05 December, Avvenire
The shopping centre that recently opened between the two towers designed by the stars Libeskind and Isozaki, where there was once the Milan Fair, is the physical denial of the apocalyptic visions of the extinction of the physical shop in favour of Amazon and e-commerce in general. It shows the effectiveness of the real estate that acts in physical spaces, not virtual ones.
The opening of the shopping district in City Life, with restaurants, cinemas, shops with their shop assistants, changing rooms, cashiers and windows, is not the only case. In Italy, retail is experiencing an extraordinary moment. In fact, along with the explosion of e-commerce, we’re assisting at the rebirth of shopping centres.
The growth of e-commerce in Italy is mighty: according to the figures of the B2C Commerce by Netcomm and by the School of Management of Politecnico in Milan, in the last five years the online purchases of physical products have almost tripled, going from 4.3 to 12.3 billion euro, surpassing this year the online purchases for services such as travels and insurance policies. There is still space for growth if we consider that the online market represents 6% of the Italian shopping, a relatively low number compared to the 12% of France, the 14% of Germany and the 19% of the United Kingdom.
The growth of shopping centres is surprising too. According to the latest survey by Cushman & Wakefield on shopping centres, Italy is the most dynamic country in Western Europe, with 100 thousand Sq m surface created in the first part of 2017. After 16 new openings in 2016, included Centro di Arese, one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe, this year we’ve seen 10 additional openings, among which City Life and Adiageo in Verona. The last census by the retail consulting company Reno carried out together with the association for franchising Confimprese, reports 949 shopping centres in Italy, 42 more than 2012. There are 18 new openings expected by 2020, among which there will be Westfield, a 1.4-billion-euro project in Segrate that might become the biggest shopping centre in Europe.
“Yes, this is a good moment. We report an increase of visits to big shopping centres, with an increasingly articulated merchandise offer”, confirms Gianenrico Buso, Reno managing director. But the growth is not everyone. Some small and local shopping centres are struggling, lacking big brands and other attractive elements. The big shopping centres are the most successful, able to offer something more than just shops. Experts define “anchors” those businesses that make customers stay within the commercial space. “Italy is not Dubai, where shopping centres feature even a ski track -reminds Buso -. The matter over anchors is still very new in Italy. Perhaps we’ll see something new with the Westfield centre. Today, food courts are the main attraction to focus on”. It’s a matter of shopping experience: the physical shop will struggle more and more to beat the virtual one, but it cannot be beaten for what concerns the shopping experience. “E-commerce stole a shopping opportunity from people, the so-called “therapeutic shopping” – reasons Buso -. Despite this, there is still the need for shopping together, meeting up, ideally over a coffee or a meal”. Online is not enough. Even Amazon admitted it, opening its physical stores in the United States. The big clothing and technology brands couldn’t agree more. While they’re strengthening their online platforms, they don’t stop opening stores in strategic locations. In the new shopping centre in Milan, there will be brands such as Piquadro, Adidas, Max&Co, and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as the first flagship store of the Chinese smartphone company Huawei. A confirmation that also for the technology giants is important having a physical store. “Our final objective is only one: reaching the consumer in the best and most complete way. For this reason, we’ve chosen a very balanced selection of distribution channels. With the opening of flagship stores, we want to test and identify a format, shopping solutions and experiences in a world where purchases are very dynamic”, explains Pier Giorgio Furcas from Huawei Italia.
One of the innovations of City Life is its nature of urban shopping centre, being located inside the city. This is a trend that started in the past few years in Europe and it’s totally new in Italy, where there are other similar projects under development. In Rome, Valle Aurelia Mall will open next year, 800 metres from the Vatican City. The local shop owners are worried about these giants entering the cities, as they have already to deal with the recession and the transformations of the sector. In February, Confcommercio reported that between 2008 and 2016 70 thousand small businesses disappeared in Italy, a fall of 12%, felt especially in the old towns. Mariano Bella, director of the research, put it very directly: “Local business is the first infrastructure to maintain Italy the way we know it. Italy with its cities, towns, bell towers, variety, etc. The old town with its shops is a shopping centre itself. When shopping centres land in the city centres, there is a coordination issue of these big structures with the rest of the urban environment. Shop owners might move to these shopping centres if such infrastructures weren’t the questionable expression of developers and companies that leave little space to traditional businesses. With the arrival of solutions imported from abroad, there is the risk to alter old towns. I’m not saying that they must not be built. But if we value traditional Italian retail, perhaps citizens should decide the future they want for their city”.
Between the online shopping boom and the blossoming of shopping centres, there is the risk of forgetting an important fact: the Italian retail index is still below the pre-crisis levels. For non-grocery goods, there is still a 2.5% to catch up. The consumers that all the shops, virtual or physical, small or large, can address are always the same. The only difference is that people now can afford less.
Translator: Cristina Ambrosi