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Back to the Future

Is retail heading back to city centers?

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Some of you in the U.S. may have heard of an outfit called Best Buy. It’s a retailer with quite a few outposts, apparently, and is not unsuccessful in your neck of the woods. Yet when it made landfall this side of the pond it failed and failed quite spectacularly.

Every one of the very large Best Buy stores that opened in the U.K. closed and now it’s almost as if they had never been, so effective have the real estate agents been at rewriting retail’s recent past. The question that has to be asked is why didn’t it work?

On the face of it, this was a category-killing proposition — everything you could possibly want from a consumer electronics retailer under one roof and the stores looked pretty good too, insofar as large sheds can.

It suffered, however, from two simple problems. The first was that there was already an incumbent market-dominating force covering the sector called Currys PC World and it did everything that Best Buy did and sometimes did it better, owing to its knowledge of local markets. The second point was that shoppers in Europe are increasingly reticent about heading off to edge-of-town retail developments whose only real advantage is free parking.

In many instances these places are devoid of personality and if you were looking to create the retail equivalent of an encyclopaedia that is a desert, then way to go. ‘Retail parks’ baffle by choice – there is just too much on offer and no sense of editing. Ultimately, whether this translates as a dash by retailers back to our town and city centers is another point entirely.

Retail ‘parks,’ however, are not the force they once were and with the exception of IKEA (and even the Swedish giant has just opened a city center branch in Hamburg), there is much to ponder about the future of this form of retail. 

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John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A based in London and then Dusseldorf. He lives and works in London.

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