This story is part of The Great Mall Overhaul, a joint Modern Retail and Glossy editorial series looking into all the ways the businesses underpinning malls have been upended.
Shopping centers in the United Kingdom, especially in London, have become a vital part of the local retail landscape.
London’s shopping malls date back to 1571 with the opening of The Royal Exchange, but modern malls have come a long way. With London shoppers returning to in-store shopping, malls are taking notice and updating to reflect a city population hungry for new experiences post-pandemic. As such, modern shopping malls have evolved into living, working and socializing spaces, inclusive of luxury apartments and offices. They are also opening in fresh locations in London: Coal Drops Yard, which opened in 2018, and Battersea Power Station, opened this year, transformed landmark sites in the capital into contemporary one-stop shopping destinations.
Until 2012, the Battersea Power Station sat mostly empty after being decommissioned in 1983 — a history with similarities to that of New Jersey-based American Dream. In 2012, the Malaysian property and infrastructure consortium of Sime Darby Property, SP Setia and the Employees Provident Fund bought the plot from Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency and Lloyds Bank for 400 million pounds, subsequently launching a 9 billion-pound redevelopment plan. The idea was to create a shopping center of the future and, more importantly, develop retail space south of the River Thames. With most of London’s shopping centers centrally located, Battersea marked the first high-end retail experience outside of typical zones including Oxford Street and Covent Garden. It opened in October.
According to U.K.-based Fiona Harkin, foresight editor of strategic foresight company The Future Laboratory, the U.K. shopping center scene’s seen renewed activity since the height of the pandemic. “London’s iconic Battersea Power Station has finally re-opened with a mixed-use offer of retail, entertainment and offices for Apple, after decades of refurbishment plans. Meanwhile, the Coal Drops Yard destination in Kings Cross has become a cultural hotpot of design talent,” she said. “These placemaking showcases demonstrate that U.K. shopping centers have a unique purpose: to redefine landmarks for new generations of communities; hand in hand, property developers and retail planners are redefining retail as engaging and inspiring for visitors, both local and international.”
Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross opened in 2018 as the cornerstone of a new development around fashion and tech, with Google and Meta making the location their office headquarters. Similarly to Battersea Power Station, the area was previously a coal station dating back to the 1850s. Sitting next to the U.K.’s most famous fashion university, Central Saint Martins, Coal Drops Yard now hosts a biannual Graduate Fashion Week, positioned as a preview of graduating designers. The shopping center focuses on niche labels, upcoming brands and innovative retail concepts, including the L.A inspired fashion concept store Twiin and concept store 18montrose, which sells brands including Stone Island. Among the brand-owned stores featured are Maison Margiela, Rick Owens, Yeezy and Alexander Wang, as well as sustainability-focused menswear label Form&Thread and niche British outerwear brand Lavenham.
Harkin said retail reinvention will be a key trend in 2023. January 2022 research by Shopify showed that 32% of global consumers are likely to engage with in-store experiential moments in the next year. “[These are] moments where service, loyalty and connections can thrive,” she said.
The Future Laboratory projects a shift in post-pandemic retail trends. In the near future, it expects that shopping centers will be reinvented with a “hyperphysical stores” mindset. “In this next chapter of retail innovation, many store environments will be less about selling products and more about providing us with enriching, emotional, ethereal and exclusive experiences,’ said Harkin. ‘We call these the Four Es of Retail. In the wake of the pandemic, shopping centers can use them to craft enveloping, exciting and engaging moments that build meaning and sentiment with shoppers.’
Sam Cotton, head of leasing at Battersea Power Station, said the location has been very popular with British and international brands like Adidas, Lululemon, Boss and Mulberry that are looking to expand their brick-and-mortar offerings. “Over 90% of our retail and leisure has been let or is under offer. Nowhere else in the world can people shop, eat, drink, play and work inside a former coal-fired Power Station that is well-known across the globe,” Cotton said. The heritage building is joined by a riverside neighborhood district, with apartment blocks, a new transport link through the London underground and offices. Currently, Apple is the biggest office resident.
Cotton said that the shopping center is working closely with its brand partners to organize innovative and interactive experiences outside of their stores, enhancing the retail, leisure and event offerings already available at Battersea Power Station. “For years, there has been a gap in the market for a retail and leisure destination south of the River Thames,” said Cotton. “The offering is a carefully curated mix of leading British and international brands, as well as independent and up-and-coming brands, with every customer’s needs considered.”
Brands’ host of experiential activations onsite span the spectrum: During the shopping center’s opening weekend, Adidas hosted an “Empower Station” featuring free fitness classes and challenges for visitors. Lululemon hosted a free 5-kilometer run around Battersea, and Jo Malone London opened a pop-up store at Battersea Power Station’s Glide ice rink in November, ahead of the holidays.
In September, fashion retailer Reformation said its expansion into the Battersea shopping center was a way for the brand to get a foothold in a new retail area, with a focus on new tech-driven retail concepts.
Beauty brands are also leveraging the shopping center to introduce immersive retail concepts. “MAC is proud to lead the transformation of beauty retail with our new store of the future, which combines the best of the physical and digital worlds to offer a one-of-a-kind shopping experience,” said Philippe Pinatel, MAC’s global president. “This is more than just a place to shop; it’s a destination for consumers to express their creativity and co-create their own beauty looks and styles.” The store features virtual try-on services, where users can see how makeup will look on them before applying it, and a makeup studio where a MAC makeup artist conducts applications.
Multi-brand beauty retailer Space NK’s Battersea Power Station store is its largest location. “In keeping with our position as the fastest growing global beauty brand, our [new] store is a dynamic, creative concept that places our customer at the center of a new store experience,” said Andy Lightfoot, CEO at Space NK. “The space is unique in our portfolio, featuring numerous experiential zones encouraging customers to dwell and discover the world’s best beauty brands in a manner that suits them.” Among features are pods allowing for in-depth consultations with experts and treatment rooms hosting facials by a multitude of in-store brands.
According to Harkin, consumers are looking for more purposeful and social reasons to visit physical store environments post-pandemic, and shopping malls are once again being considered unique destinations reflecting a time and place. “They have evolved to showcase extraordinary transformation stories [and offer] consumer-centric features that focus on entertainment, culture, education and recreation,” said Harkin. “For shopping centers, the new ‘hyperphysical stores’ mindset will mean channeling square footage into next-gen hangout hubs. And they’ll [leverage] partnerships with retailers that are focused on creating spaces to be community destinations, prioritizing socializing as a form of brand engagement.”
“The 15-minute neighborhood, where you have everything within 15 minutes of where you live, has definitely grown in popularity particularly since the pandemic when people’s daily routines changed significantly and they were spending more time in their local area,” said Cotton. “We hope the opening of Battersea Power Station and Electric Boulevard will inspire more investment into U.K. high streets, which are of such importance for local communities, in terms of both offering a place for people to enjoy and experience, and creating jobs.”