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Comment: Death by design for Coal Drops Yard

Grace Whelan

The King’s Cross retail destination had a great vision – but may have overlooked customer appeal.

It’s Friday afternoon in King’s Cross. Granary Square is bustling with food trucks, Central St Martins coughs out a steady stream of students into the sunshine and shoppers emerge into the cobbled courtyard having meandered their way – via Jigsaw, Nike and Carhartt – up from King’s Cross and St Pancras International stations.

coal drops yard

The clocks have just gone forward, and spring has sprung in the regenerated area. A couple of optimistic souls sit on the canal steps swigging gin and tonic from tins. A small queue has already begun to form outside the popular Dishoom restaurant on Stable Street. Kings Cross’s £1bn, 8 million sq ft reinvention is coming to life.

However, just over the wall in Coal Drops Yard, it is a different story. Since opening, almost six months ago, the experiential retail destination has become a victim of its own uniqueness. Hidden away, behind a tower of Victorian brick, this courtyard is almost completely deserted. The swooping slate roof offers little protection from the elements and the small dark shops hunkered in railway arches seem uninviting to the passing shopper.

In the two hours Drapers spends speaking to retailers and store owners, there is not one sale

Coal Drops Yard was designed by architectural firm Heatherwick Studio to reflect the history of the two main buildings, which were erected in 1850 to house coal that had been transported from the north of England into the capital.

Coal drops

The space itself is austere in its beauty – the rugged brickwork and black iron stairways are starkly striking. The parallel slate roofs rise to a gentle kiss above the courtyard, arguably Coal Drops Yard’s most Instagrammable spot. However, while the masculine design echoes that of the surrounding King’s Cross effortlessly, here the retail element jars. 

It is nothing like a traditional shopping environment – and has none of the shoppers that normally come with one.

In the two hours Drapers spends speaking to retailers and store owners, there is not one sale.

Recent research, conducted by Copa in January 2019, revealed that one in three Londoners are aware of Coal Drops Yard


With a slightly pained expression, one retailer says: “This is probably about as busy as it gets,” gesturing through the glass to the two security guards walking alone through the yard.

Others question their ability to continue trading with such sparse footfall.

It is a story that should have been one of instant success – a masterclass in experiential retail. The highly curated brand mix selected specifically for the Coal Drops customer: a discerning, affluent shopper who prides themselves on their individuality. However, that shopper does not seem to have materialised. Either that or they have been confused by the cryptic directions to the development and walked straight past.

Argent, the site’s developer, points out: “Recent research, conducted by Copa in January 2019, revealed that one in three Londoners are aware of Coal Drops Yard and this awareness is continuing to grow.”

However, if more than 30% of Londoners already know about the destination and it remains deserted, that is a worry for retailers.

Cubitts, le chocolat, coal drops yard opens at 12pm tomorrow, 26 october 2018 photography credit, john sturrock

The development would benefit from a concerted marketing campaign and more useful directions from the station – ones that do not announce your arrival at Coal Drops Yard while you are still in Granary Square – and the overall experience needs some work.

Each of the stores, from Cos to Universal Works, Paul Smith to Lost Property London, have designed their own concept. But a pretty store fit alone does not make an experience.

At the time of opening Craig White, senior project director at Argent, said: “If you spend time with [Coal Drops Yard], we want you to have a lovely time in return. When it came to leasing Coal Drops Yard, we created a set of values as some guiding principles – enriching, delighting and uniting.”

Instead, on descending the slope from Granary Square, visitors are welcomed by the cold and outstretched arms of a vast, vacant expanse. Dimly lit rows of stores peek out from beneath raised walkways, their product often too pricey for passing trade and just too niche to draw a critical mass of customers on their own merits.

Far from a masterclass in experiential retail, Coal Drops Yard has become engulfed by its own vision. Its conceptual offering is out of kilter with an area that is still in the infancy of developing its retail reputation.

Summer may be just around the corner, but so is Westfield – and for now, London seems happy enough with the mainstream model.


Readers' comments (5)

  • If you build it they will come. Unless you've never heard of it, can't find it or think your are not hipster enough to shop there. Seems like no mass appeal here even if you can find it. Seventy five different cereal options cafe anyone !

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  • I have been there once and probably won't go back. The shops just aren't particularly enticing.

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  • darren hoggett

    I actually quite the design, but not for retail. It far too clever for its own good. That gets people in Marketing departments excited, which is rarely good news because that means that the project isn't financially viable.

    Kings Cross for many is Trains, Tubes and Buses, not austere retail concepts that should have never left the drawing pad.

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  • In my opinion, CDY is trying to be a mini Shoreditch. However, Shoreditch is full of tourists and city boys/girls. "Affluent shoppers" don't create a culture/vibe and it's outpricing regular Londoners. CDY also feels too inauthentic and lacking personality.

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  • Ssssshhhhh retails best kept secret, destination shopping, right at the start of two main lines stations, good for commuters, towners and out of towners. START SHOUTING ABOUT IT!!!!!!! So many people have no idea it even exits, unlike the Primark Birmingham store that made the all the main news!!! Marketing people need to be shot, easy day out for anyone on these main lines. People North of Watford that i've mentioned to have been and loved it, most missed their intended train back not realising the scope of bars and restaurants.

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