The way we shop: how shopping centres are changing  

Supporting almost three million workers and generating more than £90bn annually for the domestic economy, the retail sector in the UK is, of course, huge business. It’s also an industry that’s changed dramatically in recent decades, with retailers having to adapt accordingly. First came the disruption of out-of-town shopping centres such as the Metro Centre, Gateshead (completed in 1986), or Bluewater (opened in 1999), even if the UK perhaps doesn’t have a shopping mall culture quite as strong as America’s.

Next came the unstoppable rise of shopping via the internet… Buying over the web now accounts for one pound in every £5 an individual spends in the sector, while net-based sales rose by more than a third (35%) in the year to July 2018. The development of online-only brands and the convenience of doorstep delivery services pose a challenge to traditional shopping malls, for whom the overall trend has been characterised by decreased footfall in recent years.

For younger people in particular, the web is king, with those aged between 18 and 24 more than a quarter (26%) more likely than the rest of the population to buy most or all of their clothes this way.

Data provider Springboard says that between 2015 and 2018 footfall across all shopping centres, High Streets and retail parks dipped each year. In 2018, 5% fewer of us went out to shop compared with the year before.

Has the death of the shopping centre been greatly exaggerated?

But not all the news is bleak. This year in particular has seen a shift, with 3.1% more physical shoppers. Shopping centres benefited the most from this increase in footfall, with visitors up by more than 5% on a year ago.

Most importantly, shopping centres should not consider the internet as the enemy, or the competition, but should instead see e-commerce as a phenomenon whose potential they can unlock to change the way they work. The most successful malls of the future will look at innovating rather than stagnating, instead of seeing a clear-cut battle between online vs. geographical shopping, or even of big versus small business.

An empty unit, for example, could become a central click-and-collect point, with a fitting room and a facility for returning goods.

Retailers can also embrace the power of new platforms such as OnBuy, a rapidly growing marketplace for everything from homeware to beauty, books, pet supplies and electrical goods. It offers low selling fees, can ship to dozens of countries worldwide and doesn’t compete against its sellers. With these kinds of integrated selling and delivery platforms, a strong retail sector should never need to stand still.

Using the right strategy, and with clever use of technology, integrating the best aspects of conventional and online shopping could be key to the survival of the traditional shopping centre.

How shopping centres are embracing new focus in the digital age

  • By offering unbeatable experiences – There are clearly things you just can’t get via a screen alone, and shopping centres are working to maximise this by becoming cultural hubs, and genuinely providing their communities with a useful offering that isn’t available any other way. Equally, they can continue to provide first-class eating, drinking and other facilities, such as sporting amenities or cinemas, so people view the shopping centre more as a leisure destination than somewhere to pop into quickly. The variety of services may broaden even more in the future to include, for example, doctors and dentists. Draw people in – and then they will spend money. Above all, visitors need to have a reason to be there, and to feel they are satisfying a need that can’t be met online.
  • By regularly changing content – This means that shoppers always have something different to see when they visit, e.g. for example, local pop-up stores, particularly at Christmas, giving members of the public more reasons to visit the centre.
  • By offering niche choices – In the areas of luxury goods, sports, and health in particular, these lifestyle offerings can be particularly attractive to browse and purchase in a real store. Centres may also choose to specialise in health or sports, and offer related activities such as gym classes.
  • By harnessing technology – For example, by creating an app that people can use to learn more about the various brands on offer at the centre, send messages to staff or ask for specific products to try while they are at the shops. Free Wi-Fi and mobile phone charging points are obviously essential, not a luxuary.

A shopping centre that is getting it right is Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

We were the media buying  part of the launch team in 2001, this centre is a lifestyle destination centre based on the Victoria and Albert Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. The aim of the developers was to regenerate a derelict city centre site, and to open up this waterfront area for public use. Its ‘green’ credentials include its own recycling centre and the biggest array of solar panels (used to power the car park) of any shopping centre in Europe.

Its history as a naval base dates back to the twelfth century, but today the harbour-front designer outlet centre offers 90 stores, a hotel and dozens of coffee shops, bars and restaurants.

There’s no doubt that with the right blend of services, experience and retail, creating an offering which genuinely serves their communities, and by integrating with online options, shopping centres can retain and increase their relevance, and continue to thrive in the future.

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