Opinion

Manchester – the UK’s second city for retail?

When international retailers and consumers think of the UK retail industry, London has traditionally dominated the outlook.

BY ELISE BUCHANAN

This imbalance is a global trend felt in many countries. Paris’s retail scene continues to lead in France and New York still attracts more foreign shoppers than any other US city. The perception of these cities as the only opportunity for international retailers in expansion mode is shifting, however, and traditional “understudy” locations are moving into the limelight for brands entering new international markets.

According to the 2011 census, Manchester’s urban area had a population of 2.55 million, versus 2.44 million for Birmingham – the other city traditionally considered as the UK’s number two. Manchester was also the fastest growing city by population behind London. Following the BBC’s move to new premises outside Manchester, the consensus in the media and among the public has increasingly swung toward Manchester as the UK’s true “second city.” It has emerged from London’s shadows with a separate retail identity; a shift driven in no small part by Manchester Arndale – one of Europe’s largest and long-standing city-center shopping centers. In creating a shopping environment that complements and challenges London’s dominance, the joint owners of Manchester Arndale, M&G Real Estate and intu, have attracted an increasing number of international stores to the 130,000-sq-m city-center hub, including Thomas Sabo, Kids Foot Locker, and Michael Kors in the past year alone.

When looking to elevate a non-capital city’s standing, three key lessons can be shared from our experience with Manchester Arndale, summarized as active asset management, accessibility and connections, and what I call “destination curation” – the art of developing a sense of place.

First, active asset management – the process of improving and adding value to property. To ensure the 240-store center appeals to international retailers, we group complementary brands to create separate areas throughout Manchester Arndale. This provides a fuller experience for customers, who can move between separate hubs and enjoy a seamless shopping experience.

Secondly, accessibility. Located at the heart of the city center, Manchester Arndale is part of ongoing wider regeneration plans to improve significantly the flow of people around the city. Its newest form of public transport, the Metrolink tram system, transports 29.2 million people annually and has a stop next to Manchester Arndale’s flagship Next store. Improved transport and connectivity have widened the potential customer base and successfully contributed to securing the center’s 41 million annual visitors.

Finally, “destination curation.” Of those from Manchester Arndale’s 6.7 million catchment population who visit on any given week, almost a third will visit again in the same week. We focus on developing a community feel by integrating business and community with award-winning engagement programs. A recent example saw members of the public and shop staff donating items of clothing in the center, with the contents given to charity each night.

From all this, we have learned it is vital for modern retail environments to establish an emotional connection with shoppers and develop a critical sense of community.

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