Shopping Centre Magazine: State of Independents

Posted by Shopping Centre Magazine on 6th May 2016

A combination of increased void space available in more shopping centres (and this before the BHS administration) combined with a possible rethinking by landlords about retail homogenisation and the need to create authentic destinations, seems to be resulting in a small increase in presence of independent retailers in shopping centres around the UK.    

But don't get set to start celebrating 'Independents Day' too hardily quite yet.    

As the recent report by the Local Data Company and the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) highlights, the number of independent shops in the UK increased by just 476 in 2015 (18 percent) to total 270,121. However, it's the presence (or lack thereof, depending on your viewpoint) of independent retailers and operators that seems to have started to prick the collective consciousness of an industry where authenticity and diversity are beginning to carry more weight in the development and leasing process.    

“The big challenge for bricks-and-mortar shops is footfall,” says British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) deputy CEO and communications director Michael Weedon. “Also, if ou look over the last five years for The British Retail Consortium/Springboard Footfall Monitor you’ll see that town centres have lost nearly 9 per cent of their footfall. Independent retailers can help to counter that.” 

Weedon, who was born over the shop his father managed, concedes that there are challenges in having independent retailers and operators in shopping centres (in 2015 some 34,288 independents opened while 38,812 closed across the UK), but he says for those landlords working with independent retailers there are greater returns beyond the rent roll. 

 Certainly, shopping centre owner Ellandi would agree. The company has actively and positively championed independent retailers in the past few years. Property director Mark Robinson says the investor’s 29-strong 7.5 million-sq ft portfolio of largely community-focused centres is home to some 1,700 tenants of which 400 Robinson qualifies as independent or regional. 

 “That is by number around 15 per cent of the rent roll,” he said. Ellandi, he adds, is proud of this, so much so that the company is celebrating #Indi2016 – its 365-day initiative featuring individual Twitter and Facebook mentions to spotlight each of its independent tenants – resulting in what Robinson calls “fantastic engagement” with up to 5,000- person reach per social media blast. 

“There are a lot of units in many shopping centres which are effectively obsolete in terms of attracting national retailers,” he says of the industry. “That’s a problem for landlords as are vacant rates liabilities that quickly apply. They make it an imperative for the landlord to act. At the same time local and independent retailers bring vitality and a sense of place and anchor to these schemes in a way that the nationals can’t. We’re a massive believer in them.” 

Robinson points out that brands like New Look and Superdry also started from carts and temporary shops and have evolved to major chains. 

“Out of the 400 or so independents in our centre there might be another Julian Dunkerton (founder of Superdry) out there,” he said. “Of course, with independents the business doesn’t always work out, but often they have created a sense of interest and a point of difference. We are not landlords who say that you have to take a 15-year-lease that’s that.” 

Others are also seeing to colonise the high ground when it comes to independents. Among them is the St David’s Partnership in Cardiff, Wales. Colin Flinn, regional director at Intu, which is in joint venture ownership of the centre with Land Securities, point to the recent opening of independent retail store Paloma by way of example. 

“At St David’s we recognise the value of providing a varied retail offer that appeals to our very strong catchment, including city centre-based students and customers from surrounding areas. In order to achieve this, it is key to have the right balance of stores. Dining and leisure is also reflective of the varied retail offer, with independents such as Soho Coffee and treetop Adventure Gold,” concludes Flinn. 

And they are not alone in the industry in looking to independent tenants. British Land points to The Lanes area of Meadowhall which features 19 independent retailers. At Whiteley, its shopping centre in Fareham, Hampshire, British Land specifically included independent local retailers such as children’s shoe store Little Soles, along with Solent Cycles, a local estate agent, independent bistro Montagu’s and climbing experience Rock Up. Furthermore, the centre has also used its town square for independent markets. 

“IT is important to have local and independent retailers training alongside big brands,” Claire Barber, head of London, South Easy and Meadowhall for British Land, said. “This helps create a sense of place and also makes the centre a real part of the community, contributing to its long-term success.” 

Ed Cooke, who has just been appointed as action CEO of retail property organisation BCSC, says that retail destinations have been adapting “to create a more experiential offer” but he is also pragmatic about the tenant mix. 

“Owners sought to offer space to pop=ups and independents to avoid vacant shops in centres at the height of the financial crisis” Cooke says. “Both remain an important part of the shopping centre ecosystem and are now often planned into a tenant mix strategy. However, as always, centres must look to ensure the right mix and balance between independents and multiples.” 

Chris Wieszczycki, principal director heading retail & mixed use at tp bennett, also points to the recent BITA/Local Data Company figures as indicative of the potential – and challenges – ahead. 

“The individual character of independent stores offers something unique and more engaging than chain retailers – the personal touch and authenticity,” he said. “Typically, they tend to be less focused on customer turnaround and more on the experience. The increased diversity of the offer and the authenticity of the experience have the potential to attract the customer back to retail destinations.  

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