Business-un-usual: How Sook opens doors on the high street for big brands and small start-ups alike

Remass, Sook Oxford Street © Remass

With 10 outlets across the country and a churn of more than 450 different businesses in four years, Sook is taking a radically new approach to activating vacant high street properties. In conversation with Sook’s Tom Price and Tola Alade, founder of Marmalade Collective, we uncover the unique aspects of Sook’s model and the social benefits it unlocks.

If anyone can remember a time when running a high street business was a stable and reliable undertaking, they have probably been in the game for a while. Challenged for decades by competing alternatives, ranging from out-of-town retail parks to online outlets, the high street has slowly lost its position as a prime shopping destination, leaving a trail of failed businesses in its wake. Add to that changing consumer trends and tightening trading conditions, and you might find that it’s nothing short of a miracle that any business survives in a high street environment at all. Luckily some do, usually with the help of loyal customers, complimentary neighbouring establishments, emergency funds, or sheer determination.

However, for the majority of occupiers, signing a lease on a high street unit in this day and age is, well, risky business. Consequently, several big brands have been looking to consolidate their physical presence to just a few tactical or profitable locations, while small and independent business owners have been calling out for more flexible lease terms and rent control. In all instances, the risk does not actually disappear. Instead, it is passed on to the property owner, be they public, private, or overseas, who will quite often, and understandably, push back. One of the key challenges of high street activation today results from this power struggle: who should take on the greater financial risk? And, for a long time, it has been almost inevitable that the public sector and community-oriented businesses would draw the shortest straw.

That is, until Sook came along.

“High streets are the centre of our towns and communities. They are the heartbeat. That’s why high rates of vacancies affect the social fabric of these locations as much as the commercial value.”

Tom Price, Head of Site Acquisition, Sook

By combining a new business model (essentially the space-as-a-service model pioneered by companies like WeWork and Airbnb) and a clever digital fit-out, Sook has set out to rebalance the relationship between commercial landlords and tenants for the benefit of all. Founded by real estate professional John Hoyle in 2019, the company provides flexible booking, bringing low-cost opportunities to prospective tenants and continuous incomes for flexible landlords. The experience is further enhanced by a system of digital screens, which enables the rapid, inexpensive, sustainable customisation of spaces.

“What made Sook stand out to me was the digital screens, which means that you can easily make the space feel like yours. The other thing was the team, who were easy and friendly to engage with.”

Sook tenant Tola Alade, Marmalade Collective

One organisation which has benefitted from Sook’s offer is the digital media company Marmalade Collective. With a mission to “build a new mainstream audience shaped by Africa’s culture, stories and emerging brands”, Marmalade Collective saw Sook as an opportunity to create a series of more accessible, highly engaging, offline experiences. Founder Tola Alade believes bringing different people together offline is key. The first event they hosted in collaboration with Sook was a 1-day NFT exhibition on Oxford Street. Six months later, they created a showcase of African brands on Shoreditch High Street. In both cases, Sook opened doors to destinations with high levels of footfall, traditionally reserved for businesses that can take out 15-year lease terms.

“Online, we’re all in our respective information bubbles. It is only when you start bumping in to people offline that you really get to exchange ideas and have your ideas challenged. In my opinion, high street spaces are about creating those points of convergence between people from different cultures and backgrounds.”

Sook tenant Tola Alade, Marmalade Collective

Marmalade Collective’s ‘Beyond Black: Culture in Colour’ pop-up event at Sook Shoreditch, showcasing and celebrating African fashion and lifestyle brands © Adam Duke Photography

Tola originally came upon Sook on LinkedIn, where the company’s relatively small team are frequently active. You might say that the collaboration happened by chance, which was exactly how Sook got its foothold in the first place.

The very first Sook venue was piloted in a former family-run restaurant in Cambridge. By luck, the space was vacant at the right time to trial John’s burgeoning idea and located in the right place to capture the attention of an important passerby: the asset manager of a local shopping centre owned by Legal & General. Accordingly, Sook was able to sign its first formal commercial lease with a major landowner, giving it the clout to bring the concept to London. Today, Sook has 10 venues across the country, of which five are in the capital, which have hosted a combined total of more than 450 businesses.

“For our first handful of sites, we definitely relied on forward-thinking landlords like L&G, Derwent, Nuveen, Grosvenor, and Sovereign Central to take a chance on our model and share costs and risks.”

Tom Price, Head of Site Acquisition, Sook

The way Sook actually works is by meeting the needs of landlords and tenants alike. In the simplest terms, landlords need long-term commitments and covenant strengths (the tenant’s ability to comply with the rules outlined in their lease); tenants need flexible access to space and simple, transparent rules to play by. By acting as a broker between these two types of stakeholders, Sook has managed to de-risk and simplify the process of renting commercial property, bringing life back to vacant units and opportunities for innovative businesses.

In some cases, these terms might be more commercially driven, giving landlords a chance to maximise their returns and giving established brands like Uber, Radley, and Vodafone a fresh platform for audience engagement. In other cases, the terms might be more socially oriented, giving landlords an opportunity to connect with communities and giving communities an affordable platform for building new connections. Often, the same space will fulfil multiple purposes throughout the week, which is exactly the point.

“We make Sook’s spaces accessible with a fractal leasing model, meaning that we can sell space by the hour. No one really needs a shop for a full week. In fact, traditional retailers usually make 80% of revenue in just 20% of the time. We can charge a premium for those hours while at other hours, the space is much cheaper to rent.”

Tom Price, Head of Site Acquisition, Sook

At Marmalade Collective, Tola Alade recognises several benefits in Sook’s flexible leasing model, including being able to test different locations and types of business before making a long-term commitment. In fact, Sook is collecting a wealth of data about what works where and how, which it shares with prospective tenants to best help their ventures succeed. In time, this approach might also enable Sook to curate the overall sequencing of tenants for greater social and/or economic effect – if they want to.

Along with WeWork, Airbnb, Second Home, and Appear Here, Sook is one of several companies driving the digital transformation of the property sector. If online retail has contributed to the death of the high street, perhaps digitally enabled experiences will help bring it back to life.

“We’re delighted to have Sook on board as part of our new mixed-destination meeting place at Livat Hammersmith. For our spaces to be fit for generations to come, we believe we need to move away from the traditional retail high street model and partner with brands like Sook, who champion spaces where people can not only sell, but grow, learn, build relationships and have fun. The new meeting place is the latest opening in our mission to help people connect with their communities and the wider world.”

Sook real estate partner, Scott Murray, Partner Relationship Leader for Ingka Centres

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