Wednesday 2 June 2021 2:17 pm

A post-pandemic high street must be experience-led, says Geek Retreat CEO

In a post-pandemic world, the high street needs to offer customers something more experiential – something online giants like Amazon can’t offer – the CEO of ‘geek culture’ store Geek Retreat has said.

Geek Retreat, the retailer that sells everything from comics and graphic novels to action figures, and also offers customers access to gaming cafés in-store, today announced it was on track to open 60 high street shops by the end of 2021.

The news juxtaposes the story of the high street during the pandemic, when Covid-19-led restrictions saw major mainstream retailers shut their doors permanently after being closed to customers for months at a time, leading to empty, boarded-up shop fronts.

After opening up in Glasgow in 2013, Geek Retreat now boasts 27 UK stores, including in Newcastle, Leeds, London and Northampton.

The 60 new stores are due to open in a number of locations around the UK, including in Blackburn, Hereford and Exeter, as well as more stores in London, including in Sutton, Kingston, Uxbridge and Harrow later this year.    

A Geek Retreat store in Chelmsford.

Chief executive Peter Dobson said there could eventually be 15 to 16 Geek Retreat sites in the capital, including in Central London, though it is unlikely the counter-culture shop will open up on struggling Oxford Street, “unless the rents come down” he quipped.   

The high street is not yet out of the woods, and with a moratorium coming to an end in July, which was agreed at the start of the pandemic and prevented commercial landlords taking legal action to claim rent or evict tenants, yet more shops could soon close.

But Dobson believes the future of the high street lies in experiences, as people have become familiar and comfortable with shopping online during various lockdowns in the past year.

“[The high street] needs to offer something Amazon doesn’t,” he said. “I think it needs to be more of an experience and something different because everyone’s got so used to buying online that I don’t see much of a future for the high street in its previous form.”

European expansion

The kooky retailer, which uses a franchise model to expand, has been pushing for more stores since before the pandemic hit, but inevitably its plans were delayed.

But despite pandemic-related challenges, Dobson reckons the coronavirus has made places like Geek Retreat more appealing to potential customers.

“We’ve always know that the reason people come to Geek Retreat is because of the community, and feeling like they need a place to belong.

“I think what the pandemic has really brought about is that, for the last year and a bit, nobody has had that. Everyone has been in a situation where they can’t go to the football, or their golf club, and we’ve really tried to create a space of belonging for ‘geeks’ or people who like the things that we sell.”

Despite the store’s major expansion, and the recent flurry of IPO activity in the UK, the retailer is not yet ready for a public listing.

“The next big step is to get to between 200 and 250 stores in the UK, and then European expansion, so we’re in the early stages of plotting that, and we’re looking to potentially raise a round of investment to drive it,” he said.

“That would be the next step before we think about listing on a stock exchange.”