A huge amount of work has gone into plans for re-opening. With signage, sanitisers, one-way systems and plastic screens, everyone has been working hard to ensure centres are safe for returning customers and staff.
The effort has been monumental, but absolutely worth it. MAPP managed shopping centres are now 80-90% open, and we can look beyond the immediate challenges that Covid-19 put in front of us, to think about how we prepare to create improved shopping and leisure experiences.
We can already see indicators of how long term developments may look, particularly in centres that have adapted quickly to the changing needs of the public during lockdown.
Wellgate Shopping Centre in Dundee kept essential retail open, but Morag Dennis, the centre manager, also recognised this was a time for shopping centres to deliver at the heart of the community:
“We have seen changes in the way people have been shopping. Habits have been broken, and new habits formed. What we are looking to do now is create spaces that are responsive to customers who want to feel safe, but also experience something different.
Now is the time for unique and interesting independents to find their place, helping us to build stronger and more diverse communities.”
We have been examining some of the ways in which shopping centres can become spaces where people and businesses can thrive.
A big priority, at least in the short term, is to give the public the confidence to shop in stores again. People need to feel reassured that this is an environment that is safe for them to relax and enjoy.
That means using every channel to communicate what spaces look like, and what people can expect to have changed. Sharing signage on social media, centre websites, advertising on local radio, and working with tenants to create informative content helps to bring schemes to life, and answers anxieties about coming back.
Strong relationships between store managers and centre management staff mean that projects can be brought to life quickly, and operational changes agreed and implemented at speed. This is important during a period of uncertainty, and the more human these relationships can be, the better.
“Over the past few months the time I have spent on calls to store owners, simply to check in and see how they are, has been invaluable. It has enabled me to spend time with them as people, to understand their concerns and stresses, and talk them through the things we are doing at the centre to help their customers when they return.
For the essential stores that have remained open, we have initiated numerous projects, and rallied round in support, to do what we believe is best for the public and community. The efforts we have made to build connections during this period will enable us all to move confidently out of the starting blocks as lockdown restrictions ease.”
All of this contributes towards a sense of structure and calm that will benefit nervous shoppers.
Uncertainty or anxiety may shape consumer behaviour for longer than we were in isolation for, and the impact could be profound. We can only be prepared for it if we act together.
As with many other aspects of life, the experience of Covid-19 seems to have accelerated changes in retail that we have been monitoring for some time. One of the areas impacted by this is the role of the shopping centre within a community.
At Wellgate, the decision to do more to support the most vulnerable was made very quickly. Action was taken to set up a foodbank across essential retail, and it has so far provided 4000 items to a value of £6,000 for those who are most in need.
Other initiatives, like the Wellgate social media mug design competition, provided 250 free thermal mugs designed by local schools for key workers. The campaign brought people together and demonstrated the social value of the centre as a hub for the community.
After months of purchasing online, we should take a moment to recognise the important part that centres play in the lives of local people.
One thing we are seeing, and have been for some time, is the importance of creativity. The sector has always relied on innovation for success. Often this is led by the independents, from the short-term pop-ups to the experience-led, Instagram-friendly stores that are about more than product or price.
It is time for the centres to adapt to the ways that people want to shop.
We have seen movement away from long-term leases; more flexibility, change and the freedom that creates atmosphere and fun in the malls.
We are moving towards a situation where there is more frequent change of retailers and with that, more opportunity, diversity and vibrancy to attract a broader range of customers.
The pop-up ethos is growing, and the sentiment from the public, accelerated by Covid-19, reinforces that business model. People want different experiences. The increase of shopping online means that physical stores are at risk, and we should expect more store closures. But as some of the big names go into administration, the local independents, the new brands, the entrepreneurs who have spent lockdown writing business plans, are waiting in the wings to transform communities with new thinking and fresh ideas.
Part of this trend for innovation will mean reviewing and repurposing existing spaces, to change the way in which centres accommodate stores and customers.
The team at Wellgate are preparing to support independents as they look for homes for their stores in the coming months. Specifically targeted brochures and information packs will be available for a new wave of experience-led, entrepreneurial pop-ups and experience stores.
This could mean reallocating retail space to leisure or creating locations for meeting and relaxing; increasing dwell time and providing a more welcoming and vibrant environment for shoppers. In particular we have an opportunity to firmly anchor centres within communities, providing greater societal value in spaces where people can work, rest and play.
This type of examination of space enables us to create mixed-use destinations that meet the aspirations and needs of local communities, and enables local businesses to thrive.
In reality, we should not expect a return to how things were. We are moving into a very different world of retail, with new challenges, and that will need a new approach to be successful.
If you are innovative, if you have a strong team, if you anchor your scheme in the community and are able to provide the things they want and need, your retail space can thrive.
This requires innovation, fresh thinking, and the ability to keep your mind open to alternative uses. Most importantly it requires listening; to communities, retailers and customers, ensuring that the lessons we have learnt over the past few months, of adaptability, communication and purpose, are not forgotten.