Over the past three decades, many real estate owners and local authorities within world cities have prioritised the maximisation of financial returns over the creation of vibrant, inclusive and family-friendly destinations – with some exceptions, of course.
While entry barriers for small and independent businesses have become increasingly higher, urbanisation, mass production of goods, and a disposable culture have replaced a once-thriving, localised and eclectic high street with businesses that look exactly the same across world cities.
Against this background, retail and hospitality chains have themselves been struggling to deal with high rents, local taxes and regulation, as demand for their products and services have started dwindling. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply put the last nail in the coffin of many of these chain businesses and, with the proliferation of online shopping, scores of high street premises have now become empty and redundant. This is unfortunate because the same young generations, who have been shying away from a commoditised and less authentic form of consumerism, are also those who seek experience-led offers that are more meaningful, educational and sustainable than, for example, indoor snow slopes in retail parks!
In fact, experience-led business is precisely how the high street, in Britain and overseas, started in the middle of the 19th Century, when retail showmanship was a key feature and blacksmiths, bakers, fishmongers, butchers, dressmakers, street performers and entertainers exhibited their skills and created a coveted destination for most social strata.
I believe that we are currently witnessing an unprecedented opportunity for independent, purpose-driven and values-led businesses to return to city centres and be both impactful and profitable. Undoubtedly, local authorities and business improvement districts need to step up their game in the revival of the high street and the curation of the offer, but I believe that single businesses have an even greater role to play. The key to this transition hinges on three important pillars: alignment of interest, community focus, and better business education.
When I joined Mercato Metropolitano as its founder, Andrea Rasca, was importing the concept to London after a successful four-month pilot project in Milan, I decided to leave behind many of the dogmas of business and real estate which I had been practising in my previous business and professional life. Mercato Metropolitano is an aggregator of food artisans and ‘commoners’ businesses’ and, as it aimed to be present in all world cities, it could not be expanded purely as a business, but rather as a movement where each actor in its expansion is a stakeholder, instead of just a supplier or a customer.
In our first three years in London, we experienced double-digit growth year-on-year, we developed a number of important projects and sites, and we attracted encouraging coverage from national and international media. With our revenue share model, we have created and fine-tuned a model which is predicated on alignment of interest throughout the value chain, with landlords, operators and traders all sharing in the risks and rewards of growing a business.
We have substituted the marketing concept of ‘brand’ as the fulcrum around which businesses gravitate, with a pure focus on the local community by designing sites around residents’ needs. Each of our markets has a name that resonates with the community, an offer that is culturally aligned, and an active participation in local impact initiatives with an eye on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
We educate our traders to strive for excellence, embrace basic sustainability and inclusivity practices, and improve their business skills to become impactful entrepreneurs. In bricks and mortar retail and hospitality businesses, this requires a mindset different from one that fixates on scalability, enterprise valuations, and exit plans, because these type of businesses should, and must, be ‘legacy’ businesses, if they want to stand out and make a lasting impact in today’s crowded business world.
Mercato Metropolitano will open a new local market in Canary Wharf’s new district Wood Wharf in Summer 2021