Can Manchester hold on to its slot as the leading retail light of the Northwest or is Liverpool stealing a march after the opening of the mammoth Liverpool One scheme? By John Ryan

Open any paper over the past few weeks and whether it’s Sir Paul McCartney singing at a concert in the city or the opening of Liverpool One, it has been hard to avoid mention of the city that until recently has been used by some as a byword for privation.

Yet behind all the City of Culture razzmatazz, there has been one nagging question: will all of this redress the economic imbalance between Manchester and Liverpool? After all, this may be Liverpool’s year, but it’s probably Manchester’s decade.

Certainly, if inward investment is anything to go by, Liverpool will have made great strides by the end of this year. Grosvenor’s£950 million shopping complex in the heart of the city is impressive. But it is not yet full and this leads to the inevitable query about whether the strategy of a phased opening for the scheme was related to a sluggish leasing pattern.

Meanwhile, 35 miles away, Manchester has The Trafford Centre, the Arndale Centre and a host of smaller developments in the city centre, as well as a reputation for being the commercial heart of the Northwest. In fairness, most of Manchester’s shopping schemes and their tenants have been around for a while, so it seems a good time to see how the city is measuring up to the improved Liverpudlian competition.

The first thing that’s worth noting is that Manchester has not been entirely dormant this year either. Barton Square, the furnishings and homewares extension of The Trafford Centre, opened in March, adding a new string to the edge-of-city scheme’s bow. But is central Manchester still worth the trip for disaffected Liverpudlian shoppers?

A quick shimmy around the enormous Arndale Centre reveals a mixed picture. This is a shopping centre of two pretty unequal parts. There is the old Arndale, habouring retailers such as TK Maxx and Bhs and then there is the new part that has been open for under two years. This end of the centre is booming and, with the exception of a couple of voids, one of which had housed a branch of Animal while the other was stripped, shoppers are thronging its fashion stores.

The stores range from the enormous Next, still the UK’s largest, to smaller outfits such as Superdrug and G-Star Raw. Next has undergone a major revamp since opening and now has features such as mannequins standing on translucent, illuminated plinths and black frames that separate departments. All in all, this is the bright, young, fashionable side of Manchester’s mid-market shopping and for those who get bored with looking at yet more motif t-shirts there is always Waterstones.

When it opened in September 2006, the Arndale Waterstone’s was hailed as the next stage in the development of book retailing. Little has changed internally since then. The mildly disappointing fact is that this long, narrow store with its white interior and industrial concrete ceiling remains something of a one-off and only a few elements of the design have been taken elsewhere.

They are, however, a well-read lot in Manchester and this was one of the busiest stores in town. It has a sister store just off the historic St Ann’s Square that conforms more closely to the Waterstone’s stereotype. Dragons’ Den star and Rymans and La Senza entrepreneur Theo Paphitis was in situ in this branch signing copies of his book and fending off the crowds. There are, naturally, bookshops in Liverpool too, but the degree of design effort and investment that is evident in Manchester bookshops not apparent in the centre of Liverpool.

In the new section of the Arndale, the Zavvi store is a highlight. This was a major element of the extension to the shopping centre when it opened in its previous incarnation as a Virgin Megastore. The change of name has been accompanied by a modest revamp of the interior, with a switch to the new brand’s emerald green for the signage and checkout graphics.

Those who had tired of looking at books seemed to have ended up here and it was apparent, from the queues at the tills, that money was being spent. We may be on the verge of a recession, or a severe downturn – depending on who you listen to – but from the variety of shopping bags that were being carried around the centre by shoppers, the new part of the Arndale is alive and well.

However, in the older section of the shopping centre, it’s a different story. This area also has shoppers, but for the most part they seem to be in the mall’s public areas rather than the stores. The simple reason for this is that many of the stores are closed or mid-way through closing-down Sales and, with Madhouse occupying two units, the tone of this part of the centre is distinctly low key. That said, there are highlights, with Republic and JD both appearing to have splashed out on the spaces that they occupy. What is pertinent about the Arndale, as in most other parts of the city centre, is that those retailers that have chosen to populate its interior have put their best feet forward. This is a city filled with the best that retailers have to offer. Even if these stores are not flagships, they will be pretty important in retailers’ portfolios.

Step outside the Arndale and the Exchange Square branch of Selfridges marks the beginning of a series of streets filled with mid-market and luxury stores. On one pedestrianised thoroughfare, LK Bennett rubs shoulders with Radley, Reiss and Ted Baker, among others, and there is a Louis Vuitton shop under construction. Interestingly, all these stores trade from more or less equally sized units, all with a narrow plate-glass frontage and a long, deep interior. In each case, this has meant that features have been incorporated deep within each store to draw the eye into the space and tempt the shopper in. Each has done this differently, creating a street with a truly differentiated offer.

With the possible exception of Leeds and maybe Glasgow, there is nowhere outside London to compare with all of this. And, when the shopper finally arrives at the outdoor market on St Ann’s Square, it is clear that this remains a city centre fashioned for leisurely browsing.

So does Liverpool measure up? Manchester may be losing a few retailers, Calvin Klein Underwear in the Triangle development being one example, but there are still pretty robust signs that as one retail door shuts, another opens. In Liverpool, the jury is still out. Liverpool One is a remarkable achievement architecturally and the two department stores that have kept faith with the project, Debenhams and John Lewis, are both fine examples of what the retailers can do. The problem is that Liverpool’s gleaming new scheme could become the de facto city centre while all of its immediate surrounding hinterland becomes a refuge for low-rent discount operators. There are still few signs of new formats beyond Liverpool One, although they are on the way, and the centre’s offer, while good, is doggedly mid-market.

For sheer breadth of offer and the seeming ability to reinvent itself on a regular basis, Manchester still looks a better bet for shoppers than its metropolitan twin. Alderley Edge WAGs may now have Liverpool’s Met Quarter in which to indulge their high-spending ways, but if they choose to accompany their affluent footballing partners to Manchester on match day, they will still find much to divert them. The same is probably true of the population at large. Work remains to be done in Liverpool.

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