There's nothing wrong with having successful retail parks
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
The pandemic has done much to accelerate changes in the way we live our lives - and there are few areas in which this change has been more rapid than the way we shop.
There's been a great deal written about the way more shopping is now done online - and how grocery delivery services from existing supermarkets and new specialist companies like Ocado has taken off.
But one aspect of shopping that has been overlooked is the way the changing landscape is giving a real boost to retail parks as an alternative to traditional town centre shopping.
It also seems as if smaller town centres may be benefitting as the largest shopping centres still struggle to win back customers.
This week we highlighted the success of the Anglia Retail Park on the north west edge of Ipswich which is attracting new tenants and seeing customer numbers increasing despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic.
It's not difficult to see the attraction of retail parks. If you know what you want, you know where you get it, and you don't want to make a "day out" of your shopping trip they are very attractive.
You can park right near the store - push your goods out in a trolley if they're bulky - and you don't have to pay to park. If you are calling at two or three units and want to stop for a coffee most have somewhere or three where you can do that.
To be fair town centre managers seem to recognise that - which is why the retail offering appears less and less crucial to the plans being put forward by Ipswich Central.
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No one is saying that town centre shopping doesn't matter - but increasingly it isn't as important for those people who don't live within easy walking distance of the town centre.
And that is one of the driving forces behind the "connected town" concept trying to encourage more people to live within easy reach of the heart of Ipswich.
The town centre will always be more attractive for small, independent stores - and for those selling specific products. But even here it can be difficult. Where do you find a locally-made loaf of unsliced bread in the town centre except on Friday when the bread stall is on the market?
In the past there has been a feeling among some people that retail parks should be looked down on - the argument was that they were sterile and characterless and were sucking the life out of town centres.
That's not really fair these days. They might not have grown organically over hundreds of years but they do serve an important need for 21st citizens.
And of course many are not just about shopping. The Anglia Retail Park has the trampoline/play centre there. Most also have family restaurants - and of course all provide valuable jobs that would otherwise not be there.
Of course there are drawbacks to retail parks. They do essentially rely on users having access to private cars. They may be served by buses, but that's not really a realistic way of carrying bulky goods - and it's only any use if you live on the bus route.
It would be a mighty effort to get to the Anglia Retail Park by bus from Sidegate Lane.
They are functional rather than social - I suspect you don't get so many people meeting up for a coffee at Costa at Futura Park or the Interchange Park as you do in the town centre.
But they do fill an important shopping need and, like it or not, they are likely to be an increasingly important part of the retail landscape in the future.
This isn't something that has been caused by the events of the last two years, but it has been accelerated by them.
It is a seismic change that is altering the way large town and city centres have to see themselves all over the country - and possibly the world. It will require change from those centres, and it is certainly something that is recognised in Ipswich.
But it is not right to demonise the new kids on the block that are providing services that the public wants to use.