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A transformative experience: Silvertown's new approach to retail

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Drapers visits east London’s 62-acre Silvertown site, which developers plan to turn into the capital’s leading creative hub for disruptive brands and retailers.

Some retailers might find a consumer-led physical space that is not an obvious point of sale too risky a proposition. They could also find the idea of families roaming around their headquarters too outré. But for First Base, one of Docklands district Silvertown’s developers – along with property company Chelsfield and investor Macquarie Capital – breaking down the barrier between brands and consumers is the key to growth. The development is not focused on retail, but on giving customers new ways to interact with brands.

As he leads Drapers to the 62 acre site, First Base chief experience officer Ben Reed says that if experiences are at the forefront, sales will ultimately follow: “We want [brands] to measure their performance on experiences, not pounds and pence.”

The £3.5bn development will focus on the fashion, music and gaming industries, which all share close ties – many technology companies that build software for fashion brands also create games. There will also be a large street food market.

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The Silvertown site

Buildings within its 5 million sq ft commercial space, which First Base hopes will lure creative millennial professionals as well as big corporations, will function as a way for retailers to “consolidate as embassies” or launch initiatives at affordable rents.

“A building can be a brand’s media vehicle – with merchandising areas, showroom spaces, and places to launch its own shows,” Reed explains.

The 2 km waterfront will feature a new “experiential” bridge with lighting and sensors. Tenants can be offered mooring space for boats as part of their leases, as well as apartments in the residential zone, where 3,000 homes are planned.

After First Base, Chelsfield and Macquarie were selected by the Greater London Authority in 2013, they submitted plans in 2014 and entered a four-year process of securing planning consent. Now that it is complete, construction on the first phase begins in March, and is expected to take two to three years.

Reed says Silvertown distances itself from shopping destinations such as Westfield Stratford City, just a mile away: “Four years ago, we said we wanted Silvertown to be a place of experience, not consumption. [What’s happening on] the high street has only reinforced that line. Sale promotions are killing the high street, so we’re going back to a point where it’s all about creating brand memories. The high street is reinventing itself [with experiences], but even though retail is resilient, it’s in trouble. We’re going down the road of destination appeal and community.”

While Reed remains tight-lipped on which retailers have signed for space, sources say APC, Nike, Burberry, Schuh, Net-a-Porter and Alibaba were among the companies to have expressed an interest.

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Stores could be built to include promotional statues

In the meantime, shipping container village Silvertown Studios is scheduled to open this spring. The “village” of 240 repurposed containers – for scale, Boxpark Shoreditch in east London comprises around 60 – is expected to be filled 40% with fashion start-ups, brands and manufacturers. The rest will house educational bodies and a mix of small, medium-sized and large gaming companies and music businesses.

The units are not designed to be conventional retail spaces, and are intended for use as workshops, experiential and exhibition spaces or co-working areas, and will have rolling monthly leases.

Reed envisages a “makers’ hub” in the complex, featuring ateliers as well as satellite offices to create a “live working” environment, because “the ‘maker’ part is really important to feed into fashion, and the retail offering that comes out of the experiences”.

Larger businesses love the idea of embedding themselves in a community

Ben Reed

Of the development’s 250-strong waiting list of brands and retailers, Reed says around half are considering projects at the studios.

Reed notes: “Significantly, larger businesses love the idea of embedding themselves in a community, in a brand-collaborative environment, whether in one container or 50. They are experimental spaces – [we encourage brands to] see if it works. If it doesn’t, they can move on.”

Among the ideas are offices for digital teams, a showcase of plans or services over the next three years, experimental shops where merchandising and store displays can be tested, and click-and-collect areas for luxury brands.

Visibility will be boosted through initiatives such as QR codes and web addresses on top of the containers, says Reed: “Commercially, every flight taking off from London City airport will see your brand.”

Buildings for flagship brands, from 50,000 sq ft to 250,000 sq ft, will be constructed to generate additional footfall. The Millennium Mills building – an abandoned flour mill that anchors the development – provides another 500,000 sq ft. In keeping with its consumer-led ethos, Reed stipulates the ground floors of these buildings must be “permeable”, and allow consumers to wander in.

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The Millennium Mills building will be redeveloped

As construction remains in its early stages, businesses can collaborate with developers on a building’s architecture. Among Silvertown’s unique selling points is the ability to signpost a brand through sculptures or art outside building – a practice that is mostly prohibited in London because of local council restrictions.

For Reed, Silvertown’s planning consent flexibility offers London the opportunity to catch up with multi-concept stores in cities such as Berlin and Lisbon. He cites the Voo store concept on Berlin’s Oranienstraße – which combines high-end footwear and designer shirts with [foliage]  and services such as a gin distillery and hairdresser in one building – as an example of a space that London landlords tend to reject.

At the time of writing, Silvertown remains a downtrodden, empty location – patches of weeds are strewn with old masonry, and the Millennium Mills building sits forlornly behind a stretch of water. There is little physical clue that this barren site heralds the future of consumer interaction. Brands that want to play it safe may choose to steer clear, but for those looking to break with tradition, it is a playground full of possibilities.


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