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Tech and new experiences tackling trouble at t’mall

UK shopping centres are under pressure, but new concepts, tech-infused spaces, and fresh approaches to consumer engagement are revitalising the sector

Shopping centres, many of which were forced to close temporarily for a large part of the pandemic, are reporting rising vacancy rates.

Using the lyrics of veteran wordsmith and raconteur John Cooper Clarke’s poem, Trouble at t’Mall, one could say it is a case of “trouble high, trouble high”.

Over 12% of units have been empty for a year or more, according to analysis from research group Local Data Company (LDC) on behalf of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) trade body.

Separate research from the BRC and Sensormatic indicates shopping centre footfall in the four weeks to 29 May declined by 41.3% compared to the same period in 2019. Although shoppers returned to these locations during that period after months of lockdown, traffic volume was significantly down compared to pre-pandemic.

Lucy Stainton, director of retail and strategic partnerships at LDC, says: “Shopping centres have been particularly exposed to the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, principally having a lower proportion of ‘essential’ retailing as well as being exposed to categories which are in decline such as fashion, department stores and casual dining.”

So, what happens next? It seems inevitable Britain’s shopping centre network will shrink, with Maidenhead’s Nicholsons and the Elephant & Castle Centre in south-east London two recent casualties, against a backdrop of ongoing rent and rate pressures.

But those that remain are diversifying – and technology is playing its part in the evolution.

Staying in touch

LDC data shows there are regional discrepancies in overall retail vacancy rates, with cases higher in the north-east region than other parts of the UK. But some areas and specific shopping centres – the mega malls in major cities, for example – are still buoyant.

Kate Orwin, UK & Italy leasing director of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, says the real estate company continues to attract major brands despite pandemic uncertainty.

For example, Westfield Stratford City has welcomed Huawei’s first ever flagship store in the UK and e-gaming café Wanyoo – a 5,000ft2 experience-led food and beverage offering. West of the capital, Westfield London has added Gym+Coffee and Spa Ceylon.

A five-year deal with international vape brand Vuse was also recently agreed across both London centres.

Consumer research by Westfield shows one in five people would value in-store tech such as augmented reality to try out products without touching them, with millennials more interested than other shoppers in seeing smart in-store tech such as interactive mirrors.

“Brands are beginning to understand the importance of technology investment to respond to these insights, and we’re committed to working with brands bringing innovation to our centres and to stay in touch with consumer demand,” says Orwin.

In September comes the delayed launch of Situ Live, bringing a completely new brand discovery concept to Westfield London and the UK retail scene. The team behind Situ Live expect significant growth in the UK and internationally.

The first venue will feature six curated arenas: fitness and wellbeing; connected home; nutrition kitchen; entertainment; home and mobile working; and on the move. Each section will provide a home to an assortment of brands, product demonstrations, and staff who can help consumers learn more about the items on display.

For consumers still seeking more content, QR codes can be accessed to take people through to the Situ Live platform, which links them to a variety of places where the products can be purchased, alongside other supportive brand material.

Warren Richmond, founder and CEO, says brands pay a subscription to Situ Live, enabling them to appear in the physical retail space but also to gain additional marketing support. This, he adds, is more cost-effective than losing margin to retailers in the traditional wholesale model.

Retail at the moment “is a bit dull”, Richmond says. “We want to inject excitement wherever we can. Our mission is to inspire and educate millions of millennial shoppers in unique destinations with the world’s most innovative products that fundamentally let people live a better life,” he adds.

He explains the model as more editorial rather than traditional retailing, with brand “storytelling” the driving force. Situ Live will shape its proposition based on modern trends to stay relevant.

Maserati, Lutron and Facebook are among the launch partners, but Situ Live will showcase a combination of new-to-market brands yet to gain a retail presence, as well as helping other established companies foster a more direct relationship with consumers than a traditional retail setting can provide.

As for the QR codes, Richmond acknowledges the pandemic has probably helped to prepare consumers for this type of technology. Coronavirus track and trace and the influx of retailers and hospitality companies using them for ordering means the QR code has become a common part of consumer’s daily lives.

