Shoppers flock out of town

Regional out-of-town centres attract a higher proportion of shoppers than in-town centres, says Mintel. But business is booming for both.

The UK shopper’s enthusiasm for visiting major out-of-town and in-town shopping centres remains strong, despite e-commerce hype and a planning environment that is now firmly against out-of-town expansion.

Mintel’s research shows that 41 per cent of adults visited a regional centre in 1999 compared with a total of 36 per cent visiting any type of in-town shopping centre.

Twenty-two per cent visited a covered shopping centre in a major city centre while 19 per cent visited a covered shopping centre in a major town centre.

Regional out-of-town centres are visited by a greater proportion of the sample than in-town centres, largely because of the extension of their geographical coverage.

Four major new developments – the biggest being Bluewater in Dartford – have opened within the past two years. They have given easy access to centres for the first time for many living within their catchment areas.

Because of planning restrictions on out-of-town sites, the focus of attention for new development has moved strongly towards in-town sites. Given the popularity of shopping centres, what does the future hold for traditional high-street locations?

Looking at the preferred location when shopping for clothing and footwear, Mintel’s research found that despite the increased number of shopping centre developments, non-shopping centre locations (46 per cent) were of equal interest as covered shopping centres (44 per cent).

It appears the high street and traditional shopping locations are far from dead as destinations for comparison goods shopping in general, and clothing and footwear shopping in particular.

Almost half the sample surveyed cited a broader choice of shops as the most important advantage of shopping centres over traditional locations. This emphasises the need for centre management to pay close attention to the tenant mix within a centre.

The main disadvantage of shopping centres is that they can be too busy and overcrowded, which suggests a need to ensure that the right kind of shopper is attracted to a centre rather than simply stimulating footfall for its own sake.

Greater attention to layout of centres, improving traffic flows, and reducing congestion in hot spots are all seen as ways in which active management can be applied to busy centres to make the shopping experience more pleasant.

The similarity and sameness of shops was the second-highest rated disadvantage (20 per cent), emphasising the need to create an interesting and appealing mix of retailers within centres.

Careful targeting of shoppers’ needs is becoming increasingly important. Research into the types of facilities shoppers would like to see improved shows that free car parks and more toilets – especially for women and mothers – are the main improvements sought.

Parking charges can be a key differentiator to shoppers when deciding where to shop, although in some cases there is little management can do about car parking charges set by local authorities.

More affluent shoppers see a need for a more interesting choice of retailers and a greater number of independent retailers within shopping centres as ways of improving attractiveness.

Shoppers would also welcome more interesting fashion retailers, craft and hobby shops and specialist food shops. Centre operators could tackle two consumer needs at once by marketing their centres to successful and ambitious independents to encourage occupancy.

The fact that longer opening hours is a feature mainly sought by those aged under 25 suggests that centres experimenting with evening opening will find a receptive audience. Spreading footfall over a longer period would help alleviate problems with congestion, although there is no certainty that it would increase overall business for retailers.

Centre management needs to look at offering a greater diversity of businesses rather than relying on established names. Greater variety in the tenant mix is a key finding of Mintel’s research, especially among fashion-oriented consumers.

In the current environment, improved targeting of the centre offer against shoppers’ needs is necessary to alleviate the problem of some centres becoming overcrowded with too broad a mix of shoppers.

The objective of better targeting is to lift average spend per customer by attracting more footfall of the right kind. Clusters of similarly positioned shops will contribute to a higher quality customer. Finding ways of achieving that aim is one of the next big challenges in shopping centre management.

Factfile is edited by Julia Day. Mintel retail consultant RIchard Caines contributed

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