Do shopping malls face a shocking mauling?

The campaign for the Westfield Shopping Centre, created by Adam & Eve, shows people changing into butterfly-like beings and flying towards the latest UK retail development. But like butterflies themselves, are such megalithic shopping destinations now destined for a short lifespan? When the plans for London’s shopping development were publicly unveiled in 2006, few could have anticipated it would open for business just as the UK economy teetered on the brink of recession.

Westfield%20CentreThe campaign for the Westfield Shopping Centre, created by Adam & Eve, shows people changing into butterfly-like beings and flying towards the latest UK retail development. But like butterflies themselves, are such megalithic shopping destinations now destined for a short lifespan? When the plans for London’s shopping development were publicly unveiled in 2006, few could have anticipated it would open for business just as the UK economy teetered on the brink of recession.

Recent similar ventures, including Liverpool One in Liverpool and Bristol’s Cabot Circus, also appear to be victims of poor timing. Clearing regulatory hurdles and building a shopping centre can take seven years, so all these initiatives were conceived in a happier economic climate. But there is room for some optimism, as retailers in Liverpool and Bristol’s new developments say sales are buoyant.

Drawing them in 

Retail analyst Andy Wade at Numis says: “Westfield is going to pull in customers from surrounding high streets and it is those retailers who have to be worried. There is evidence of customers trading down, but broadly speaking it’s at the margins.”

He adds that active footfall may be less than six months ago, but top-of-the-range centres are holding up. Bluewater in Kent, which celebrates its tenth anniversary next year, has posted a 9% rise in footfall, month-on-month, and 7% year-on-year, although sales are flat.

Stephen Fox, managing director of Fox Kalomaski, which specialises in the marketing of shopping developments such as The Chimes in Uxbridge, says that people with a job will continue to shop and that the strength of individual complexes depends very much on the location and the continuing job prospects in the surrounding locale.

Shopping centres originally proved attractive because they offered the ability to shop beneath one roof. But to really ensure strong footfall and repeat visits, retail developments must become attractive destinations with entertainment value and a “wow” factor, says RPM3:Beechwood planning director Mark Taylor, who has worked on retail businesses including Austin Reed, HMV and Matalan.

Taylor believes that the original US malls were “wonderfully engineered” and that the model has become dumbed down, so now it should be “about turning them back into more proactive entertainment locations, rather than just showrooms”.

Bluewater general manager Andrew Parkinson agrees and says: “It’s not just about shopping among 330 retailers. You have got to look at the whole experience on offer from a centre.”

Bluewater covers 50 acres and now offers “tree jumping”, boating, celebrity appearances and a “Winter Wonderland” experience. The site is also set to return to television advertising for the first time in eight years, from next month, with a branding and call-to-action message.

Experience must also count for something during a downturn and Westfield general manager Nicky Fuller points out that the Westfield Group has been retailing in Australia and the US for 50 years. She says: “Our whole philosophy is about creating a destination and making shopping an easy and pleasurable experience.”

Discerning audience 

She thinks Westfield will remain robust because of its location and London’s “very discerning audience” made up of locals and tourists.

Westfield is determined to make a splash, and its extravagant Shopping in a New Light marketing strategy includes a projection onto Battersea Power Station, and partnerships with Bauer Media’s Grazia and Associated Newspapers. The sheer pizzazz around the launch will see Westfield through the crucial Christmas trading season, but the tough months to follow will prove a greater test.

Branwell Johnson

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