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ECSP: A new association for a new world

Joost Koomen (left) and Peter Wilhelm

The European Council of Shopping Places has launched to fill the void left by the ICSC. Peter Wilhelm and Joost Koomen tell Paul Strohm why a pan-European retail organisation is needed more than ever.

When the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) ceased its European activities in autumn 2019, Peter Wilhelm, who had been elected chairman of ICSC Europe in April 2018, thought that a replacement organisation was needed.

Subsequent events have given that requirement an even greater imperative. “There was a requirement for a pan- European organisation, especially in such challenging times,” Wilhelm told Living Retail’s parent company Real Asset Media.

Extensive discussion took place among the stakeholders of Europe’s retail property sector, which revealed widespread support for the idea and the European Council of Shopping Places (ECSP) began to take shape. The organisation was officially launched in October but, in reality, has operated for about eight months.

Wilhelm, who heads Belgium-based firm Wilhelm & Co, a specialist in retail-led, mixed-use urban development, says the aim was to create an organisation that was truly representative of the retail property industry with members including large REITs, developers and the national shopping centre councils which, in turn, tend to represent mediumsized players.

National members

ECSP had 15 members at launch with founding members including ECE, SES Spar European Shopping Centers, Sonae Sierra, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, Wilhelm & Co, as well as the Italian Council of Shopping Centres (CNCC Italia). Several other national councils of shopping centres/places have now joined, including those of Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg, France, Germany and Portugal.

The new organisation’s strategy has several strands. ECSP was conceived as a trade organisation rather than an event organiser, and one of its primary roles is advocacy for the industry. “Members agreed it is more necessary than ever to have a voice heard at the EU and similar places,” says Wilhelm.

Part of the ECSP’s stated mission, therefore, is to provide, “a European voice for an industry that designs, creates, funds, develops, builds and manages places anchored by retail across Europe”.

“Our associations are committed to a national dialogue but also to a European one,” said Gontran Thuring, chief executive of the French CNCC (Conseil National des Centres Commerciaux) a founder member of ECSP. “We must have a public profile that transcends one single market, that brings collective value in terms of our concerns, expertise and future aspirations. Working alongside our colleagues in other markets we are better able to understand and share best practice, new innovations and trends, to influence emerging policy and to access the financial aid and support that is now being made available.”

‘It is evident that there is a great evolution and you have to jump on the bandwagon to agree that the [retail] business model is changing or you suffer seriously.’

Peter Wilhelm, ECSP

The need for a unified voice has clearly been underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent acceleration of the online incursion into the sales turnover of physical shops and increasingly downbeat attitudes to bricks-and-mortar retailing: Wilhelm believes there has been a lot of misplaced “retail bashing” of late.

“There has been a lot of negative commentary about the retail sector. It is evident that there is a great evolution and you have to jump on the bandwagon to agree that the business model is changing or you suffer seriously,” he says.

He adds that a lot of the negative sentiment is wildly overstated and that listed companies and REITs have been unfairly punished. “If you see the figures, they were of course bad for two months and then they improved. They have declined again, but nothing like the fall in value of REITs, some of which have lost 80% of their value. But no one has lost or postponed the collection (which is often the case) of 80% their rents, maybe 15 to 25% on an annual basis.

“Ridiculous!” concludes a clearly frustrated Wilhelm.

And he believes many of the positive retail metrics are being overlooked by those outside the industry: retail in Europe employs more than 6.3 million people; it generates an annual turnover of €750 billion; and it represents almost 160 million sq m of floorspace. “A lot of people don’t realise how important retailing is to the economy,” he adds.

There are also social benefits that can easily be forgotten, as ECSP’s secretary general Joost Koomen points out: “Retailing provides an important lifeline for communities.”

Level playing field

ECSP is not trying to turn back the online tide. As Wilhelm points out, online and offline retailing used to be done by different people, “now any dynamic retailer has an online and offline presence”.

But one thing the organisation is asking for is a more equal tax treatment by governments. What the organisation objects to, says Wilhelm, is the fact that very large pure-play online operators are not subject to the same tax regimes as smaller omnichannel players, “which is something that the authorities need to address”, he says.

Koomen elaborates: “Obviously, retailing enables people to obtain the things that they need. This is role of e-commerce too. So what is really important is that there is a level playing field between bricks-and-mortar retailing and e-commerce.”

Despite bricks-and-mortar’s evident sensitivity to the penetration of online retailing, Wilhelm still firmly believes in its power as an anchor. “We are social animals, we need to meet people and there are now a lot of opportunities for those who play the counter cycle,” he says.

‘What is really important
is that there is a level playing field between bricks-and-mortar retailing and e-commerce.’

Joost Koomen, ECSP

By including retail in a mixed-use project, huge footfalls can be generated, he explains. He contrasts revered tourist attraction, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which attracts an impressive 1.3 million visitors a year, to regional malls that can bring in eight to 50 million visitors a year. Such a level of footfall increases the value of other real estate in the vicinity, such as residential, he adds: “People will want to live there, it is a virtual circle in which everyone is a winner.”

Another role of ECSP is to provide its diverse membership with a platform that enables all players in the industry to meet, discuss and agree global positions on areas such as sustainability, research, public policy, security and property management, and future trends. A number of working groups have been established to focus on making the realisation of these goals more manageable.

Crisis management

Understandably, the problems created by the pandemic are high on ECSP’s list of current preoccupations. The crisis has hit the sector particularly hard, with the closure of hundreds of thousands of shops, stores, bars and restaurants. “We already know what a disaster it is for the retail industry. We didn’t need it but we have to live with it,” says Wilhelm.

“The priority for our members so far this year has been to protect their teams and to work with their tenants during these very difficult times. However, as the pandemic has endured, the need for us to address the most pressing and imminent challenges currently being faced by our sector has become ever more acute,” says Koomen, adding that ECSP will work with its members, national associations, the European institutions, national governments and local authorities to promote and protect the sector.

If there are positive conclusions to be drawn from the pandemic and reactions to it, one might be that public responses to lockdowns imposed to resist the spread of coronavirus have revealed the extent to which people miss face-to-face interaction. That is something that gives Peter Wilhelm cause for hope and underlines the purpose of ECSP.

“Our members are a catalyst for sustainable urban regeneration and represent an important civic function in virtually every European community,” he says.

 The ECSP provides a European voice for an industry that designs, creates, funds, develops, builds and manages places anchored by retail across Europe. This industry employs more than 6.3 million people, generates an annual turnover of €750 billion and represents almost 160 million sq m of floorspace. ECSP membership will comprise companies and national associations and will act as a go-to platform and information hub to support the interests of its members and the communities they serve.


The ECSP provides a European voice for an industry that designs, creates, funds, develops, builds and manages places anchored by retail across Europe. This industry employs more than 6.3 million people, generates an annual turnover of €750 billion and represents almost 160 million sq m of floorspace. ECSP membership will comprise companies and national associations and will act as a go-to platform and information hub to support the interests of its members and the communities they serve.

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