“the new retail and leisure destination is a sight to behold”
“reborn as a retail, residential, and commercial destination”
“a destination where people can live, work, shop and play”
“receiving new life as a tourist destination”
Destination. Destination. Destination. Words used in abundance when discussing the most recent retail hot-topic and headline maker. And no, we aren’t talking about some budget spin-off show of the household favourite “Location, Location, Location” – but the newly restored Battersea Power Station, which opened its doors to the public just a few weeks ago.
After almost 40 years of disuse, the much-anticipated opening comes after the Grade II listed building ceased operations as a power station, before entering decades of failed reopening attempts. And whilst there has been a lot of praise for the transformational restoration of the giant and the dedication taken to preserve much of the original architecture of the power station, comments on the retail itself have been surprisingly few and far between. As the dust has now settled, last week we ventured south of Birmingham to visit the powerhouse with a question on our mind – what does it mean for Battersea Power Station to be a destination? And what exactly is it a destination for?
A destination… for what?
A foreboding fortress sitting on the water’s edge, the sheer vastness and scale of the exterior is striking upon approach. The grandeur and impressive nature of what has been achieved by reviving the iconic four-chimneyed silhouette is not lost. It almost felt like a novelty to enter through the doors, it’s much-hyped revival giving the impression that you are about to step foot on hallowed ground, where history and heritage is baked into the brickwork and immortalized in the steel beams.
Imposingly intimidating as you enter through the doors into the cavernous space, you are greeted at the main entrance by a behemoth steel structure which has been preserved from the original building, now as a monument. Wandering immediately into the “Power of Place” exhibition, a museum to learn more about the pasts, almost-futures and now present of the building. It is a space of discovery and enlightenment, where you can marvel at the investment of time, craft and expertise which has went into the building’s revival.
But once this initial “WOW” moment had dissipated, so did the rest of the story.
Not dissimilar to other shopping malls which we have visited this year (we are looking at you Place Vendome Mall Qatar!), it appeared, again, that a lot of the emphasis again has been placed into the outer attraction of the mall, as opposed to embracing what it is now and intends to be. What could have been a destination for great retail, feels more like they’ve just put some shops in an iconic, revived, legacy power station.
Many of the reviews are correct. Battersea Power Station deserves its destination tag. But, as a ground-breaking retail innovation and experience destination? Alas, no. We found it to be style over substance, a celebration of the past and what once-was.
Of course, with such a momentous and heritage-rich structure, there is a lot to celebrate and acknowledge, from the architecture and original steelworks to the repurposed control rooms. Acclaimed as a “transformational restoration” by many – this is true in respect to the building itself, but not transformative in terms of what it means for the retail industry. When you strip away the back story, what you are left with is a building which is cavernous and void of any personality or authenticity, leaving you feeling disconnected, cold and somewhat underwhelmed.
This rings as true for the retail stores themselves. Particularly due to the volume of press for the reopening, we had high expectations to see something refreshing and worthy of the headlines it has received. The reality of which, was a series of missed opportunities and stores which were nice… but normal.
A destination for: community
Taking both the Nike and Adidas stores as examples, praised as spaces for community and inclusivity, to bring Battersea Power Station’s people-centred vision to life. However, on both counts, we couldn’t help but feel uninspired by the spaces, and that they’d missed the mark in what it means to be a truly community-centric retail space.
To illustrate what we mean, take Rapha’s Clubhouses as a (well-worn) example, the trailblazers in creating community-infused spaces. Their stores go above and beyond places of shopping and transaction; they are brand homes where the ethos and camaraderie of cycling and sportsmanship is evident in every inch of the store. With coffee shops, inclusive events and members rewards, each space feels like the beating heart for the sport and its community.
In comparison, in Adidas’ Battersea home, all that could be found in the so-called “Empower Station” (aside from the athlete events in the week of launch), was a “community” wall to advertise upcoming runs. But, at the back corner of the store, not only was it vastly hidden from view, but it didn’t bring community into the centre of the store. Similarly with the Nike Live concept, it was intended as a space for members, but it didn’t give you the feeling that you wanted to come and dwell there. Granted, being a member gives you access to the run club, yoga training and workshops led by Nike trainers, but the store itself felt quite ordinary, and far from what it was intended to be.
Like Battersea Power Station itself, both stores felt like an embodiment of “what could’ve been”, falling short of what it really means to be destinations for community spirit.
A destination for: discovery and brand immersion
Of course, it would be unfair to say that all the stores fell flat. Beauty brands were amongst the few offering experiences that, felt unique to the brand and their values, but also brought a point of difference from the surrounding mall.
Firstly Aesop, a brand celebrated for the meticulous detail and craft which it pours into each of their flagship stores – from architectural influences to material selection and sourcing – both as evident in their new Battersea home as in their adjacent Duke of York flagship.
Amongst the warm hues and hexagonal store design, it is easy to get swept away trialling product and collecting as many samples as possible (hands up, guilty) – but the real treat lies behind the doorway at the rear of the store. A hexagonal archway leads to the Sensorium, only the third of its kind (following the first opening in 2019 in their Sydney Pitt Street store). Conceived as a space within a space, the Sensorium embodies the same ethos as the outer store, intimacy and theatre, as customers can experience a one-to-one consultation centred on smells and scent. It envelops the senses, as you can trial different fragrances and interact with the raw ingredients. In a feast of delicious aromas, the store has the warmth and sanctuary-like feeling of a spa, where you can get lost in product and brand alike.
A destination for: the future
The Body Shop and Zara have entered Battersea with a vision for the future and bringing a point of difference from their usual stores. Debuting their new Workshop concept, The Body Shop store both showcases their heritage as activists and their commitment to the future by bringing “changemaking beauty” and being an all-natural force for good. A Refill Station at the stores entrance lets customers restock on some of the brand’s bestsellers, reiterating their commitment to making refills the norm; a “wishes with action” station empowers customers to dream of a fairer future; whilst a gift-wrapping station allows you to sustainably customise products which spread joy “from those who make them to those who open them.”
All whilst boasting a store design which is 90% comprised of sustainably sourced materials, from repurposed plastic storage crates to reclaimed wood, the Body Shop’s mission and people-and-planet initiatives come to life, from store design and analogue touchpoints through to product.
Quite the opposite, Zara’s new concept is a highly tech-driven store, bringing efficiency and convenience to customers through a series of digital self-service touchpoints. Feeling reminiscent of Uniqlo’s intuitive formats, customers are empowered to self-serve free of staff with the use of self-checkout tills, an order collection room and a changing room reservation service. Answering a demand for frictionless retail, Zara’s store fuses online and offline shopping, feeling the most forward-thinking and customer-centric of the stores we visited.
Aside from the few, the retail on show left a lot to the imagination. Maybe some brands felt like residing in the illustrious structure was enough, or maybe it was an eagerness not to compete, or maybe budgets didn’t recognise the iconic opportunity, but, ironically, Battersea Power Station as a retail destination feels like a big space devoid of energy.
Where one review described it as “a giant that needs no grand gestures”, we felt that it was the grand gesture that was missing. Once the spectacle and initial excitement of entering had worn off, you find yourself wanting more – more from the retail, more from the experience, and more of what you were led to believe that this much-anticipated return would be…