How do shopping centres respond to the new retail reality?

Eileen Connolly


Almost three months on from the restoration of non-essential retail the statisticians are widely agreed that footfall has been restored to around 60% and that conversion though strong early on has settled back down. The lockdown latent demand is spent up and consumer confidence knocked daily by employment and economic gloom, making the retail future very uncertain.

It seems we have regressed to purchasing that which we ‘need’ – not that which we ‘want’. The last two decades saw the growth of overt consumerism and shopping develop into a leisure activity driven by what we wanted to buy.  Of course, we need day to day consumables, children’s clothing and shoes, household essentials, fuel and utilities but it’s the discretionary spend on life’s ‘wants’ and luxuries that has vanished in this period of employment, economic and health uncertainty. This spend is essential to retail profitability and the survival of many retail businesses. Restoring that spend in the physical world helps not only the retailer but the local economy and begins to restore the financial value of retail assets.

The marketing response to the challenge now focuses on the balance between encouraging footfall and frequency without causing undue safety concerns for shoppers. Q4 will be most important three months off the new decade in re-establishing confidence in town centres, shopping centres and retail parks. The responsibility lies with Councils, Landlords, Management and Marketing teams to look at the overall experience – from car parking costs, to the streetscape, the messaging, the welcome and the offer. It is clear from recent research that secondary and tertiary catchments have contracted but the economic power of a loyal, primary catchment can reduce leakage and keep spend in towns and centres that can be easily accessed and have put in place sensible and clear safety procedures.

Dwell time may be reduced but frequency can be bettered. ‘Sensible’ might be deemed boring so we need to add an element of fun and anticipation to engage and excite – otherwise the pandemic shift to on-line spending will grow further.

We have advocated positive communications throughout the lockdown with shoppers, retailers, the media and stakeholders to ensure that channels remain open and trusted. The result of that has been a stronger restoration of footfall and spend than those destinations who chose to remain silent.

The next few months will have to be a balanced mix of communications, realistic messaging and activity that support retailer sales and restores confidence in the value and convenience of physical shopping. We need consumers to ‘want’ to spend – in store and not merely on-line.

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