Perhaps it’s overthinking, but there are potential unseen consequences if this was to repeat itself throughout the U.K., and elsewhere. These are social consequences, that could be the result of making the retail focus of major towns that of high end brands. It has the potential to divide town centre shoppers to the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ . A divisive feature much like Temples and centres of faith .

Without getting into a deep theological diatribe, it has long been an accusation of most faiths within the U.K. that the pursuit of happiness is shifting from spiritual worship to that of consumerism. Whilst there maybe some truth in that, it is surely up to those religions to make their temples a more attractive proposition than those of the retailer.

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