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You can’t afford not to be fastidious about the way you go about finding your retail unit – the property you commit to needs to be reliable and practical. With so much information online you don’t even need to view a property until you’re sure it ticks most of, and ideally all the boxes. But even so, are you sure what you’re looking for? Do you have a checklist of the most important details, the ones that will make all the difference once you’re trading?
It’s a tricky process, especially if you’re new to shop-hunting. We’ve prepared a short guide to get you up to speed on what to look for in a retail unit.
It’s the oldest maxim in the retail text book, but ‘location location location’ still stands true as arguably the most important factor, certainly the first consideration, in your property strategy. You might have found a great deal, with low rents and rates and incentives from the landlords, but there may be a reason a property is so affordable: maybe the area has a high nocturnal crime rate, maybe it only gets decent footfall at certain times of the week, or maybe three retailers have come and gone from this unit in as many years.
Take plenty of advice, ask locally, and do your research about an area before you even look round a property. In terms of retail positioning, it goes without saying that you want high footfall, unless you’re a real specialist. But do you want to be shoulder-to-shoulder with your competitors, or keep a distance? This is an old question in retail property: the received wisdom is that it’s better to be close to your rivals, but that depends what you’re selling and how confident you are in your product.
When you start looking you’ll find that there are properties of all costs – including the sky-high. And as tempting as they might be, you have to be disciplined and stick to what’s going to work for you. Agree a budget in advance and stick to it, no matter how inviting a more expensive store might be.When you’re looking at commercial properties always bear in mind the hidden costs beyond the obvious things like rent and rates. Running a store involves numerous fixed costs and overheads, such as heating, lighting and water, and repairs and decorations over the lifespan of the lease. Always bear this in mind and thoroughly inspect fittings, walls, pipes and circuitry – a cheap but shabby property will need constant work, and be a false economy in the long run.
Although it’s often overlooked because of more important considerations, the amount of storage a retail unit has can be vital. You always need to store more than you’d imagined, especially when you’re growing; it’s better to have slightly too much than not enough.
This is something you can research in advance, using a good, detailed search engine. But when you’re viewing a site make sure the storage space lives up to the promise in the listing, and is dry and secure as well. This is less important for a retail store, but for any food seller or publican, the basement storage space is absolutely vital and needs to be large enough to cater for peak times.
Your main concern is bound to be the shop front and sales area, especially if you’re a retailer. But don’t forget how much time you or your staff are going to spend here. Make sure that all the unit’s facilities – the toilets, the sink and the kitchen – are of a good standard. If you’re looking for an A3 unit for a coffee shop, cafe or restaurant, take extra care over the kitchen facilities, and be scrupulous. These will make all the difference on a daily basis, to the quality of the food you’re producing, and your own efficiency as a business.
As tends to be the case whenever bureaucracy and planning regulations are involved, the classifications for the different types of commercial property are abstruse and a little time-consuming. But they are important.
Knowing your way around the regulations before you even start searching for a new building is important. Appointing a commercial property surveyor, otherwise known as an agent, is always a good idea, especially if you’re new to business. And when it comes to the contracts, your solicitors will be there to help. But you still need to have a good idea about the different types of properties out there, and what each can and can’t be used for.
We’ve put together a simple guide to help you work through the regulations.
Under the regulations within the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order of 1987, Class A was divided into three key categories (A1, A2 and A3), each covering a particular grouping of shop uses.
Almost all retail stores come under Class A1 – this covers typical high street and shopping centre shops, selling any goods other than hot food. But note, it does include shops selling cold food for consumption off the premises, so newsagents selling sandwiches, for instance, are within this class.
Also coming within Class A1 are a number of other typical high street business – travel agencies, ticket-sellers, post offices, hairdressers, nail bars, funeral directors, shops hiring out domestic goods, clothes repair shops, dry cleaners, and a number of other businesses or services with a retail frontage, such as specialist repair shops or cleaners.
Class A2 covers businesses that might be on the high street but don’t have a retail, trading aspect, in other words companies offering services rather than goods. This includes high street accountancy firms, a wide range of financial services companies, professional services such as mortgages and loans and some services which can be accessed via the public, or to quote the legislation, “any other services [including betting offices] which it is appropriate to provide in a shopping area, where the services are provided principally to visiting members of the public”.
The third category within this field, Class A3, covers, broadly, any shop or café which is going to be used to sell hot and cold food which can be eaten on site. This catches a wide range of businesses, from coffee shops to greasy spoon cafes and fine dining restaurants. It also includes places, such as takeaways, where people aren’t necessarily going to be eating on site but are selling hot food.
Finding a retail unit and signing for a lease is half the job. Making your store or cafe or pub look and feel perfect, and, most importantly, match your brand, your personality, is a whole other feat in itself.
This is absolutely the case if you’re just starting out. Established business owners will know what works and how the brand needs to be represented in the physical world, even if they might want to tweak the look for a new store. But if this is your first venture into running a customer-facing business, then it’s vital that you think long and hard about every lick of paint, or item of furniture.
There is an abundance of advice out there about branding your space. We’ve written a short guide to get you started.
What works for an ultra-hip artisan deli and what a works for an active-wear clothing retailer are two very different things, even if they share some customers. Shoppers make decisions, consciously or unconsciously, based on how well they feel a brand matches their own identity. And this extends back into digital space – if people are impressed, and feel an affinity to a brand, they will share it with their friends online. This makes it vital to bear in mind a key lesson: be clear about your look, your identity, even whether the name of the brand works, and make sure you’re designing a store that matches it 100%.
Unless you’re a natural born artist or interiors buff, you’ll need to enlist the help of experts when it comes to the details. There are retail branding consultancies and design agencies to find the prefect logo, colour palettes, lighting, signage, graphics, furniture and flooring to match your vision. But you need to be clear about what that vision is – an agency can only work with what you give them. If you get the big picture right in your head first, a designer or retail branding consultant can then fill in the fine details.
Perhaps more than ever, shoppers are influenced by the look and feel of a retail store: in an era where so much can be done with a few clicks online, physical stores have to accentuate their advantages by being cool, experiential, memorable spaces. If you want people to engage with your brand, they need to engage with the physical spaces that brand occupies in numerous ways, beyond simply look and feel.
A new wave of experiential store features are being experimented with in retail store design – from yoga classes to fashion consultations and interior design advice sessions – to make a physical store about more than just shopping, and when done right they are hits with consumers. But you will still need to get your digital footprint right as well – seamlessness and consistency between your channels is vital, and that includes your social media presence as well.
Unless you’re in a real niche sector, you’re likely to have competitors nearby. If you’re the new kid on the block then you need to do something to stand out and make people take notice. But there’s a fine balance to be struck here. Your competitors may be veterans in the game because they’re really good, and they know what their customers like. So how do you stand out from them, without straying too far from a tried-and-tested formula? The key is to find that unique selling point that nobody else has, an angle that set you apart. This varies greatly from brand to brand and sector to sector, but whatever it is, you need to find your unique business voice.