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Carnaby Street celebrates Christmas in collaboration with the Rolling Stones. Photo credit : David Parry/PA Wire

Ahead of chunks of the Carnaby Street area of central London celebrating their 25th anniversary under the ownership of Shaftesbury PLC, Retail Insider took a tour around this buzzing area with its retail director.

There’s no doubt that the iconic road, and surrounding streets, had become pretty jaded when the property company acquired a significant chunk of land in the area for £90 million. It has certainly undergone a Renaissance since then and the changes brought in, along with an impressive mix of tenants, were evident on my walk around Carnaby with Samantha Bain-Mollison, retail director at Shaftesbury. She highlighted how the area has benefited from having a single significant landlord over a sustained period.

Samantha Bain-Mollison, retail director at Shaftesbury.

Over the years Shaftesbury has added to the properties under its control in the area and gradually curated a retail and dining destination in the heart of London. The strategy employed at Carnaby has also been reflected in the company’s management of sizeable chunks of real estate in Soho, Chinatown and Seven Dials in Covent Garden.

Carnaby represents 14 streets where the retail and dining offer is predominantly aimed at 18-30-year-olds and where the current success of the offer has made it an incredibly attractive area for brands to take units. Bain-Mollison says the company employs a Dragon’s Den-type approach throughout the year when assessing the potential suitability of new tenants.

“It’s a dual assessment between Shaftesbury and the brands. We’re able to cherry-pick the best tenants. This has made the area special, with unique products and experiences, and a real sense of discovery. Some of the concepts here are the only ones in the world,” she explains, adding that this has made the area very resilient – despite Covid-19 and inflationary pressures, compared with the big chains that she suggests are looking “stretched” now.

Part of the selection process involves ensuring the retailers commit to being part of the central London community. This involves them signing up to the Neighbourhood discount card and participating in the promotional events that take place through the year to celebrate special occasions.

There is also a requirement for an open book policy whereby the retailers share various metrics including their turnover figures as well as their marketing budgets, and they also have to detail their fit-out plans ahead of taking a unit. The reality is that Bain-Mollison ultimately rejects a lot of well-known brands – this particularly involves luxury brands who she says are solely looking to tap into a new generation of customers. But there products are invariably outside the budgets of most young shoppers.

What has played an increasing role in the area is food and beverage. Across the Shaftesbury properties in the West End the mix is now 37% F&B, 27% retail, 18% office and 18% residential. Within Carnaby the pedestrianisation of Kingly Street had a dramatic effect and provided the opportunity for outside dining for brands like Dishoom and Dehesa. Another major initiative has been the creation of Kingly Court that has seen a switch from retailers to F&B operators in the units around the Courtyard. A seasonal roof has also been introduced for the rainier months of the year.

Bain-Mollison point out that Shaftesbury was also a pioneer in the use of pop-ups in Carnaby and today many unit are let out on very short agreements – often for six weeks on a rent-free basis. The idea is that they will help drive traffic to the area during their residency. Often there is some charity element involved with the tenants.

Another major trend is sustainability and growing number of brands have environmental and ethical credentials. Recent brands taking units are Nobody’s Child and Freshly Cosmetics. “We’re a trends-driven location and educated consumers want transparent brands with ethical practices,” she says.

Glynn Davis, editor, Retail Insider

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