First Retail Week visits Bristol, where sales at Cabot Circus are up. Then we head to Cardiff and the St David’s Centre, before visiting Exeter, the site of Devon and Cornwall’s inaugural and soon-to-be-open John Lewis. We also hop across the channel to examine island retailing on Jersey and Guernsey.
It’s not an easy time for retailers anywhere in the UK at the moment, and the Southwest is no exception. Footfall is floundering and consumers are facing an austere few years.
But the Southwest retail industry is fighting back. Across the region, new stores are continuing to open and the main shopping destinations are pulling out all the stops to entice customers and encourage spend.
In the major shopping destinations you would be forgiven for thinking it is pretty much business as usual. A visit to Bristol’s Cabot Circus on a rainy weekday afternoon proves shoppers there are still keen to buy – the place is busy, despite the weather.
But centre director Kevin Duffy says appearances can be deceiving. Footfall is so far down 4% in 2012 compared with the same period last year, in line with the national average, with a major contributing factor being the increasing price of petrol.
“People have been a lot more cautious about driving,” he says. “The economic climate is tougher than last year.”
It’s not all bad news though. Footfall might be down but Duffy says sales are up by 1%.
So while consumers are making fewer trips, it’s because they’re condensing their shopping trips and buying more when they do come into the city centre.
He says: “People are making this a destination trip, so when they get here they’re spending more money. But they’re not coming as often.”
In Cardiff, meanwhile, retailers are still reaping the benefits of investment in the city centre, where an extended St David’s Centre opened in 2009. This year footfall will reach 39 million, an increase on 37 million in 2009 and a boost of 5% on 2011, taking the centre into the top three UK shopping destinations outside London in terms of footfall.
Joanne Skilton, retail and leasing director at Capital Shopping Centres, part of the St David’s Partnership, says bosses are pleased with progress. “It’s fair to say we opened in one of the worst recessions anyone has ever known, but what has been good is we’ve managed to attract retailers consistently since we opened,” she says.
New store openings are crucial for shopping destinations across the region, and brands that have done well in London over the past five years, such as Hollister, are now venturing out into the area. Others, such as Apple, Cath Kidston, Harvey Nichols, Oliver Bonas and Foyles have also opened new stores in the Southwest or Wales over the past year or two, which all helps to generate interest from shoppers.
In Exeter a 65,000 sq ft John Lewis store - Devon and Cornwall’s first - is to open in October. It is the retailer’s first ‘flexible format’ store – smaller than the usual full size 130,000 sq ft John Lewis store, but bigger than its At Home format.
The products sold will be chosen specifically for that catchment area and selected from the retailer’s full range – not just homewares, as is the case with the At Home format. This more flexible approach to store size allows John Lewis to open in more towns and cities across the UK, and Exeter is the first to benefit.
The Exeter Chamber of Commerce says the store will act as a “massive draw” for shoppers from the Southwest, and vice-president Derek Phillips says the 300 jobs created will be helpful as well. “The job creation for Exeter’s economy is outstanding news and a real boost for the city,” he says.
John Lewis head of format development Tim Harrison says the site on Sidwell Street was a good match for the flexible format store. He says: “We’re excited to be opening the first of these bespoke department stores in Exeter.”
Land Securities portfolio director for Wales and the Southwest Suzi Clay says the new store will lift Exeter’s retail offer. “Exeter always needed a big anchor store and our anticipation is that it will attract more people.
But it’s not just store openings that are drawing in shoppers across the region. A careful mix of quality catering and entertainment has proved more important than ever in driving footfall, turning the area’s shopping centres into one-stop entertainment hubs.
Duffy says Cabot Circus’s catering offer is crucial – people especially enjoy central Bristol’s food outlets when it’s sunny, and money is being spent on improving the catering environment further.
Evening events also help, and Cabot Circus holds exhibitions for local artists, which bring in a different audience from the regular Saturday shoppers. Duffy says retailers are operating in a similar mindset to Cabot Circus. “They’re aware that they’ve got to work harder to get consumers to part with money,” he says.
