Shopping Centres aren’t even for Christmas anymore


Now that Black Friday has kicked off another festival of pre-Christmas shopping, retailers up and down the country will be hoping for a big push of sales, even if the discounts once saved for January are already on offer. Whilst the traditional High Streets play their part, and out-of-town shopping centres still able to pull in up to 35m visitors every year, both retail formats are in long term decline.(Source: Financial Times).

Instead, it's the retail parks that are standing up best to online shopping, driven by convenient locations, free parking and the now omnipresent click-and-collect.

Source: British Retail Consortium
Source: British Retail Consortium
Rubbing shoulders with .....everyone at Westfield
Rubbing shoulders with .....everyone at Westfield

Faced with such dreary performance, it makes me wonder if we’re thinking creatively enough about the role of the shopping centre? What else could or should it be used for? With over 800 venues and in excess of 12.5m sq.m, they collectively represent a significant slice of development. Shopping centres typically enjoy good transport links and of course parking too, so why not give these retail hubs a bigger agenda?

Here are a few ideas that spring to mind:

  • Promote them as regional and provincial centres for public debate and theatre.
  • Extend the success of London 2012 Olympic volunteering to reinvent how to help visitors find their way around.
    • These ‘venue concierges’ could offer local and customised knowledge, as well as personal development to the volunteer at same time.
    • Get retailers involved in this same idea of volunteers, by creating activities for skills development, perhaps even a diploma, where those who graduate are offered jobs
  • Invest in shopping centres as genuine hubs for the disabled, not just accessible but geared to provide job opportunity, sports and arts facilities – an education and development venue where disabled and able bodied can learn from (and about) each other.
  • Schools, universities and businesses could be using shopping centre venues as development centres – a place to gain skills and confidence in design, research and entrepreneurial effort in an inspiring environment. A certain percentage of once-retail space could be designated as a ‘kickstarter’ zone, with IT and other infrastructure provided.

Some of these ideas would require a change in how we see responsibility for shopping centres. Instead of being about developer, tenant and visitor, why not think more in terms of job creator, skills developer, educator, innovator and a genuine attempt to integrate a wider community?

All of this need not take away from the ‘traditional’ role of shopping centres as trading environments – indeed, I’d expect such imagination would breathe new life into footfall, sales and tenancy interest. Most of all, at a time when the UK economy needs initiatives for growth, I’d hope the Government would prime the pump with incentives, to further encourage shopping centre owners to get involved.