“We made a decision to use QR codes at Situ Live two years ago – it was luck, not judgement – and with my CTO we agreed we’ll just have to educate the public on using them, but then the pandemic came along,” Richmond says. “The QR code is going to become a fundamental way of life.”

Standing out

Kurt Geiger’s off-price footwear fascia Shoeaholics, which was previously online-only, has opened in Westfield London in another example of digitally influenced retail helping to refresh UK shopping centre space.

But new concepts and tech-influenced innovation in malls is not restricted to London. In December 2020, Zara opened a concept store at Landsec-managed Bluewater in Kent.

As per all Zara’s new global flagships, the shop includes an automated pick-up point to allow customers to self-serve when picking up online orders. The system’s optical barcode reader scans QR or PIN codes that customers receive when they place orders online.

When customers collect items, a robotic arm retrieves the goods. As previously reported, Zara is a keen proponent of radio-frequency identification (RFID), and the full deployment of this technology across the retailer’s stock management system is viewed by the business as a key reason as to why it can combine its stores and online operations in innovative ways.

The Bluewater Zara store is in the process of activating ‘store mode’, which lets customers using the retailer’s app to check stock in real time before they order, and find exactly where the product is held in the shop. The technology, already deployed by Zara’s central London stores, also allows users to pre-book fitting rooms.

Meanwhile, at Gateshead’s Metrocentre – which was acquired by real estate developer Sovereign Centros from Intu in 2020 – new arrivals include the recently launched Next Beauty shop and one of telecoms provider Sky’s first physical spaces.

In the latter, Sky’s mobile, broadband and TV divisions have been brought together under one roof in themed areas, where consumers are encouraged to talk to staff about their service and take part in interactive experiences hosted in the store.

‘Experiential programming’

Westfield research found consumers are “craving physical experiences” following a year of lockdowns, according to Orwin. She says that with more than 6.3 million visitors through its doors in the first six weeks after reopening its venues, Westfield is “focused on rejuvenating our centres, bringing new uses and creating unique partnerships to create the best experiences for our shoppers through not just retail”.

Examples of a more experience-led retail and brand presence around the UK include Kick Game’s arrival at the Hammerson-operated Bullring centre in Birmingham.

The premium footwear and apparel retailer opened in the West Midlands retail hub in what represents its first space outside London. The aim is to run a plethora of in-store activations, supported by what it describes as “experiential programming” involving celebrity collaborations and local exclusives.

Back in the capital, Boxpark Wembley has opened Pop Golf, as the trend for competitive socialising in shopping destinations continues to grow.

The music-themed crazy golf venue is unique and has been designed to offer the experience of stepping straight into a music video, according to Alan Saud, who owns Pop Golf and is founder of Mighty Adventures, a chain of family adventure golf parks.

“Our mission with Pop Golf was to create a rich experience that tells a story,” he says. “This is not just another standard crazy golf course, this is a celebration of music.”

Shopping centres might be damaged by lockdown, but they continue to refresh their offering.

Although sarcastic in its tone and arguably trivialising non-metropolitan life, Cooper Clarke’s aforementioned poem essentially paints a picture of the shopping centre’s importance to a local community – everyone’s talking about it. The malls which continue to evolve will give themselves the best chance of maintaining that vital social role.

Stainton says: “The early indications from the first few weeks of the ‘unlocking’ have shown that there is still significant demand for physical retail and eating out.

“Hopefully, as consumer confidence continues to build momentum with reduced Covid-19 cases, more of the population vaccinated and warmer weather, further fall out from the pandemic might be mitigated somewhat.

“Similarly, we are seeing a lot of redevelopment with retail stores being converted to other uses such as office space and residential property – this too may help to stabilise the increase in vacancy we’d otherwise expect to see continue.”

Read more about shopping technology

  • As the coronavirus outbreak accelerates the shift in consumer behaviour, how are retailers using technology to keep customers engaged?
  • The pandemic appears to have solidified e-commerce’s ascendancy against the highstreet. Coronavirus has accelerated technology adoption in many sectors, and people have been forced to stay at home, increasing their online shopping habits in a bid to avoid visiting shops.

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