The Kent mall celebrated its 10th birthday this year, but age hasn’t dulled its offer. John Ryan reports

Bluewater, the UK’s second largest shopping mall, celebrated its 10th anniversary in March.

During its decade-long existence much has happened and it would be reasonable to expect that the centre would be showing its age, not least in terms of the way schemes of this kind were designed just before the turn of the millennium when compared with today.

During the intervening years, we’ve had novelty in the form of Liverpool One, Westfield London and Bristol’s Cabot Circus, to name just a few. All of these are impressive – and different from the shopping centre that has a former chalk pit in Kent for its home.

Yet Bluewater seems to be managing the trick that all of us hanker after – a seeming ability to remain ageless and to look pretty much as good now as it did when it opened. A certain amount of cosmetic surgery has been involved in achieving this and there have been many changes of tenants during Bluewater’s life, but the centre’s genetic material remains essentially the same.

And during this recession-hit year, Bluewater’s retailers have been doing plenty to ensure their good looks remain intact with makeovers, relocations and new format installations all underway. Even some of the anchor stores have been honing their acts, with John Lewis due to open a 16,000 sq ft food hall, along the lines of the one in its Oxford Street flagship, on August 6.

There are, of course, vacant units, but there is still much to commend what’s on offer. It’s also worth noting that Bluewater will be among the locations of retail magnate George Davies’ new retail format GIVe later this year – although at the time of writing a deal remained to be signed, according to centre manager Andrew Parkinson. However, it remains proof that Bluewater is still a prime retail destination.

Here, we take a look at Bluewater’s stalwarts and innovators.

John Lewis

One of Bluewater’s anchor stores is in a state of flux. The catalyst for this is the forthcoming arrival of the food hall, which will be marginally larger than the Oxford Street version on which it is based. With shopfitter Wates busy creating the new department in the basement, the store stands to grow by about 22,000 sq ft when the new floor opens at the start of next month.

The initiative has meant major relocations and in-store changes for every level of this multi-floor department store, with areas being moved and then relocated as new spaces are completed.

Step through the doors on the upper level entrance and the first area encountered is a beauty department, with new mid-shop equipment and a different configuration.

The Bobbi Brown cosmetic counter is typical of what is being undertaken. The brand has been relocated and enlarged and is now in its final position. Yet just to the right of it, a large hoarding conceals the space that will be home to two more beauty brands, due to be unveiled later in the year. It’s a story that is repeated on every level.

The outcome will certainly be a better shop and D-Day is August 5, when many of the departments in temporary locations are to be installed in their new resting places, just ahead of the food hall’s christening the next day.

Energie/Miss Sixty

Energie is a retail fashion brand from the Italian Sixty Group, which shares a joint fascia with the Miss Sixty brand, also housed in this unit and displayed in the opposite window.

This store is worth looking at purely for the visual appeal of the window that runs along one side of the unit.You have to admire a retailer that resists the temptation to cram a window full of stock, particularly in the context of a mall where almost all of the competition is doing just that.

Instead, the window is empty save for two drop-down screens, printed with a Mary Quant-style pair of eyes and a fringe, providing the backing for lines of 3D white plastic telephones.
It’s hard to see what all this signifies, but it does manage to achieve what any effective window display should – making shoppers stop, stare and consider whether it’s worth having a look inside.

Diesel

The art of the visual merchandiser is brought to the fore in this branch of Italian fashion brand Diesel. In this store it’s not the windows that are of interest but the in-store use of umbrellas.

Diesel is known for its tongue-in-cheek approach to merchandising and the inverted black and blue umbrellas, suspended from the ceiling and clustered in one corner of the shop, provide a novel backdrop for the denim area. Couple this with the triangular warning signs, alerting shoppers to reductions, and the moose heads created from intersecting planes of plywood and you have one of Bluewater’s more interesting interiors. 

The in-store display is also laudable for not being a big-budget show and so can be applied to multiple locations.

iPilot

This is brand new and, at 275 sq ft, one of the smallest units in Bluewater. Its premise is very simple: if you fancy sitting at the controls of a Boeing 737 but can’t quite stump up the cash required to buy yourself a second-hand aircraft, then you can do something similar for £69 at iPilot – at least for 20 minutes anyway.

This was first trialled in Australia and the unit is manned by two slim-looking types in short-sleeve pilot shirts with red ties, ready to show you the ropes. A desk located next to the mock flight deck invites shoppers to “Check In” and book time at the controls.

As a format, it probably wouldn’t find a mass market, for no better reason than that the number of places where people have the time required to experience what’s on offer is limited. Nonetheless, the red and white livery is eye-catching and for bored (mostly male) shoppers, it’s a diversion that might have greater appeal than yet another mug of Italian-style coffee, albeit considerably more expensive.

Fat Face

One of the real positives about fashion-cum-beachwear-cum-skatewear retailers such as Fat Face is that they have a tendency to make every store different. Bluewater’s Fat Face is no exception.

The retailer has opted to create a quasi-log cabin effect – a difficult feat to pull off in the context of a modern shopping mall. That said, the two floors have been pine-clad throughout and are vaguely reminiscent of an outsized sauna or maybe a surf shack, but in a generally good way. And cunningly, the metal semi-corrugated ceiling, which could remind shoppers that they are in a retail unit, has been disguised by using pendant lights that illuminate the area beneath them and cause the area above seemingly to vanish.

Externally, the store makes a very loud noise in the context of its retail neighbours with a polished copper sheeting frontage, perhaps influenced by the Knightsbridge branch of Jigsaw, which adopted this ploy years ago.

Currys.digital

The electronics retailer is moving quickly to take the format it unveiled in Chelmsford last year across its store portfolio and the level of business this store was enjoying on a Monday morning proves that it has done the right thing. A predominantly fashion mall is probably not the first place you would think of to buy consumer electronics, but the clean white mid-floor equipment and suspended ceiling rafts, coupled with the black spotlights and voids above the rafts, were doing their job in attracting shoppers.

It also serves to confirm that this is an eminently portable format that works as well in edge-of-town retail parks as it does on high streets or in shopping malls. Whether it is the massive “J9” store on the M6 near Birmingham or a far smaller proposition in a shopping centre, this format now looks established.

air.land.&sea

Presently, air.land.&sea is a one-off from outdoor retailer Blacks. Opened less than two months ago, it is intended to provide a fashion arm for the retailer and its appearance could hardly be more different from the Millets and Blacks stable from whence it has sprung.

In place of the generally functional comes a red, white and black exercise in geometrical organisation using different lines and levels to create the in-store landscape. Even the overhead white, circular lampshades have been arranged in linear fashion, running from front to back, in this long, narrow store.

Fashion is always a difficult market and rarely more so than at the moment. That said, this is an interesting development and one that the member of staff in the branch said was “trading well and it’s something different”.