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Retail trade in Brussels: reconciling the city with a changing sector

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Benjamin Wayens, Tatiana Debroux, Pernelle Godart, Céline Mahieu, Mathieu Strale and Emmanuel d'Ieteren published on May 4, 2020. Read the article.

The lockdown which began in Belgium on 18 March 2020 involved the closure of all non-essential shops. The retail sector has always been characterised by an adaptation to external factors and to a change in demand, yet this crisis is unprecedented. Although the impact of the exceptional measures taken to combat the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet been quantified, it is likely that these measures have accelerated trends already under way, either in the sector as a whole or in individual businesses. In these times of crisis for the retail sector, issue 143 of Brussels Studies is therefore particularly welcome: written on the eve of the lockdown by a team of researchers from Université libre de Bruxelles and company advisers from GroupOne, it takes stock of the available knowledge regarding the retail sector in Brussels.

With some 20 700 points of sale for commercial goods and services in 2017, the retail sector in Brussels is characterised by its economic importance (9 % of regional employment, a large proportion of which does not require qualifications attested by a diploma), as well as by its extreme versatility. In certain commercial centres in Brussels, points of sale which undergo a change – disappear, change activity or function, are converted or demolished – represent between 4 % and 9 % of commercial units annually. In contrast, the creation of new points of sale very nearly offsets their disappearance (between 1997 and 2017, the average annual rate of decrease in the number of shops was estimated at -0,4 %). The commercial landscape in the Brussels-Capital Region is therefore very dynamic: within it lie profound transformations resulting from the adaptation to evolving consumer practices, new logistics practices, a logic of relocation associated with maintaining turnover by increasing sales areas, as well as local dynamics which modify the environment in which commercial activity is carried out.

The question of the retail environment is particularly interesting in the context of a regional reflection on this sector of activity, which is more necessary today than ever. The authors dedicate the last part of this synopsis to nine key issues, with recommendations for both merchants and urban managers.

In the eyes of these attentive observers, the retail environment is understood first of all as the set of material and regulatory conditions surrounding this activity. As such, the impact of construction works, mobility plans or any other major event on the supply chain, the accessibility of shops and the flow of customers must be taken into consideration. They therefore advocate the development of continued reflection by all stakeholders in order to maintain a welcoming city for retail trade and to encourage its diversity. In this respect, the authors note the delicate shift of regional retail support mechanisms from the sphere of urban renewal to that of economic policies. While this shift makes it possible to integrate an entrepreneurial approach into the management of urban retail trade, there is the potential for it to make us lose sight of the need for community planning which takes into account the specific needs of shops – and vice versa.

Furthermore, the online retail environment must also be considered today. The proportion of Brussels residents who made online purchases in 2018, whether regularly or occasionally, is estimated at 58 %, and the lockdown will probably raise this figure. This does not mean that all shops should develop online sales, as the issue of e-commerce is not just about selling products on the internet. Many shoppers combine online information with purchases in shops, as well as the other way round. Physical retail still has the undeniable advantage of physical products as well as services offered by shopkeepers, which are at the heart of their trade. E-commerce should therefore be considered as a link between online presence and physical points of sale, for merchandise or for picking up orders. The future of retail trade – electronic or not – is unclear, especially in the city. But it is clear that retail sector in Brussels must continue to reinvent itself. The bankruptcies and restructuring which will result from the Covid-19 crisis will undoubtedly make this reinvention and the support it receives all the more indispensable.

Wayens, Benjamin, Debroux, Tatiana, Godart, Pernelle, Mahieu, Céline, Strale, Mathieu and d’Iteren, Emmanuel, “Retail trade in Brussels: reconciling the city with a changing sector”, Brussels Studies [Online], BSI Synopsis, No 143, 4 May 2020. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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