Paul Bakker, Asset and Property Management Director at The Howard de Walden Estate, explains how Marylebone offers a depth of retail experience that no other high street or online shopping experience can provide
For anyone who doesn’t live or work here, the Marylebone area’s biggest draws are, to even the most casual of observers, fairly conspicuous: shopping, eating and culture. Every day of the week, our shops, salons, galleries, restaurants and bars hum with people who have been attracted here by the special atmosphere of the Howard de Walden estate’s retail area — a confluence of historic streets known collectively as Marylebone Village.
It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-1990s, these same streets were far from busy and vibrant. In fact, the whole of Marylebone felt a little worn around the edges. Back then, it was the Estate that helped shape the idea – now widely understood, but then highly innovative – that the fortunes and feel of an entire location can be transformed by first regenerating its retail offering. Make this an attractive area to shop and eat, the thinking went, and it becomes by extension a more compelling place to locate a home or office.
While other landlords took the easier and more immediately lucrative option of filling their shops with the same large, mainstream retailers, the Estate chose instead to create a retail area that would stand out from the crowd. By proactively seeking out a complementary blend of small independent shops and established brands, all of which offered quality and distinctiveness, it became a destination with genuine balance and character.
Getting that balance right is essential. With its large, diverse residential population and a broad spread of office workers, this is a place that needs to be exacting in its standards but accessible in its pricing. It’s an area where sandwich bars and Michelin-starred restaurants are both equally essential. And because people live here, the offering has to be functional – a supermarket, a newsagent, a hardware shop – as well as frivolous.
Managing this mix is not always a straightforward task – due to the complex history of our holdings, there are many units whose occupation is beyond our reach – but by thinking strategically and working closely with all the retailers, whether or not they’re our direct occupiers, we can still do much to shape the character of the Village.
For all of us, the challenges we face have changed in recent years. Competition with other shopping destinations is always of some focus — but now we are forced to face a much scarier and more mutable competitor: the internet. Driven by the twin advantages of convenience and cost, the growth of online shopping has caused carnage on many high streets. To make sure that doesn’t happen here, we need to be offering a depth of experience that no website could provide.
Partly this is about the interaction offered by individual retailers: the pleasure of being attended to by friendly, knowledgeable staff in an attractive and welcoming environment; the chance to enjoy shopping as an involved activity rather than a lonely transaction. The retailers that will thrive in the future are those that offer this level of experience with consistency and ease.
Shops can benefit from using their space and expertise in other ways, too — something at which our occupiers have become increasingly adept. Take our food shops, for example: Rococo hosts chocolate tastings and pairings; La Fromagerie lays on workshops and special dinners; Sourced Market offers a packed schedule of takeovers, discussions and masterclasses; The Ginger Pig offers butchery classes. Not only do these activities bring people through the door and put money in the till, but hopefully have longer term benefits as customers become more knowledgeable and engaged.
The digital space should also be exploited, rather than feared. Matches, a fashion retailer whose Marylebone store is one of only four in its portfolio but whose online profile is vast, uses its high street presence as a physical manifestation of its digital brand. Others have become masterful at engaging with customers through social media. Both Content Beauty and stationer Caroline Gardner, despite their Marylebone boutiques being their only outlets, have followers that number in the tens of thousands, and they use that reach with real skill.
As the steward for the area, the Estate needs to attract and support retailers who can flourish in this shifting retail environment, but there are also other things that we can do to help. For a start, we can ensure that our shopping streets are attractive and distinctive. On Moxon Street, we have built a little foodie enclave; on Marylebone Lane, we have funded the widening of pavements and the creation of a shared surface that prioritises pedestrians, creating a lovely continental feel that benefits a run of small, independent shops. We use pop-ups to keep things fresh while allowing small retailers to dip a toe in the water — Koibird, a highly distinctive womenswear boutique, has recently found a permanent home here after a successful pop-up.
We work hard to promote a collective spirit within Marylebone Village and, through our Marylebone Village web presence and Marylebone Journal magazine, to share its charms with the wider world. The Marylebone Summer Festival and Marylebone Christmas Lights – the Estate’s two major annual events – couldn’t work without the committed involvement of our retailers. This year, we have partnered with The Portman Estate, our neighbours to the west, to launch the Marylebone Food Festival and participate in the London Design Festival — events that did much to show off Marylebone Village, foster relationships between retailers and provide visitors with some memorable experiences.
While many of the country’s shopping streets are blighted by empty units and downbeat expectations, ours are still thriving. The world is changing fast, but our shops, salons, galleries, restaurants and bars still hum with people—and we’ll do everything we can to ensure they stay that way.