Department of Fitness

Reimagining the high street department store – a health and fitness reinterpretation

The purpose of the high street has long been talked about. In the wake of the pandemic our high streets are experiencing significant upheaval. Rather than ‘the death of the high street’, we are looking at how to revive it, especially as everyone makes their keen return to life outside of their four walls.

A longstanding staple of our high streets are the department stores, and with these spaces reconsidering their purpose – is workplace or residential their only option? Or is there a chance for something different and more lifestyle focused that meets the needs of today’s savvier consumer, repurposing the department store both physically and conceptually to cater for the growing trends in the health and fitness industry.

A Department Store FIT for Health & Fitness

In the last few years, we have witnessed a major shift in lifestyle towards a more active and fitness-conscious consumer. The fitness industry has accelerated its footprint, offering a wider choice from budget gyms to more upmarket fitness clubs that offer everything under one roof. There are far more boutique operators, such as Soulcycle or Psycle, offering the best in class ‘spin studio’ or ‘Pilates class’. Such boutiques are now popping up on the high street and within our local neighbourhoods for added convenience, street presence and choice. The more successful brand-inspiring operators are becoming ever more desirable to landlord and developers as part of the important tenant mix within buildings and mixed-use development

And as everyone adapted and tried to find new ways of maintaining healthy and active living during each lockdown – sharing their favourite companies and products on social media – brands have evolved, and many new brands have emerged. This has arguably showcased an even greater demand for new and engaging experiences around health and fitness.

Equinox Bishopsgate: A Woods Bagot fitness project

Could the department store concept, with its curated brands and concession style masterplans, be the next best thing for the wellbeing & fitness industry?

How might the fitness industry take advantage of both vacating physical department stores and the concept of the department store to further evolve this growing industry?

In this process and post-Covid era, are we able to find new and more market-specific ways in which we can revive our high streets?

In this insights piece we explore the ways in which department stores could be re-imagined, creating meaningful destinations and healthier communities.

Step 01:

Create a cultural destination

It is important to first acknowledge that when using the term ‘department store’, we are not referring to something at the scale of a Westfield, but more like that of House of Fraser, John Lewis, or Debenhams.

Timeout Market is a great example of bringing multiple competitors under one roof – all benefiting from and achieving the same goal – appealing to foodies. It sets an operating canvas for chefs and F&B operators and creates a successful and vibrant social destination with food at its heart.

The same canvas could be staged for boutique fitness operators and health and fitness retail brands. What if you could take your Soulcycle class and then pop into Lululemon for a new pair of leggings, before heading to Crussh for a green smoothie? Spaces for each of these brands, all with a cross-sector of consumer targets, can then sit around a central social heart. This is then complimented by added amenities such as co-working club space or a market hall of nutrition to refuel – ensuring there’s appeal to new and potential customers, as well as the repeat base.


Step 02:

Curate the fitness-fan’s journey

A department store typically creates multiple access and arrival points; however, it rarely has a defined central atrium once inside. Instead, the user is physically directed to immediately engage with a fashion or cosmetic brand on entry with navigation made a deliberate challenge to keep people around for longer.

In contrast with this proposed concept on entry there is an immediate sense of a unique destination with a range of fitness and wellbeing options on display. The retail activity revolves around a central amenity from which fitness concessions overlook and spring from to generate physical and social energy.

For the end-user, they are offered a heightened user experience through a diversity of brand choices on offer and a range of fitness activities to choose from. For many, fitness has been a healthy outlet during lockdown and by providing a space with common ground and shared interest, we are providing this community yet another space to escape from the day-to-day.

Central Atrium Activation: Concept 1 and Concept 2

Step 03:

Increase engagement: The new hybrid norm

Social media has played a huge part in developing wellness and fitness as a desirable lifestyle, one which the general population are keen to showcase and / or engage with via their own digital channels. Many social media influencers are either turning their head to online workouts or healthy eating tips – while personal trainers work hard to build their presence, garnering sizeable audiences of tremendous worth to any major brand.

Step 03:

Increase engagement: The new hybrid norm

Think of Peloton as an example. Born out of home product sales, the company has moved to open more physical stores before lockdown and, during lock down, many of its virtual personal trainers have become very well known. This gives Peloton the opportunity to grow their presence, not just via their physical retail space, but through experience-creation. In a fitness-focused centre, these PTs can bring their popular digital presence to a live space – a sort of pop-up session – increasing overall brand engagement while also driving footfall.

Peloton, which won an early celebrity fanbase for its exercise bikes and remote workout classes, has seen demand surge during the pandemic. The firm’s global membership base hit 3.1 million at the end of June, more than double a year earlier, as gym closures due to Covid-19 increased demand for at-home workouts.

We’re often discussing the convergence of physical and digital when it comes to all types of retail, and this is just a great example of how the fitness product can achieve this – at a benefit to both brands and their customers.

Over the course of the pandemic, people have become interested in combining exercise and mental relaxation to relieve stress. Fitness enthusiasts are looking for ways to promote physical and mental well-being in unison rather than as two separate activities.

Thus, yoga, pilates, and other mind-body activities are gaining popularity. It’s expected to become a

$66 billion industry by 2027

This figure includes in-person and virtual classes, equipment, and apparel.

Step 04:

Enhance the flexibility of retail assets for future adaptation by landlords, developers, and operators

The concession style masterplan of the department store concept can enable flexibility of brand size and unit make up to drive rental income. Lease terms can be made flexible to promote healthy brand turnover and variety whilst maintaining core operators.

Operators are then able to take advantage of the central amenity and dwell space with potential retail space for merchandise display and sales. The developer / landlord or overarching operator could explore a variety of payment methods, via sole or joint memberships with brands, or one-off bookings. It some cases, operators may extend this destination into its membership base as a benefit or added service.

In this concept the central amenity becomes a space that encourages exploration, social interaction, and has an opportunity to engage new audiences.


Some gym and active wear brands in 2021

A positive
re-purposing for
future use

This concept encourages the re-purposing of an existing building typology that has stood the test of time for decades. We are not looking at an entirely new and untested concept, but rather an adaptation of the principal idea to become even more flexible for future use or for combined uses.

The department store is already going through a similar adaptation with both residential and workplace concepts. There is nothing to say that retail cannot remain a relevant element within our high street, but perhaps with a broader focus on health, wellbeing, and fitness – an industry that has proven of significant importance to many in the last year and continues to be high on people’s lifestyle choices.

The main goal is to figure out how we can drive more meaningful engagement for users in these spaces. As we return to our high streets and to our local shopping centers, we want to turn the department store from a transactional environment to one of high activation and positive and social engagement to promote healthier living within communities.

Talk to Peter O’Donnell about Department of Fitness

Latest from Global Studio