Liverpool has long been neglected as a retail destination, but it is finally on its way up. As Ben Cooper discovers, Liverpool One is set to redefine the retail landscape

It’s typical. Liverpool has spent years patiently waiting for a£950 million retail facelift and, when it finally arrives, it is during the toughest market conditions for more than a decade. But, despite the inauspicious beginnings, Liverpool One developer Grosvenor is staying positive and is outwardly confident that the scheme will be a success.

Calling Liverpool One a shopping centre would be an understatement. Grosvenor has taken on a project of grand proportions with this development, and last year was forced to admit it had already lost£140 million on the project. Stretching across 42 acres (17ha) of city centre land on the fringes of the key shopping streets, Liverpool One consists of 30 buildings designed by 20 different architects. And, with 1.5 million sq ft (139,350 sq m) of retail space becoming available once both phases are complete, the centre will alter the shopping culture of Liverpool permanently.

The main retail hub will be on South John Street. Flanked at either end by the centre’s two big department stores, John Lewis and Debenhams, this will house the more family-oriented high street retailers, including HMV, which signed to the scheme last week. Other names to snap up space include Oasis, H&M, New Look, La Senza, H Samuel and Fred Perry.

Liverpool One will open in two phases, with the first set for completion at the end of May and phase two opening in September. Its 2.5 million sq ft (232,250 sq m) will be divided between four distinct themed areas. Grosvenor appointed 20 different architects to design the project to create variety within the scheme and allow retailers to find a home that suited their requirements.

The challenge for the developer has been to persuade retailers that Liverpool One is not merely a shopping centre. In fact, the scheme is more of a city-centre revamp than anything, with very little of the new centre being covered and existing building facades being retained in places. An urban park stretching over 5 acres (2ha) will sit at its heart.

Initially, retailers were cautious about the potential of Liverpool One, but they are gradually coming around to it – although it was dealt a blow last week when famed restaurateur Raymond Blanc pulled out of a deal on the site. It is unlikely that it will be fully let by the opening of phase one and it may not even be fully let when the second stage is unveiled.

Grosvenor head of retail leasing Neil Barber insists that the lettings situation is not a great concern. “We’re not setting out with the objective of being fully let,” explains Barber. “We’re not going to let any old Tom, Dick or Harry in and are happy to leave some units empty so retailers can see how things pan out.”

Crying out for attention
Liverpool is a city that has fallen from grace. Like the football team that bears its name, it was at its height in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Liverpool was listed third in the Experian Retail Destination rankings, but has now plunged to 13th place.

“Liverpool has been screaming for this level of investment,” says Barber. “There’s been a big queue of retailers waiting to come in for years, but they haven’t been able to get the right location before now because no one had invested on this scale.”

Retail research specialist CACI is now forecasting that Liverpool will climb the table to sixth place thanks to the development. While it has fallen by the wayside in recent years, all the raw materials for a resurgence are in place. The city has a population of 450,000 and 4.7 million people live in its catchment area. Unemployment is at a 25-year low and, last weekend, the celebrations to mark the beginning of its year as European Capital of Culture began.

Liverpool is also a city that likes to shop. The people living within the catchment area have a spending power of£11.5 billion a year –£3.1 billion to spend on fashion and footwear alone, according to Grosvenor.

Clearly, it is not a lack of potential that is holding Liverpool back, but a lack of a significant retail offer. This is compounded by a number of factors, including inadequate parking facilities and even the necessary but sizeable construction works that are in progress to get Liverpool One up and running.

Liverpool’s target shoppers are based in the affluent northwestern towns and suburbs, including Birkdale, Southport and the Wirral. While residents are often geographically closer to Liverpool, in recent years they have been more likely to go the extra distance to shop in the more appealing destinations of Chester, Manchester’s Trafford Centre or Manchester city centre.

Barber says: “Scousers love to spend their money on clothes, but there’s an affluent population that is currently going to the Trafford Centre. To attract retailers to Liverpool, we pointed out the positive things like the Tate, sports and the music culture.”

This is not to say that Liverpool is without its retail culture. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the new scheme is Met Quarter, which opened in March 2007. Catering for the more fashion-conscious market, it is the jewel in Liverpool’s retail crown. With more than 40 stores collectively covering 130,000 sq ft (12,075 sq m), Met Quarter is nowhere near the scale of its big brother-to-be, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sophistication. With top fashion retailers including Armani, Hugo Boss, All Saints, Gieves & Hawkes and DKNY having set up there, it has already found its niche.

The arrival of Liverpool One is being welcomed by Met Quarter for the hugely positive effect it is likely to have on the city as a whole. There has been very little conflict over lettings and, despite having two vacant units out of 40 at present, Met Quarter is confident that there are enough retailers to go around.

John Agnew, director of in-town retail at Savills, which is the letting agent for Met Quarter, says: “There’s certainly a wide enough catchment for both centres. There are plenty of shoppers who will go to the Met Quarter and also be attracted to Liverpool One.”

The completion of the scheme should solve a number of issues. The building works that have hampered other retailers in Liverpool will be gone by the end of September, which will be a blessing in itself. And the project will also create an additional 2,000 parking spaces for the city centre underneath the new park.

“Liverpool One will help recoup shoppers and spending that has tailed off in Liverpool and will certainly attract more of the catchment,” says Agnew. “I’m confident that the Met Quarter and Liverpool One will pull in shoppers together.”

Clearly the city has benefited greatly from the accolade of Capital of Culture but, like a certain local football club, a European victory cannot hide the fact that it is in need of some attention closer to home.

With the fourth-highest GDP of any regional economy in Britain, the Northwest is rich retailing ground. The region generates more than£76 billion a year across the five counties of Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside, which are home to 12 per cent of the UK’s population.

Liverpool has a lot of pent-up shopping to be done. The arrival of one of the biggest schemes to launch this year will have a huge impact on the retail scene of the city and the region alike. Liverpool One will expand the city and should mean that existing retailers can bid farewell to the days of seeing business go elsewhere.

The Mall Blackburn (above) will kick off a£66 million redevelopment in autumn, which is due to be completed in September 2009. The extension will add 250,000 sq ft (23,225 sq m) of retail space and take the total to 639,000 sq ft (59,365 sq m).

In Chester, construction work will start on the Northgate development in summer. Covering 500,000 sq ft (46,450 sq m), the scheme will add a further 440,000 sq ft (40,875 sq m) of retail space and 60 units to the city. The project is due for completion in 2012 and will be anchored by a 150,000 sq ft (13,935 sq m) House of Fraser.

One of Liverpool’s principal rivals, the Trafford Centre, is also planning to raise the stakes in the Northwest with its Barton Square redevelopment. At a cost of£76 million, the extension, which will provide an additional 200,000 sq ft (18,580 sq m) and 600 parking spaces, is expected to be finished in March.

Further down the line, Preston’s Tithebarn regeneration project will bring a huge boost to the town centre and its retail offer. Construction is scheduled to start on the project in 2010 and John Lewis has confirmed that it will take a 230,000 sq ft (21,365 sq m) store.