Amid the continued travails of the high street, with retail vacancies at historically high levels, train stations stand out as locations which are going from strength to strength. The success of London St Pancras has helped to highlight the significant potential that a tailored and evolved station retail offer can present. Indeed, train stations are becoming retail destinations in their own right, slowly but surely replicating the sort of established retail propositions that can be typically found at airports.
The evolution of train station retail is long overdue, and it is perhaps surprising that these locations were comparatively overlooked during the boom years of the nineties and early noughties. From a retailer perspective, the potential of these locations is clear. They benefit from high, predictable footfalls, and retailers operating within stations have access to a captive and typically more affluent audience. Moreover, dwell times can often be high as travellers are forced to wait for their trains to arrive. Stressed consumers are prime targets for comfort and impulse purchases both in food and non-food. More pertinently, the commercial success of train station retail directly benefits station owners. Unlike traditional retail locations, the type of leases agreed at stations mean that owners themselves take a cut of retailer sales, typically around 20%. Indeed, the spurt of recent investment is indicative of these operators finally realising the potential that their assets represent. The fact that it has taken so long to act upon this potential can be attributed to a lack of commercial awareness and consumer-focus among operators such as Network Rail.
Laying the tracks to success
The rising prominence of train station retail is being shaped by a number of factors. One of the more obvious of these has been a rise in the number of UK consumers travelling – and in particular commuting – by train. In addition to persistent increases in the costs of fuel, this has been encouraged by significant investment resulting in better punctuality, more routes and upgraded train stations. Refurbished train stations in particular are benefitting from being more aesthetically pleasing and spacious.
The completion of the refurbished London St Pancras in late 2007 was very much a precursor to the more recent spate of investment into train stations’ retail offers. The reopened station represented a quantum leap in train station retailing with retail dominating a spacious and pleasant station landscape. In addition to more established station players such as M&S Simply Food and WHSmith, the typically high affluence of international and domestic commuters using the station helped it to attract aspirational, lifestyle-focused players such as Paperchase, Foyles and Cath Kidston.
More recently, the focus of investment has been on other high profile London-based stations such as Kings Cross, Cannon Street and Waterloo. This has significantly improved the retail offer at these locations.
An increasingly attractive route to market
One retailer which has clearly benefitted from a focus on travel locations has been WHSmith, with its travel stores underpinning a consistent rise in profitability and offsetting continued declines in like-for-like sales at its high street outlets. The retailer continues to expand its presence in train stations, as well as other locations such as airports, and even workplaces and hospitals. This focus hasn’t been confined to the UK either, with WHSmith also successfully expanding its presence overseas in travel locations.
There has also been a gradual evolution of the types of retailers operating in these locations. While remaining clearly slanted towards grocers, newsagents and foodservice operators, rising consumer acceptance and expectations have encouraged more non-food retailers to open stores, particularly those sitting at the more premium, lifestyle end of the market. Lifestyle and fashion-led retailers are looking to take advantage of the impulse-buy mindset and higher affluence of commuters for example; retailers which have recently opened outlets at London Waterloo have included Fat Face and Hotel Chocolat.
Indeed, at London St Pancras, the long term aim is to develop the retail offer further to make it even more premium. To this end, brands such as Prada and Mulberry are set to establish a presence at the station, looking to capture demand from wealthy European travellers that don’t necessarily have the time to visit some of London’s premium shopping districts such as Bond Street.
Moreover, further fuelling, and perhaps reflecting the transformation of train station retail, has been the influx of foreign retailers into the UK market. US book retailer Watermark has opened an outlet at the refurbished Kings Cross station, while French book and stationery retailer, Relay, has taken up space at the newly refurbished Cannon Street station.
Next stop: rising consumer exceptions
Looking ahead, the significant investment pouring into train stations will in turn provide inevitable opportunities for retailers. In London, the Crossrail project has the potential to spark a mini revolution in the way commuters shop at train stations. Part of the overall investment into the new cross-London line will include the addition of a further 75,000 sq ft of retail space in and around new train stations. Elsewhere, there are also major developments planned for outside of London and South East. For example, blueprints exist for major upgrades to stations such as Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham; in regard to the latter, work has already begun on the Gateway plus scheme to regenerate Birmingham New Street station. This will include a new 250,000 sq ft John Lewis on the south side of the existing Pallasades shopping centre and better integration of the station and the city’s existing retail estate such as the Bullring.
However, while retailers such as WHSmith have historically benefitted from possessing a practical monopoly at these locations for the types of products they sell, rising competition and consumer expectations means that just having a presence is no longer enough.
Regardless of rapidly improving environments, train travellers – and especially commuters – will always view time spent at train stations as an annoying necessity in getting from A to B. To achieve success in these locations it will be important for retailers to understand the intricacies of the mindset of commuting consumers and tailor their propositions accordingly. For example, these consumers demand convenience and so features such as fast queuing systems, self checkouts and contactless payment should be considered. Regular, daily use of these stations also means that opportunities exist for retailers to drive loyalty and so good customer service can pay dividends.
First class prospects
Train stations are set to benefit from significant further investment and in retail terms, the potential at these stations is comparatively untapped. In particular, the global nature of London, and the rise of the international commuter is serving to increase the relevance of these locations and presenting opportunities. Moreover, major London focused developments such as the Crossrail Project, will undoubtedly eventually path the way for developments nationwide.
With competitive pressures set to intensify, retailers – both those established and new entrants – face a challenge to tailor their propositions in line with the intricacies of the locations and their target audience. Indeed, these locations reflect retailing as its rawest and those retailers that are able to drive often impulse-led demand among a comparatively uninterested, impatient but high-value consumer will be the winners.