For the journey, not just the destination:

How radically rethinking out-of-town retail hubs can spearhead a nationwide retail revolution

1964 was a year of firsts for the UK’s retail sector.  MFI, the infamous but hugely successful furniture supplier, opened its doors for business. The Bull Ring kickstarted the country’s love for indoor city-centre shopping centres. But perhaps most significantly, West Bridgford, Nottingham, played host to the first out-of-town retail park.  Retail parks have since proliferated, with more than 1,000 of these parks scattered across the country, Simon Carter, CEO of property developers British Land, believes this success can be attributed to “the three “A’s”: affordability, accessibility, and adaptability” for brands and investors.

They make sense for customers too – love them or loathe them, retail parks fulfil functional needs for busy shoppers, evidenced in British Land’s recent reporting of a small, but significant 2.2% rise in footfall year-on-year in a difficult retail landscape. But whilst shopper behaviours and journeys rapidly evolve and the wider retail landscape has continued to innovate, the parks themselves have stagnated. The majority of big-box parks have remained rigidly obedient to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategies that fuelled the boom years in the 90s and early 00s.

When we surveyed customers using Household’s emotiveye research platform, although most respondents generally enjoyed their latest visit to a retail park, 76% felt that there was opportunity for them to improve.

Can this functional focus sustain the retail park model, or do they risk falling behind, and out of favour, much like the High Street in the e-commerce boom? Household have illustrated its vision for out-of-town retail parks and defined four headline opportunities that can shape the format’s future:

1. Round-the-clock relevance:

Tapping into 24-hour missions and outlooks

Recent research has shown that customers are 80% more likely to purchase when their experience is tailored to their needs (Epsilon, 2023). Tapping into this means building a retail park proposition around customers’ wants and needs on specific missions and at targeted times of the day or week - utilising local customer data and insight to understand how to better serve and inspire.


Without detracting from local amenities and town centre appeal, retail parks can focus a targeted mixed-use offer for convenience missions that extend beyond the functional.  From early morning dry-cleaning drop-off to lunch time fitness and evening drive-thru meal solutions or drive-in cinemas, retail parks can play an emotive role throughout the day that plays to their strengths, driving more reasons to return, spend and recommend for all the family.


Imagine if: a retail park visit was more than transactional, but an opportunity to learn, connect, or be entertained.

2. On the way, not in the way:

Serving new convenience mindsets

Much of retail parks’ previous success can be attributed to the drive-to and bulk-buy convenience they offered. But with omnichannel innovation progressing rapidly, convenience-oriented shopping trips are maturing into more nuanced, personalised experiences. With benchmarks set by ultra-fast delivery platforms and AI guided service, the relative ease of retail park click-and-collect is no longer the draw it once was.


Only 29% of emotiveye respondents found convenience-based missions, such as click and collect, to be enough of a motivation for them to visit an out-of-town retail park.


Smart features and value-add services primed by automatic number plate recognition will be the new norm. From drive-thru service, to in-car park installation, or data-led in-store curation, out-of-town will need to work harder to pre-empt and serve more than just functional needs.


By being ‘on the way’ for busy commuters and families, out-of-town can also support more circular customer behaviours where convenience is often the barrier. Think easy product swap, re-sell, recycle, and repurpose hubs that position more sustainable choices front and centre for customers.


Imagine if: you clicked & collected not just products, but a whole world of value-add service and experience.

3. Innovation hotspots:

Making space for new ideas

In the world of retail, every penny and square foot counts, and this is where out-of-town retail parks have the financial edge over their high-street counterparts. According to Savills “prime retail park rents in London are down a total of 6% over the last five years; in contrast, prime rents on London’s Oxford Street are down 40% over the same period. This highlights the relative resilience of the former particularly in light of recent events.”


When you also factor in out-of-town’s relaxed planning regulations and the costs involved in inner-city development, they emerge as the optimal location for experimentation and innovation.


68% of emotiveye respondents agreed that out-of-town retail could do more to serve customers and communities.


Brands and developers have an exciting opportunity to drive growth for both business and local communities, by exploring innovative new use of space driven by local needs and supported by new cultural, civic, and creative partnerships that can help to hack the cookie-cutter retail status quo. From supporting fledgling businesses and pop-up brands to dedicated workshop or workspace for education, retail parks can support a thriving local economy.  Case-in-point, plans have been approved to convert Filton’s disused B&Q into student housing for the University of the West of England.


Imagine if: retail parks could support a thriving local start-up and creative industry.

4. Recharging minds, bodies (and wheels):

Happy, healthy customers and commuters

More electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in 2023 than ever before with 314,687 registrations (16.5% of all new car sales). Retail Park developers are already investing in infrastructure to cater to increasingly green-minded consumers. But beyond charging points, there is potential to radically reimagine out-of-town retail by considering how to engage and enhance the lives of these captive audiences while they wait. With retail parks today characterised by metal warehouses and grey tarmac, developers could shift the dial with greener, healthier experiences for busy professionals and families on the move.


A third of emotiveye respondents would spend more time and money at retail parks if they were to offer more family friendly spaces and facilities.


From family-friendly facilities (i.e. toilets, baby-changing rooms and adventure playgrounds) to outdoor social and community spaces that allow shoppers to conveniently insert ‘wellbeing moments’ into their hectic schedules whilst their EVs charge. This mindset could extend into healthy pitstops for food on-the-go (beyond the expected fast-food options) and pop-up health clinics and services.


Imagine if: retail ‘parks’ were just that. Hiding charging EVs out of sight and rewilding asphalt as bio-diverse pedestrianised green spaces.

Retail parks can’t rest on their laurels.

Out-of-town’s sustained popularity doesn’t mean that the format should be left to collect dust. Consumers’ affinity with these retail parks means that the future can be bright. But this requires brands to look beyond the bland, big-box sheds that have rooted themselves in the sector.

They need to be more than just a convenient drive-to destination but play a more emotive and active role in the journey of life (and shopping).

This isn’t about creating retail spaces that will cannibalise the high street. Rather, out-of-town hubs that can provide a complementary, convenient feel-good experience that allows town centres to breathe. And all of this hinges on embracing the investment and innovation necessary for a connected, data-led retail revolution. Bring it on!

Get in touch

Get in touch with our Senior New Business Manager, Elisa Barnard to discuss the future of your brand’s retail park proposition: [email protected]

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