Summary: Roger Cohen summarises the creative buzz of the Accessible Retail Conference 2018 and looks at the role the law has to play in the retail debate going forward.

It was great to speak at the Accessible Retail Conference @ the RiGB last week.  There were sessions on a range of hot topics, all looking creatively at the future of retail for 2019 and beyond.  

The speakers included stellar names from across the real estate sector.  We heard from Hammerson’s Mark Bourgeois how their strategy has evolved to concentrate on iconic centres such as Cabot Circus, West Quay and the Bull Ring.  The real focus is now on the big day out – shopping not just for necessity but for the pure enjoyment of it, whilst staying out to eat, drink and maybe even relax too.

KFC’s Chris Holmes talked about the challenge for brands  – to freeze or to evolve.  The company has opted for the latter, with reduced calorie menus and new compact drive-thrus.

Wilf Walsh from Carpetright told a positive CVA story.  He spoke of the cash injection that has put the company back on the straight and narrow, responding to the negative CVA press which was unsettling for customers and staff.

Mike Adams spoke about Purple Tuesday due to take place on 13 November 2018.  This will be the UK’s first accessible shopping day, established to recognise the importance and needs of disabled consumers and promote inclusive shopping.  Retailers are encouraged to make at least one long term commitment aimed at improving the experience of their disabled customers and to ensure that their staff are routinely trained on disability-focused customer service.  The initiative is backed by some key real estate names including LandSec, REVO and the Crown Estate.

So, what part does law have to play in the retail debate going forward?  CVAs have stolen a lot of the headlines this year and there will be more to come.  The CVA rules haven’t changed but  the strategy and tactics have become way more sophisticated. It’s not a question of “ greedy landlords”. Some retailers have, in the past, done reckless deals. Institutional landlords are investing for pensioners. Then again, the shares of retail companies are invested in for pensions. The CVA problem comes from combining all unsecured creditors into one single constituency, rather than recognising that they have diverse interests. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 always triggers a debate– is it outdated and trying to cure a problem that no longer exists? Some tenants favour flexible, short term leases. But are they willing to forego security of tenure? It’s far from clear.

In the last year, and following a policy review that I facilitated, there’s been some good news out of the Central London County Court’s lease renewal pilot, in conjunction with the Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal. This should help to save time, cut costs and deliver better quality justice.