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Joost Koomen, Secretary General of the European Council of Shopping Places (ECSP). Credit: ECSP

A brave new retail world?

“Looking at the digital transition, ECSP members are certain that the future is omni-channel.”

By Joost Koomen

As ECSP celebrated its first anniversary on 8 October, it is encouraging to see that most COVID-19 restrictions are finally being lifted across Europe, and that the retail industry is starting to reengage via several big events planned throughout the autumn.

An anniversary is a good moment to take stock and to look forward. Looking back over the past 12 months, we are proud to have managed to launch and grow a new organization during a pandemic. That was made possible by our members, who recognized from the very beginning the need for a single European voice to represent the interests of our industry.

As we look ahead, the sector is recovering and numbers are generally going up. However, it is still too soon to tell what the “new normal” will look like or to cry victory: COVID-19 has not disappeared yet and will likely cast a long shadow. The introduction of so-called “sanitary passes” in several countries is a case in point.

The pandemic has also only accelerated the green and digital transitions–something that the European Commission has welcomed and considered in its new Industrial Strategy, which was adopted last year. Now, the Commission is working on a new strategy tailored to the retail sector, and ECSP and other participants in the retail ecosystem have been asked to provide input on what the drivers of the green and digital transitions in our sector are, as well as existing barriers.

Looking at the digital transition, ECSP members are certain that the future is omni-channel. However, the existing regulation does not grant fair competition between online marketplaces and physical “brick-and-mortar” shopping places. Inequality in terms of applicable taxes, environmental regulation, sales and advertising rules, and labor conditions should be urgently addressed by the European Commission in order to avoid hampering the further development of the omni-channel retail model.

The retail property sector is also a leader in delivering green real estate with reduced GHG emissions. Shopping places renovate at a rate that is unparalleled in the property sector. ECSP believes that as shopping places continue to decrease their emissions and evolve into mixed-use spaces, it is more efficient and effective to renovate, than rebuild. However, unclear and diverging regulatory definitions and targets about what constitutes zero energy, near zero energy, or zero carbon (buildings) create unnecessary confusion. Additionally, in many countries, it is very difficult to collect and process tenant-specific data about electricity consumption in order to improve the energy use and efficiency of a building. National regulation limiting property owners’ ability to renovate and upgrade existing shopping places is another significant barrier. Such issues are impediments to a fast green transition and should be dealt with at the European level.

The above, combined with the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the retail property sector, makes it more difficult for the industry to invest in tomorrow’s decarbonized and digitalized retail. ECSP has emphasized the need for more funding from the EU, also calling for the set-up of a dedicated EU Retail Relief Fund. We are just at the beginning of this journey, but ECSP and its members have been engaged from the start. Together with the Commission and other important retail stakeholders, we intend to lay the groundwork for the digital and green transitions to ensure a brave new retail world.