The developers of the 1.2bn Bluewater retail complex, which opens on March 16, insist that it is not a shopping centre. The new ad campaign supporting the launch of Europe’s largest retail development breaks next week with the catchline: “It is as far from being a shopping centre as it is possible to be.”
Even so, the 50-acre Bluewater site near Dartford, Kent, will contain 320 shops with 1.7 million square feet of retail space and parking for 13,000 cars. Developer Lend Lease hopes to attract a sizeable proportion of the 5.5bn spent by shoppers in its catchment – the 9 million people who live in the Thames gateway area and around Kent. And retailers Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and House of Fraser will have giant stores on each of the three points of Bluewater’s triangular outline.
Amanda Longworth, marketing director for Lend Lease, an Australian property development company, says: “About 200 of the 320 outlets at Bluewater are flagship stores. But it is more than a collection of shops. We want Bluewater to be the best retail complex in Europe and an enjoyable day out.”
Lend Lease is keen to distance its site from the traditional perceptions of shopping centres, which conjure images of screaming kids, dirty floors, and crowded aisles. Yet, the centre is expected to attract 80,000 customers a day, and comes in for the same criticisms as most “shopping centres” – that it devastates the local economy, sucking business out of local high streets and turning nearby communities into ghost towns.
Longworth and her team hope to change public perceptions with the assistance of ad agency Banks Hoggins O’Shea/FCB (BHO). It has created a 2.2m regional press, TV and poster campaign which breaks on February 15.
BHO managing director Sven Olsen says: “The problem we faced was that the place is so awesome, it takes a while to get your head round it. But we had one overriding thought – if anything we do seems like an ad for a shopping centre, it’s wrong.”
Longworth says: “This is a business and we are in business to make money for ourselves and for our retailers. Ask any other shopping centre and the management will tell you that their aim is to increase traffic (footfall), but we are aiming to increase spend per head, or even spend per hour. The difference is that we want to increase spend per head, not traffic… to do that we have to extend people’s stay.”
For Lend Lease and Bluewater designer Eric Kuhne this has meant incorporating every customer convenience possible into the futuristic plans.
The designs include roundabouts with only two exits, car parking spaces which are 25 per cent bigger than usual, and welcome lounges at every main entrance, all to reduce the stress of entering and leaving the centre.
The complex is also highly targeted with each of the three separate sides dedicated to a specific customer group, although all will fall into the ABC1 category.
The park also features boating lakes, food courts, entertainment areas, and statues which will provide more easily recognisable meeting points for families, especially children.
Longworth adds: “Our target customers are ‘shopping centre averse’. Most would prefer not to go, so we are aiming to address and remove all the negative preconceptions they have.”
Of course, Bluewater faces challenges other than persuading its 10 million catchment area that shopping can be relaxing. It must take on the nearby Lakeside Thurrock complex, which itself offers 320 stores and 1.5 million square feet of retail space.
Longworth insists that Lakeside is not a competitor. She cites Bluewater’s more upmarket positioning, its leisure services (a multiscreen cinema is opening in June), and its closer location to customers south of the Thames.
“In the South they have virtually no alternative,” she says. “If people are going to travel for two hours to go shopping [at Lakeside] they will go somewhere with a maximum offer, it is the offer which drives their choice of destination.”
Securing the signatures of House of Fraser, M&S and John Lewis has proved a major coup in meeting this objective. All three were targeted by Lend Lease to the exclusion of all else.
Longworth says: “We went to John Lewis and asked what it would take for it to open a store here. It came back with a list of ten commandments and we have delivered those things. We needed John Lewis to make it happen.”
In return, John Lewis has made concessions in its own store design and dropped its insistence that the stores should not have windows that you can look out of.
A Lend Lease spokeswoman says: “John Lewis likes its customers to look at the merchandise, not outside. But it’s stupid to have all these wonderful views and not allow customers to see them.”
In turn, M&S and House of Fraser have both signalled their commitment to the project with “power-branches” – stores where innovation has been foremost and investment has been high.
Lend Lease marketing manager Catherine Hill says the three retailers have also fully embraced the company’s plan to open the doors with as little ceremony as possible come March 16. “There will be no fanfare or celebrity cutting tape, because it is all about the guests. That would not reflect the proposition of Bluewater as a long-term business.
“We are targeting customers who don’t like shopping centres and, if we had huge crowds on the opening day, that would just reinforce their bad perceptions. We must make sure their first experience, whenever it is, matches our promises.”
Lend Lease has promised much and must somehow deliver the promise of Bluewater not being a shopping centre when it appears to be just that. Longworth says Bluewater will be an “experience” – a belief enhanced by the fact that customers will be called “guests”.
However, this doctrine, reminiscent of a Disney attraction, where everything is focused on the experience rather than the simple business of filling up shopping trolleys, has been adopted with mixed success in many industries, particularly retail.
Bluewater will need to prove to its upmarket target customers that the change of terminology from “shopping centre” to “experience” is part of a more fundamental shift in approach.