Why scaffolding is a sign of the times for retailers

All retailers face the need for repairs and refurbishments to the buildings they occupy but scaffolding obscuring store entrances can be off-putting for shoppers.

December 05, 2018

All buildings need a refresh from time to time. But when scaffolding goes up, retailers are often faced with uncertainty and the prospect of lost trade.

In many cases, building work has little or no impact on what’s going on inside the store, but the sight of workmen and tarpaulin – not to mention additional noise – can deter people from popping in to browse or buy.

“Visibility is everything for retailers, whether it’s clearly displayed names and brand logos, or attractive window displays to draw shoppers in,” says Dirk Wichner, JLL Head of German Retail Leasing. “Take that away, and life becomes tough.”

It’s often not retailers who are implementing their own refurbishment programs. In recent years, landlords of mixed-use buildings with retail units at street level and additional commercial space on the upper levels have opted for significant redevelopment.

In the UK, conversion of units on the first floor and upwards from office to residential use have proved to be particularly popular among landlords of centrally-located property.

“At what is said to be a tough time for UK high street retail, many city centers are currently thriving in terms of population,” says Jonathan Wiedemann, JLL UK Building Consultancy Director. “There’s increased demand for residential property, which is partly being met by converting empty office space above retail units.”

Changes to the UK’s permitted development rights (PDR) in 2013 allowed developers to convert offices to apartments without the need for extensive planning permission.

“Landlords have used PDR to maximize what they can achieve with a building,” says Wiedemann. “Conversion to residential has undoubtedly been one of the factors for increased scaffolding.”

Yet this hasn’t helped retailers, who have also been struggling with constrained consumer spending and the rise of e-commerce.

“All bricks-and-mortar stores need a constant flow of people through their doors but there’s arguably more at stake for a small, independent retailer operating on lower profit margins” says Wiedemann.

Beyond retailers’ control

It’s not just work on the buildings themselves that can give retailers a headache – what’s happening on the streets outside can also have an impact. In Berlin, for example, retailers are affected by infrastructure projects in front of their shop windows, such as road improvements and pavements being re-laid, says Wichner.

“It can make things problematic for retailers,” he says, pointing to the congestion caused by ongoing improvements being made to the capital’s streets and thoroughfares. “Locals may avoid the area while tourists are more likely to pass through quickly instead of browsing.”

German retail tenants, Wichner explains, can agree a reduction in rent during renovation works if they are carried out by a landlord. However, when work is done by local authorities, there is very little “pain relief”, Wichner says.

Retailers should, says Wiedemann, think about such issues from ‘day one’ and check the terms of their lease contracts. “Impact can be minimized – and it helps if landlord and retail tenant are in positive dialogue from the outset” he adds.

Making the most of scaffolding

For retailers, simply hanging a ‘Business as Usual’ sign may not be enough – especially when there are more innovative examples to draw on.

In central Paris, French developer Bleecker famously used a surreal solution for a building undergoing a revamp in 2007, covering the scaffolding in a giant distorted, ‘melting building’ version of the property. The Avenue Georges V site became a tourist destination, although peeping beyond the screen was strictly off limits.

In the UK, a similar tromp d’oeil has more recently been used by Erith Contractors on its redevelopment of 33 Grosvenor Place in London, while Arup and Grosvenor added a ‘living wall’ in London’s Mayfair on scaffolding at the latter’s St Mark’s building redevelopment in 2016.

For well-known stores that are destinations in their own right, such as Berlin’s Dussmann das Kulturekaufhaus which is currently undergoing external work, customers may still flow through their doors even when their façade is covered.

“Larger stores, which are usually on sound financial footing, have been able to successfully trade through refurbishments,” says Wiedemann.

Current retailing design trends, such as the industrial look used by global clothing chain All Saints, are more aesthetically aligned with building work and could even be in a position to embrace scaffolding as part of their fit-out.

With most building work lasting only a short period, it’s a case of shorter-term pain for longer-term gain.

“Freshly refurbished or converted buildings can make the surrounding area smarter and more attractive to people, which in turn creates a busier feel and buzz,” Wiedemann says. “Longer-term, this should bring benefits such as increased footfall and positive brand association for retailers.”