Articles 11th June 2024 Building Consultancy

Reimagining retail: how to breathe new life into old stores

James Ainsworth, Partner at Workman, writes in Completely Retail.

The reverberations of high-profile collapses are still being felt — from Debenhams and House of Fraser to Beales and Edinburgh’s Jenners, as well as Fenwick’s sale of its store on London’s New Bond Street.

But retail is not dead – it is embracing change.

With clever reimagining, reinvention and retrofitting of spaces, new life is being breathed into old stores.

Indeed, there is light at the end of the aisle – with retailers and leisure operators such as Zara, All Saints, Rituals, and King Pins expanding their presence across the nation. According to analysts at the Local Data Company, decreases in store closures continued through 2022, with the gap between openings and closures reaching its smallest since 2016.

All over the UK, department stores are being reinvented as student lecture halls, hotels, shared offices, go-kart tracks, indoor food markets, and even a submarine engineers’ training facility in Barrow in a bid to bring new life on to high streets and into shopping malls.

According to analysts at the Local Data Company, redevelopment of retail is reaching a new high, with 10,739 units repurposed in 2022, compared with 9,139 in 2021, and 7,307 in 2019 before the pandemic.

Experience is king

TOCA Social at Bullring & Grand Central, part of the repurposed Debenhams store

The key to successful reinvention is often not just a shiny new store, but a change of direction. Experience is king, so property owners and asset managers are seeking out occupiers who can deliver a unique way for visitors to spend their time, as well as their cash.

This not only means offering green and more attractive spaces where local people can spend time – but also giving them a way to relax, while having fun with friends and family.

At Birmingham’s iconic Bullring, Debenhams closed its doors in May 2021, but it didn’t take long for the prestigious shopping location to attract new occupiers. The former department store has now been retrofitted and repurposed in a project managed by Workman’s Venture team, to play host to Marks & Spencer across the lower and mid-levels of the Bullring.

And, as part of owner Hammerson’s major repositioning of the estate, M&S has been joined by leisure operator Toca Social, a football, dining and entertainment brand, which has leased the entire top level, with a further entire floor now leased by Inditex for its Zara brand to sit alongside Bershka and Pull & Bear in adjacent units.

This major investment by occupiers represents a huge vote of confidence in the resilience of physical retail, reviving places that have taken a battering from the rise of online shopping, the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

Proof that diversification increases footfall

Silverburn, Glasgow

The mix of retail and leisure is a popular move, and Workman’s Building Consultancy experts, with extensive experience in overhauling and reviving vacant department stores, are currently working on examples across the nation.

These range from the Oracle in Reading, where part of the former House of Fraser store is being turned into a Hollywood Bowl, to London’s Brent Cross, where the top floor of the car park is being converted into a go-kart track, to Silverburn in Glasgow, where the centre has been diversifying with more restaurants, health and beauty, and a King Pins leisure offer adding to the traditional retail stores.

Later this year, Zara is set to upsize to a new flagship unit at Silverburn in Glasgow, taking residence in the former Debenhams department store, project managed by Workman’s Building Consultancy team, in a drive by owner Eurofund to make new use of empty units. Spanning 47,000 sq. ft over two floors, the new store is set to be one of Zara’s largest in Scotland. The new store will feature Zara’s latest store concept and integrate online services into its offer.

King Pins Bowling is also set to open later this year at Silverburn, following reconfiguration of vacant units in the centre, again project managed by Workman’s Building Consultancy team. This redevelopment of the former Argos space not only includes King Pins, but also Scotland’s first Polestar showroom and a new Black Sheep Coffee further diversifying the mix.

The diversification plan is working so far for Silverburn: in 2023 the centre welcomed a record 15 million visitors – the highest since its opening in 2007, and expects an even higher footfall for 2024. What’s more, the centre raised £123,000 for local causes including the Glasgow Children’s Hospital, after running charity activations to attract visitors. A win-win for the economy, and social impact.

Nothing stands still

A vacant Debenhams store in London | BasPhoto /

Last year, the need to repurpose retail space was named as the biggest concern for local authorities, landlords, developers, and other town centre management professionals as part of a survey by trade body Revo. Its research showed 61% of those surveyed believed that between 20% and 40% of retail space needs to be reinvented in the next five years for leisure, hospitality, health, or civic use, with 12% of those surveyed claiming even more space than that will need to be repurposed.

These are not new ideas, but repurposing, experience, leisure, and placemaking, all still hold a world of possibility for retail. Nothing stands still: the only constant is change, and while that may mean difficulty for some, it brings opportunity for others.

This article first appeared in Completely Retail. 

James Ainsworth, Partner

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