A new pair of jeans, a Nando’s & a 4-door saloon

A Look into the Future of the British Shopping Experience

Katie Gillett Thomas Jones

By: Katie Gillett, Thomas Jones

There is no shortage of scrutiny into the decline of the British high street, and much time has been spent working out a way to save it. And as I walk along my local high street, I’m reminded why… I’m feeling entirely underwhelmed and uninspired! I’m struck by the stark contrast between where I’m standing and my recent visit to Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.

If you ask me, it’s about time the high street learnt a lesson or two from their younger, brighter, shopping centre-shaped cousins.

Bluewater is BIG. And it thinks big. It houses over 300 retailers, 60 restaurants, high street banks, an event centre, cinemas and some surprises!

Not only can you find car showrooms here, you can also find luxury brands like Mont Blanc and Mappin & Webb. I noticed Next and H&M prospering alongside them, having both recently refreshed their stores and increased their footprint in the process.

The most interesting thing I came across at Bluewater has to be the Hyundai showroom. I wasn’t expecting to see that inside the centre! But, it was the best performing Hyundai showroom in the UK last year. And it’s in a shopping centre. Next door to Disney and The Body Shop.

Still a bit surprised, I assumed it was purely an opportunity for them to showroom their latest models, and then I’d be sent over to the closest dealership if I wanted to buy a new car. Wrong! It’s a fully operational dealership. I can test drive a car from the car park, nip off to try on that pair of jeans I saw earlier, pop back, buy a shiny new car and be eating in Nando’s within minutes!

So why can’t we get this kind of buzz, energy and performance from our high streets?

I firmly believe that high street decline is driven by a lack of accountability: accountability for store presence, for vacant units, and for the relationship between businesses and their customers.

Shopping centres have a clear advantage over high streets: they are businesses run for profit. It’s in their interest to create the best possible customer experience. And as customers, we love it! This translates into sales, profit and happy shareholders. But the high street is left lagging sadly behind. Ultimately, accountability for the high street sits with our local councils. And you just need to open a newspaper to understand where it sits among their long list of competing priorities.

I’m using the example of Bluewater, but there are countless others achieving the same results throughout the UK – Manchester’s Trafford Centre, Westfield London and Stratford, and The Bullring in Birmingham to name a few. What they have in common is their ability to create a destination for retailers and restaurants to thrive in (you might be surprised to hear that the restaurant industry is now growing quicker than retail at Bluewater!).

So, what are the lessons the high street can learn?

As a shopper, Bluewater calls me their “guest”. This immediately changes my relationship with them and the experience I have while I’m there. It’s clear the management team has thought deeply about my journey…. how I move between stores, where I might like stores to be, my experience of the facilities…I could go on. I can tell that every small detail has been carefully considered. My message to the high street? You’ve never made me feel like your guest…

The British Retail Consortium recently confirmed a continuing dull outlook for the high street. Footfall was down 2.9% in February as shoppers headed out of town in search of leisure activities, longer shopping hours and more choice.

The exact opposite is true for shopping centres – they have become a day out in their own right. 91% of Bluewater guests arrive by car and spend an average of three hours there. Not only does it boast well over ten thousand parking spaces, they’re all free. I can’t remember the last time anything on my high street entertained me for three hours. And even if it did, I’m not sure I’d pay the £7.50 to park there for that long…

A car dealership in a shopping centre? Why not? It’s clearly working. The integration of Hyundai into Bluewater is the best example of the wholesale change in customer shopping habits and expectations that I can think of.

With all of this stacked against them, the high street cannot continue to rely on a token M&S or a Costa to regenerate their fortunes. Yes, they’ll probably keep attracting retailers or restaurateurs in the immediate vicinity looking to capture some of the inevitable footfall. But the high street cannot rely on this – it’s nothing more than logic and opportunism. They must look at long-term sustainability and transformation if they are to survive.

Bluewater is a great example of customer-centricity. By designing everything around the customer experience, they have created an environment for retailers, restaurants (even car manufacturers!) to flourish in. The question I kept asking myself as I toured Bluewater… why would I want to shop anywhere else?

Lack of accountability seems to be the one permanent tenant of the high street. And as long as it remains, we can expect to witness its continued decline.