While it’s no secret that the past few years have been difficult, especially for some smaller town centres, the major destinations, with their mixture of elements from culture to catering, continue to prove popular.
Cardiff’s shoppers tend to be quite young and very fashion-driven, with the strong nightlife offer helping to support that.
Shoppers also come into the city from the surrounding Welsh Valley towns for a day out.
Clay says: “Cardiff shoppers like their high-fashion trends, there’s a good nightlife and a lot of young fashion brands are doing very well. They tend to see it as a day out. Their dwell time is pretty long in the centre.”
Bristol shoppers are similar – a lot of younger people driving a high demand for a good young fashion offer. Exeter shoppers tend to be more laid back. “Exeter is smaller and has less of a big city feel,” Clay explains. “The catchment is wider and shoppers tend to have to drive further, and there’s less of that big city ‘pub and club’ culture. Young fashion still does well as there’s a big student population, but Exeter has a slightly more casual customer so casualwear does well.”
Outside of the major destinations is a wide range of towns and cities. Bath is popular with tourists – around 4.5 million visit each year – and a new Sunday service for its park-and-ride scheme is expected to improve numbers further. Waitrose is in the middle of a £10m development in the city, and Bath’s World Heritage backdrop ensures shoppers are always interested.
By contrast, towns such as Swindon are struggling. Peter Clayton, director at property agency Savills, says many mid-size towns and cities that have not invested enough in their centres, and allowed out-of-town retail to develop, are facing the hardest time.
“Spending on retail property across the region varies,” he says. “Some are doing well, others are finding it a challenge. There’s a broad spectrum. Swindon, for instance, is finding it hard to make any headway. There is a lot of out-of-town retail and a big factory outlet. But towns like Barnstable and Yeovil are holding their own.”
Newport in South Wales is another town centre that is struggling in the downturn. With stiff competition nearby from Cardiff and Bristol, Clayton says Newport is likely to need an injection of investment if is to improve its fortunes. “To really make sure it can turn the corner and flourish again, it does need some new investment,” says Clayton.
With such a wide range of towns it’s impossible to generalise about the Southwest and Wales. But, encouragingly, when retailers and landlords invest and the best of the region’s retailing is on offer, consumers continue to respond.
Twenty years ago the Channel Islands were a tourism hot spot. Sandy beaches, unspoilt scenery and the UK’s warmest weather ensured visitors flocked to the tiny islands nine miles off the coast of France.
However, increasingly cheap flights to mainland Europe have led to a steady reduction in tourists, with numbers dropping from about 1.2 million a year in the early 1990s to an estimated 420,000 this year.
As a result, today retail in Jersey’s St Helier town centre is more tailored to the 98,000 permanent inhabitants.
With the global economic downturn having an impact, the retail climate has been tough, but the Channel Islands’ industry is weathering the storm. In fact, retailers including Waitrose and Asda’s clothing brand George have opened stores over the past two years on Jersey and Guernsey, and on a Wednesday afternoon when Retail Week visited, St Helier’s high street was bustling.
Tony O’Neill, chief executive of SandpiperCI, a franchise company that runs a range of stores on the island, says retailers shouldn’t discount the area as a market worth investing in. “The market is attractive, with a consumer that has been looking for wider choice, and average wages that are significantly higher than in the UK,” he says.
The islands are populated with notoriously well-to-do inhabitants. Jersey’s income tax is a flat rate of 20%, attracting wealthy tax exiles and fuelling a thriving banking sector. It was a difficult couple of years straight after the banking crisis of 2008, but things have recovered fairly quickly and the high street has suffered less than many town centres across the UK.
Nonetheless, St Helier’s town centre manager Richard Mackenzie says Jersey hasn’t escaped the effects of the recession completely. He says: “We’ve got a decline in footfall and times are tough. But we are keeping our head above water and the appearance of the high street shows that.”
Gerald Voisin, owner of the Voisins department store, a Jersey high street stalwart, says the retailer is investing heavily in customer service despite tough times. He says: “It has been very difficult if you look at the sales statistics. Sales volumes are at 1996 levels in Jersey. But we are still bringing new brands in.” Mango, Reiss and River Island have all recently signed up to be stocked at Voisins.
