At the beginning of March, despite the herald of Retail’s impending boom, Touchwood Solihull, an upscale West Midlands shopping centre, was seemingly bucking the trend. Key metrics of footfall, sales and vacancy rates were all moving in the right direction. Less than 5% of our units were empty and we had firm interest on every vacant unit.
The strategy to attract more independent businesses and deliver a point of difference beyond the cookie cutter, identikit
shopping centre experience was working. Like many other businesses across a variety of sectors, there was an optimism and confidence, we had started the year so well and felt that ‘2020 was going to be our year’.
Nobody could have predicted quite what would happen in the Spring of 2020.
Fast forward ten weeks and the shackles of lockdown are being steadily broken down, non-essential retail began to re-emerge, more shops opened with each passing week and as it now stands 95% of our stores have reopened.
Footfall is understandably down but the stores are reporting higher than average basket spend and sales are higher than forecast. They call this ‘revenge shopping’ in Asia, where shoppers take revenge on enforced lockdown by spending big on their release. Unsurprisingly then, luxury items have seen the biggest growth within the sector.
Whilst sales were trending ahead of expectations, shopping was no longer an ‘experience’. It was clinical and transactional. Guests were cautious and compliant, diligently following the one-way system around the centre, working through the alcohol gel and despite being nervous were clearly grateful to be back out in public. We received some heartwarming feedback about the safety measures in place.
However, it didn’t really feel ‘normal’ until restaurants and coffee shops started to reopen for ‘sit in’ dining and drinking. With guests able to sit and natter over a coffee or meet a friend for lunch, the atmosphere changed overnight, back came the chinking of coffee cups, the warmth of chat and laughter, and that bit of normal we’ve so craved.
At the end of July, only 50% of our restaurants have reopened. Some familiar names are in administration, restructure or CVA. We stand to lose four of our chain restaurants. Of the 50% open and trading they are doing so on reduced capacity but surprisingly with sales higher than pre-Covid levels.
Another surprising development is the demand and interest in these vacant restaurants. Seeing the success of independent restaurants such as Jamaya, Asha’s and Yakinori opening in Touchwood over the past two years, we have a huge opportunity to bring in more new and exciting venues. I refer to the successful branded restaurants here as trusted brands. They deliver a consistent quality of food at a good price and are always busy. The only thing negative I could say about them is that they have already reached market saturation, as such you wouldn’t come to Touchwood specifically to dine in a trusted brand because they are already everywhere but you would be happy to dine in one once you’re here. However, you might travel further to experience an independent restaurant or store that cannot be found elsewhere and this is why it is critical to move away from this cookie cutter shopping centre mold, to offer something different, to give people a genuine reason to visit you instead of someone else.
A successful modern day shopping centre cannot survive on bricks and mortar retail alone. Indeed industry data suggests
that shopping has become a bi-product of a day out to a shopping centre.
It has to be about the experience. Coffee with Mum, taking the kids to the cinema or grabbing a bite to eat with friends and then a little spree in the shops whilst you’re here.
Retail is not dead or dying. It is evolving. The pandemic may even help to accelerate these changes as landlords are able to reshape their portfolios to better match the demands of their consumers. The nature of those deals is changing and that provides more opportunity for local entrepreneurs to do something different where they can be guaranteed passing trade, unlike our urban city centres right now with office workers firmly still at home.
The future of retail lies in people and our need to meet, connect and share experiences together. The digital world can enhance our shopping experience and maybe even give us more time to spend with those important to us but it cannot replace the need for humans to gather and interact in physical spaces.
High streets and shopping centres must be protected as community hubs to help combat loneliness and feed the soul.Another core strategy at Touchwood, has been to embrace community. In the last two years we have moved from
celebrating events within the traditional Christian calendar to celebrating everything with everyone, providing a platform for local community groups to enjoy Diwali, Holi, Eid, Chinese New Year, St Georges Day, St Patrick’s Day, Thyagaraja etc. alongside Easter and Christmas. We want to make everyone feel welcome and for Touchwood to feel fun and alive.
At the moment, large scale events are on hold to prevent overcrowding and cash flow dictates that marketing and project budgets are greatly reduced to faciliate service charge savings but events will be back. In the meantime, we’re using outside spaces to provide more safe areas to relax with friends and increase dwell time. It’s working.
So, with a safe system in place across the centre, guests feeling assured, happy, and starting to spend money again, we have an opportunity to use vacant units to accelerate our evolution.
The future might feel uncertain, but humans always find a way to adapt. Things will look different on the other side but we will discover new ways to trade and be successful. Online and physical stores will work in tandem to provide a convenient and experiential trading platform for the future.
Welcome to the evolution of retail.