Launching a shopping centre extension in the present climate is a tough task, but as Ben Cooper reports, St David’s in Cardiff should stand up to the challenge and raise the city’s retail profile

With only six months before its opening day and only a quarter of its units let, St David’s is a sign of the times.

After the flood of new shopping centre space that came through last year, a relative trickle is opening in 2009. For many retailers, this is a time for consolidation, of taking stock of the stores they do have and only opening new ones where the conditions are just right.

Every effort is being made by joint developers Land Securities and Capital Shopping Centres – together comprising the St David’s Partnership – to ensure the extended St David’s in Cardiff is not a victim of inauspicious beginnings. But with about 75 stores still to let – equating to 45 per cent of the floor space – it has some way to go.

“They’re in a challenging position but both landlords have experience of opening shopping centres in tough times,” says Crabtree & Evelyn property director Phil Jenkins. The retailer has signed up to open its first Welsh store in the centre and Jenkins believes others will follow. “It’s not a great time to be letting units but there are still retailers in expansion mode like us.”

With John Lewis on board and already fitting out its largest store outside London, things could be a lot worse. Getting the remaining units let is now the big challenge. It’s not a task many landlords would relish, but with an impressive scheme starting to take shape and a master plan that will transform the city centre, the development partnership behind the scheme is pulling out all the stops.

The existing St David’s centre – which has Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Bhs as its anchors – is hardly weak, but it doesn’t do enough to serve the 1.9 million shoppers in the catchment. At the moment Cardiff is leaking shoppers to other cities in the Southwest such as Bristol, where the offer is stronger, says Land Securities director Neal Carron.

“This will raise the profile of Cardiff,” he explains. “When people think of shopping in Cardiff they only think of Queen Street. Welsh people would much prefer to shop in Wales than over the border, but a lot go to England at
the moment.”

Big-name draw

Having John Lewis anchoring the scheme will solidify Cardiff’s place as a regional retail centre that brings shoppers in from further afield. John Lewis development manager Samantha Rowntree says retailers don’t need to be as cautious as they are at the moment, despite the apparently bleak short-term prospects.

“I hope that other retailers will be able to take a long-term view and see the opportunity and potential in St David’s,” she says. “It would be great to be opening in a better market, but we look at things in the long term. It’s a fantastic centre and we’re delighted to be going in there.”

The rest of the extension will include about 100 shops of varying size that – thanks to some visionary master planning – should connect tidily with the strong line-up of retailers in the existing St David’s scheme and the streets around it. Among those already signed there are some surprising names that have not made it to Cardiff (see box) until now, despite it being such a major centre.

Respected high-end fashion names including Kurt Geiger, All Saints and Reiss, as well as the more mid-market brands such as H&M and New Look, reflect the landlord’s brief to get a strong mid-market offer sprinkled with some high-end luxury brands.

Cardiff has benefited from a long period of investment that has brought the Cardiff Indoor Arena and the Millennium Stadium – two of the main reasons why the Welsh capital now attracts 10 million tourists a year.

But it does still have a problem of connectivity. One of its most attractive features, its stunning Cardiff Bay, has been largely cut off from the city’s prime retail pitch, Queen Street, for many years by an area of largely disused land. Extending St David’s will create several natural channels that will lead down from the train station in the northeast of the city to Cardiff Bay in the south and the shopping streets to the west, driving footfall past the retail offer.

“If this was out on a limb from what is an already well-established city centre we would be concerned,” says Jenkins. “But what’s great is that it joins the dots between where people are coming into the city and a lot of the quality retail.”

Short-term worries

While all this is a proud achievement, it will do little to help in the short term, with tenants being so cautious about signings. Opening at a time when property values are continuing to spiral downwards, coupled with retailers’ conservative acquisition strategies, is far from ideal.

“It’s a difficult market but the asset is in the right location and it’s the right size,” says Capital Shopping Centres leasing director Jo Skilton. “The demand is there; it’s just a case of making the deals stack up.”

Nevertheless, St David’s readily admits that given the number of vacant units, there will still be a big chunk of shops not trading by opening day, even if they are let. But Land Securities director Norman White is confident that the partnership has got the offer right for retailers when they do decide to take the space. “We’re going to have a strong retail offer from the beginning,” he says. “It could be a better time to be opening in, but we’re going to make sure we have a good environment here from day one.”

With an opening date still not set and 45 per cent of the space still to fill, St David’s Partnership has its work cut out. The uncertainty and lack of confidence that has been rife in retail all year has dented preparations for St David’s, but as a long-term project, the partnership has done all the right things.

It is a well-designed layout in an attractive retail city, making it a strong offer for retailers that would be well placed once consumer confidence returns. Unfortunately, though, that is an aspect that is beyond anyone’s control.

The scheme of things

Existing centre size 432,500 sq ft

Size post-extension 1.4 million sq ft

Opening October

Number of stores in the extension about 100, plus 25 catering units

The Retailers signed

to St David’s

John Lewis

Radley

Reiss

TM Lewin

Crabtree & Evelyn

Links of London (first standalone
in Cardiff)

Hugo Boss

Kurt Geiger

H&M

Disney Store

Crew Clothing

New Look

Slater

Beaverbrooks

Fraser Hart

All Saints (first standalone in Cardiff)

Goldsmiths

Parkhouse Jewellers

Claire’s

Essential

Carphone Warehouse

O2

Vodafone

Clarks

Clinton Cards