Retail Real Estate Experts talk about their life and career on Bayfield Training Blog.

Leigh Sparks

Professor of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling



SANDRA: You are a Professor of Retail Studies at University of Stirling, in Scotland. How does retail in Scotland differ from the rest of the UK?

LEIGH: Scotland has a distinctive geography and is a nation of towns. Whilst much of the population is concentrated in the Central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, there are many small and rural towns spread over a large space (see Retailing in many of these latter locations is thus more local and independent than perhaps in much of the rest of the UK. In the major cities and large towns many of the retail operators are similar and the same issues of occupancy and decentralization exist. In product terms the Scottish weather and the Scottish diet has a distinctive impact from the flavours of crisps we buy, the Irn-Bru we drink to the seasonality of clothes and the need for sturdier outerwear.

SANDRA: Your research on change in retail has been published widely. In your opinion, which one of your research papers would you consider the one that has made the most impact?

LEIGH: Much academic writing is really for academics and thus its impact on practitioners and retailers is often rather limited. I have tried in my work both to be a good academic and write in major journals for academics, but also to “translate” that work into pieces that are directly useful for retailers and policy makers. In the last academic research excellence assessment I thus had academic papers cited, but also had my work on policy assessment cited as an impact case study. Thus our long term research into retail planning policy in Scotland led in part to the establishment of Scottish BIDS, the Town Centre Regeneration Fund, my membership of the National Review of Town Centres for the Scottish Government and ultimately to the establishment of Scotland’s Towns Partnership which is leading the renaissance of towns across Scotland. It started with academic focused pieces on planning and urban policy in the 1980s and 1990s but the impact is being felt today.

“For me the development of the shopping centre industry is something I have lived through and it has been a remarkable journey of increasing sophistication and focus on the changing consumer.”


SANDRA: What major retail changes have you noticed in the recent past and present?

LEIGH: I am not so old that I remember the introduction of self-service, though sometimes it feels like that. I am old enough however that I did my PhD on aspects of the development of a new retail format – the food superstore and hypermarket! We have now almost come full circle where food retailers are returning to the high street and wondering what to do with all their out of town space. The rise of discounting is something that we studied from a very early start with Kwik Save and of course the development of technology for business operations and eventually for shopping is something that is a long-run structural change in how we shop and therefore how retailers present themselves to consumers. I have also had a fascination with the supply of products and we have seen huge developments in international logistics and supply.

SANDRA: How is change of retailing affecting shopping centres industry?

LEIGH: We claim to live in fascinating times, but many generations claim that. For me the development of the shopping centre industry is something I have lived through and it has been a remarkable journey of increasing sophistication and focus on the changing consumer. This process continues as both the shopping centre developers and managers come to grips with an ever more fickle and volatile consumer and try to match with retailers that get it right. Consumers want shopping centres to provide experiences and reasons to visit and stay and we have to work out how we can best do that. Other locations are increasingly focused on value and the need to provide that in their centres. The 20+ year structural change in retailing, changing consumer demands and behaviors over the last 50 years and the overlay of the almost 10 year old recession are radically reshaping the needs of retailer sand shopping centres, in terms of location, orientation, space use and experience delivered.

SANDRA: What is your opinion regarding online retailing? Do you think it can outweigh physical stores?

LEIGH: No. Online is useful and interesting and clearly is something that is going to be a part of lives. If it is at 15% of the retail market today, there remains a lot of room to grow. But will it “outweigh” physical stores i.e. get to 50%+, then I don’t think so. People do get and travel to work and play, they interact socially and economically, they want new and interesting experiences. All of these can be delivered online, but not to the same intensity necessarily that they can be in good physical places. There is clearly in my view and upper limit for the online and mobile experiences. But when it comes to whether this is 20%, 30% or 40% my crystal ball goes a little cloudy.