Current difficulties notwithstanding, many of the Channel Islands’ 160,000- strong population have money to burn, making it an attractive place for aspirational brands such as The White Company.
“Our customers are generally a bit more affluent,” says Voisins managing director David Elliott. “The average wage is higher than the UK’s, and the average house price is double that of the UK.”
But while there are plenty of willing consumers, O’Neill, who oversees the running of stores on the island including Marks & Spencer, Jack Wills and Iceland, admits it’s not an easy place to start trading.
He says: “The Channel Islands are quite a challenging place to do business from a logistical and cost point of view. Inevitably it’s difficult to get retail brands to have a presence. The costs of doing business are high and the complexity makes it fairly unattractive from the outside.”
But SandpiperCI and Voisins both argue this shouldn’t put retailers off coming to the islands. Jersey and Guernsey may be small and complex, but the wealth of consumers and the relatively high number of visitors make them worthwhile.
Franchising is a popular route to entry in the Channel Islands market with retailers, unsurprisingly, preferring to let native Jersey companies work through the complexities of the logistics and a different tax and legal system.
Voisins’ Elliott says retailers often aren’t aware of the opportunities inherent on the islands. “A lot of people in the UK don’t really get Jersey,” he says, adding that many retail brands are keen to have a presence once they visit, but many aren’t aware of its attractions.
Shopping habits are different to the UK’s as well, which is to be expected on such small islands. About 75% of Jersey’s population work in the centre of St Helier, meaning weekdays are busier for retailers than weekends, as shoppers visit in their lunch hours.
Some online retailers don’t ship to the Channel Islands, so web shopping is not always an option – although Voisins customer research found 17% of retail sales in Jersey are online.
Voisins is working with its brands to try to introduce click-and-collect services, so shoppers can access the full range of products without paying high delivery costs. Online orders would be shipped with store stock and collected by the customer at Voisins.
O’Neill says a different approach to multichannel retailing is required in a small island environment, and SandpiperCI is also looking into how brands can widen their range via click-and-collect.
Given that it’s not always easy to get hold of certain brands, it’s no surprise that customers are keen to embrace new names. Elliott says: “They do like new brands here. New retailers don’t take a while to take off – it goes like a rocket, and then we have to sustain that.”
Out-of-town shopping, meanwhile, has never been much of a trend, given the limited size of the islands – it’s difficult to move very far from the high street when Jersey is only five miles wide.
Waitrose has opened supermarkets outside of the town centre, but generally this is another national trend Jersey has avoided. Most consumers do their shopping in the town centre, and St Helier’s Victorian market is still going strong. MacKenzie, however, says he has bigger plans for the market.
“The market area should be looked at,” he says. “There should be a strategy to move it into the 21st century, similar to what they’ve done with Borough Market in London.”
Jersey’s compact size affects other shopping habits too. The big weekly food shop, for example, isn’t as popular, O’Neill says. Shoppers buy food three to four times a week, but spend less in an average transaction than many UK consumers. “We don’t generally see queues around the checkouts on a Saturday,” he says. “It’s dispersed throughout the week.” Promotions don’t tend to be popular either – O’Neill says consumers prefer continuity and consistent good value, rather than “gimmicks”.
If the Channel Islands’ retail bosses get their way, the future will hold more brands wanting a presence. While many of the retail industry’s big names are already represented, O’Neill says there are two or three more key brands he’d like to attract, and he is working hard to increase consumer choice. “Food and clothing are well catered for,” he says. “The opportunity lies in other sectors.”
The islands might be a logistical challenge for retailers, but there’s no shortage of enthusiasm – retailers not already there may want to consider it carefully.
