Can Green Save The High Street?

Can Green Save The High Street?

Another day goes by, another big retail name goes down the tubes. The reasons given are many and varied: the value of the pound, Brexit, the internet, the lack of Russian visas, ‘we didn’t engage as well with our customers as perhaps we should have’… you name it, they’ll blame it.

There is no doubt that the internet is having a massive impact on the retail sector. It will continue to do so on any business that does not have something experiential at the heart of it.

Which is where we need to bring up the subject of biophilic design.

Essentially, biophilic design exploits the natural tendency that humans have to interact closely with the natural world. American psychologist Edward O Wilson coined the term biophilic design in 1984 after he conducted experiments to discover how separation from the various aspects of nature affected people. Apparently, our mental and physical energy decreases when exposed to the hard and unforgiving lines of the built environment as opposed to the shapes and colours that we see in nature. No less a body than the World Health Organisation recognised this as a major cause of stress-related illness and a concomitant increase in heart disease.

Globally, it is clear that people are moving away from rural areas to towns and cities. In fact, the United Nations predicts that by 2030 60% of the world’s population will live in urban environments. Therefore, it is imperative that we consider how the connection between humans and nature can still be provided to those residing in towns and cities. One of the main answers to this challenge is biophilic design.

Biophilic design in retail

Towns and cities are where many of our shops tend to be located. If the staff working in these shops feel happy, helpful and productive, they are much more likely to deliver a positive shopping experience, instead of a low energy and bored response.

Things representative of the natural world – including indoor plants and natural colours such as green, blue and brown – make it into the top five desires that we have of our work environment, yet 58% of workers report having no greenery, in the form of plants, within theirs. When was the last time you saw a shop with any meaningful planting in it, not counting the garden centre?

Then there is the lifeblood of the high street – the shoppers themselves. It has been scientifically proven that natural landscapes trigger a stronger dopamine response (the chemical that makes us feel positive) in the visual cortex of the human brain than nature-less, man-made, hard landscapes.

In fact, perceptions of well-being can increase by up to 15% when people are in surroundings that incorporate natural elements.

Certain retail settings, such as shopping malls, often contain these elements. The overarching objective of retailing, is of course, to attract people. Shopping malls were the first to recognise that experiential and ‘green’ environments were important in this respect – a day out in pleasant surroundings, plus some shopping. But the days of shopping malls are limited, too. The challenge now is how to inject compelling social experience into retailing, by creating social environments for ‘urbanism’.

The changing needs of consumers

Customer expectations for urban spaces have evolved faster than the pace of design and development thinking. Even new retail centres are seeming somehow out of date.

In the ever-changing retail landscape, understanding the changes in the tastes, psychology, and motivations of consumers is critical for survival. Shifts in consumer behaviour will have a dramatic effect on our choices about where we shop, what we buy, and how we identify with the places where we want to be. These monumental shifts are motivated as much by psychographic changes as by fundamental economic motivations of how people want to buy, shop, and socialize. (

And at the heart of that psychology is biophilic design.

You need proof? Research shows that, in the presence of vegetation & landscaping, customers are willing to pay 8-12 % more for goods and services. (Heath Design Ltd.)

Equally, despite the small size of modern gardens, and the relative lack of new homes being built, the UK domestic garden products distribution market was worth an estimated £4.9bn in 2017 at retail selling prices – an increase of 3% compared to the previous year. Department stores, on the other hand, showed a different picture, reporting a fall in quantities bought, at negative 0.9% in April 2018.

So, retailers, if you want to fight back against the growth of online sales (which, as a proportion of all retailing, has continued to grow year-on-year, reaching 17.3% in April 2018, in comparison with 16.1% in April 2017) here’s a place you could start.

Get going with the colours that boost the feel-good chemicals, not the masses of red and yellow that we see on every sale poster in town. Research shows that colours of green, blue and white could have positive benefits. Get some planting in your store, lobby town planners and councils to create new urban spaces that appeal to how people want to socialise as well as shop. Design appeal into urbanism as well as the need to satisfy sustainable social interaction and immersion.

Wallow in individuality and creativity. Uniformity is a turn off.

It might cost a bit more to run your stores.

But it’s a lot cheaper than going broke.

If you want to talk about this or any strategic issues that can affect the performance of your business, please contact or

Photograph courtesy of Kierland Commons Shopping Centre, Scottsdale, AZ, Westin Kierland.