As one of just two UK shopping centres to open this year, all eyes are on Whiteley in Hampshire. Laura Heywood visited ahead of its opening to find out if the scheme has what it takes to succeed.

Not too long ago, the Whiteley shopping centre was not a scheme to emulate. A tired-looking factory outlet, the location was overshadowed by other nearby shopping destinations and consumers were turned off by a lack of big names.

British Land hopes to change all that with a transformation. The new shopping centre opens today and the developer aims to overhaul the feel of the place, turning it from a shabby out-of-town scheme to one with a bustling high street feel.

Anchored by Marks & Spencer and boasting a host of well-known high street names, British Land hopes that Whiteley will help rejuvenate a lacklustre UK retail property market.

Located between Portsmouth and Southampton in Hampshire, the £64m joint venture between British Land and Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) occupies 320,000 sq ft on the site of the failed factory outlet.

The old buildings have been torn down and the site transformed into a tree-lined, high street-style development with double-height glazed units and a series of public squares. Of the 56 units available, 91% have been let so far to familiar names including Next, River Island, Clarks, The Entertainer, Mamas & Papas, Schuh, Paperchase, Claire’s Accessories and Moss Bros, all signing 10-year leases.

Topshop and Topman have signed a joint lease for a 12,500 sq ft unit, which British Land says will help Whiteley to cement its reputation as a bona fide high street offering rather than an out-of-town scheme.

However, the centre’s success is far from assured. With its doors now open, Whiteley must persuade the international and premium fashion retailers that are apparently eyeing up the available units that it’s a destination worth investing in.

So far, no international retailers have taken leases, which is in contrast to Trinity Leeds, the other main shopping centre to be opened in the UK this year, which plays host to Hollister, Apple and Victoria’s Secret.

“Whiteley is an unproven location,” admits Claire Barber, British Land’s head of shopping centre asset management, who believes that now trading is under way more global names will come on board. International retailers also “tend to do London first”, she says, and Hampshire is perhaps regarded as “too risky”. But she says the cost of space is good value for retailers, at £25 to £45 per square foot.

Premium fashion retailers such as Whistles are also absent from Whiteley - a situation that Barber hopes will change in the near future. “Once it has opened it will be more premium. I’d like to think we’ll get some more fashion retailers,” she says.

David Pollock, retail development manager for British Land, agrees. “It’s a little bit of a field of dreams,” he says.

“Build it and they will come.”

Sales potential

While the Whiteley shopping centre has its work cut out, British Land believes that the catchment should produce the results that retailers want.

The Whiteley area is home to about 10,000 residents and the centre has a catchment of more than 1.25 million people, extending from Alton to Portsmouth, with an estimated £3.1bn of potential annual spend. The catchment is also poised to expand further in the future with more than 3,000 new homes being built in North Whiteley.

According to Barber, household spend is above the average for Southeast England. “The catchment is really rich - the overall comparison goods spend is 2% higher than the Southeast England average and 7% higher than the UK average,” she says.

The catchment also contains a high concentration of people grouped under the ‘wealthy achievers’ banner. That includes ‘wealthy executives’ - those employed in senior managerial and professional occupations or running their own businesses - who represent 16% of the catchment, compared with a UK average of 8.2%.

Wealthy families with mortgages comprise 11% of the local population compared with a UK average of 7.8%.

‘Affluent greys’, who are typically employed in managerial and professional roles, or who have retired and enjoy good incomes, make up 9% compared with a UK average of 7.8%. Together, these groups make up 35% of local households compared with a UK average of 25%, Barber says.

Local ties

British Land and USS have worked with local councils and the community throughout, leading to the development of the Market Square, which is reserved for local retailers. Adjacent to the existing Meadowside Leisure Centre, it features seven retail units and has space for seasonal market stalls. The stores, ranging in size from 700 sq ft to 1,500 sq ft, are earmarked for local retailers and businesses, and offered with five or seven-year leases at reduced prices.

Pollock says that residents chose the mix of stores in the square, which include a sweet shop, beautician, cycle shop, shoe store and bakery. “There was a lot of community engagement such as canvassing about what retailers they wanted,” he says.

British Land has already installed lighting and air conditioning in the units in an effort to reduce costs for independent retailers. It also makes it a more attractive proposition because the units are ready to receive a tenant’s fit-out, Barber says. “As a local retailer it’s daunting [to do it all themselves].”

A temporary structure called The Treehouse, meanwhile, will enable new retailers and start-up companies to trade or advertise themselves in the middle of the main shopping centre.

Made from recycled shipping containers, the 1,000 sq ft pop-up retail space gives retailers the opportunity to create a brand experience or market themselves, Barber explains.

The pop-up will be at Whiteley for 12 months before moving to other parks in British Land’s portfolio.

Leisure attractions

About 15% of Whiteley’s space is dedicated to leisure, with cafes and restaurants including Costa Coffee, Frankie & Benny’s, Prezzo, Starbucks, Chimichanga and American-themed restaurant Dean’s Diner.

At one end of the centre is a vacant unit earmarked for a restaurant. While mainstream operators have made offers for the space, Barber says that British Land is holding out for something different “such as The Cosy Club, Carluccio’s or Giraffe”. It’s hoped that such a restaurant will be a big pull for the 5,000 employees based on the adjacent Solent Business Park, as well as shoppers and retail workers.

British Land predicts that the dwell time at Whiteley will be at least two hours. Footfall monitoring technology will also be used to track shoppers’ movements and behaviour, and free wi-fi that requires registration will provide further information about browsing habits and in-store web use.

Phase two of the Whiteley project will involve a nine-screen cinema being built at the north end of its main street.

In April, the Cineworld complex was given the green light by Winchester City Council’s planning committee and building work is expected to be completed in May 2015. “The cinema - the final component of a town centre - will extend the trading day,” Pollock says.

It’s all on track, but the shift from down-at-heel, out-of-town factory outlet to thriving high street won’t be easy
- Whiteley has a challenge ahead.

Whiteley by numbers

320,000 sq ft retail and leisure destination

91% of units let

More than 1,000 permanent jobs created

15% of space for food and drink

7 units for independent local retailers

277 trees planted

Up to 1,500 parking spaces, each with three hours free parking

Catchment of 1.25m

36,000 sq ft of photovoltaic panels

Environmental prowess

British Land says that Whiteley is the largest UK retail development to achieve the BREEAM excellent rating. The rating, which measures a building’s environmental performance, means that Whiteley incorporates first-rate energy efficiency and sustainability features. Units are built from 100% sustainable oak with 36,000 sq ft of photovoltaic panels installed to help cut carbon emissions.

During redevelopment, 98% of waste during the construction and demolition of the original factory outlet was diverted from landfill through re-use on the site or off-site recovery. Additionally, almost 90% of materials were re-used on the site, diverting 60,600 tonnes of material from landfill and avoiding 5,300 lorry journeys, minimising the impact on the local air quality and road networks.