Channel Islands facts
Combined population 160,000
Jersey’s size 50 sq miles
Guernsey’s size 33 sq miles
Online sales Represent 17% of total retail sales, according to research by Voisins
Retailers represented on the islands include Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, The White Company, Jack Wills
Retail sales The total volume of retail sales in the first quarter of 2012 was 9% lower than in the same quarter of 2011
Home-grown retail - Leekes
Leekes is a department store retailer that has four stores in Wales and three in the Midlands after it bought Coles of Bilston in 2009.
Managing director Emma Leeke (pictured) started her retail career at Marks & Spencer, before joining the family business 11 years ago. She explains how the business was founded, and how it has grown:
“The business was established in the late 19th century by my great-grandfather James Henry Leeke.
It started as a small ironmonger in the front room of the family home in Tonypandy in the Welsh Valleys.
“Over time, the business grew and diversified. My family took a small store in the main street in Tonypandy and expanded into DIY and decorating products.
“In the mid-1970s we opened a second store in Llantrisant outside Cardiff, which was a much larger, out-of-town destination store with a wider range of products. Over time it grew to include fitted kitchens, bathrooms, sofas, dining furniture, lighting and accessories, clothing and gifts – and the premise of everything for your home under one roof was born.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, stores followed in Cross Hands near Carmarthen in West Wales, Melksham in Wiltshire and concessions for our conservatory, windows and door operations in six garden centres in Wales and the Southwest of England.
“In 2009, we purchased the family furniture retailer Coles of Bilston and its three stores. We hope to open stores in Cheltenham, Gloucester, and Worcester.
“While we have had to work hard to maintain like-for-like sales, we have grown turnover overall and have found trading to be much stronger in the past six months. We have a very strong furniture business, which is currently performing 20% ahead of last year, and our installation business, particularly kitchens, is up more than 15% this financial year.
“Online is a key part of our future strategy – we have a transactional website and are working to increase the number of items available to purchase online. We currently display almost 10,000 items, but with a catalogue of close to 150,000 this is still a fraction of what is available in store.
“We are not a faceless multinational but a unique, family-owned business. We have great levels of staff retention with more than 20% of our staff having worked with us for more than 10 years. Our staff predominantly come from the immediate vicinity of our stores and we therefore identify strongly with our local community.”
Peter Slater, branch manager of Waitrose Red Houses in Jersey, reveals what retailing is like on the Channel Islands.
Why did Waitrose want to open stores on the Channel Islands?
It’s an area we were interested in for some time and certainly an area where we have seen a strong demand for the Waitrose brand for many years.
Our supply relationship with businesses in the Channel Islands means that our products have been available on the islands since 1997. Opening shops was the next step.
How does Channel Island retailing differ from retailing in the UK?
Our five Channel Island shops are the first we have operated outside of the UK – not only have we had to adapt our distribution model, but we’ve had to adapt to fit in with local culture and different legislative and regulatory requirements. This has included setting up two companies, Waitrose Jersey and Waitrose Guernsey.
We wanted our shops to reflect the islands as much as possible. We held ‘meet the buyer’ events before they opened, so that we could meet local suppliers and give our customers access to some of the best quality local food and drink.
The majority of the staff in our branches are from the islands, and it has been invaluable to bring their local knowledge to our service.
What do Channel Island consumers respond well to?
Our shops have been trading on both islands for about 18 months now, and we continue to receive a very warm response from shoppers, who tell us how pleased they are with the range and quality of products we sell. Shoppers here were already familiar with our Essential Waitrose range. However, it has continued to go from strength to strength. We were able to triple the number of Essential Waitrose products sold in the Channel Islands when we opened our shops, and our customers really like being able to buy affordably priced goods without any compromise on our quality or ethical standards.
Our top-tier ranges such as Duchy Originals from Waitrose and Heston from Waitrose have also proved successful and customers like the fact that we are an everyday to gourmet retailer.
What has been learnt about trading on the islands since the stores were opened?
While there are differences between the UK and Channel Islands, shoppers here have responded very well to the Waitrose brand because our key values seem to resonate well with them. The islands are very close-knit, which means that initiatives such as our Community Matters scheme, which donates money to local charities, as well as sourcing local produce, have been well received.
- Next week, George MacDonald visits Ireland. Click here to view previous reports.