Colin Brooks, MD of Realm. Image: Realm

Repositioning outlet retail

There's no denying that these are challenging times for retail, with shopping center landlords having to work harder to increase footfall and convert this to spend. On paper, this is simple – make your retail assets attractive places to shop, introduce popular retail and F&B brands, and people will want to spend money there.

By Colin Brooks

Consumers still want to shop, and it is up to the sector to respond with engaging and relevant environments where they can do just that. It is the customer journey that can define the success of a scheme, and so whilst enhancing the customer experience is not new, the pressure to make this work is dominating the sector.

Today’s Instagram world of fast fashion has created savvy shoppers, whose expectations of a quality shopping experience are far higher than they once were. With the rise of the internet, the days of driving to the outskirts of town to a down-and-out retail scheme full of unloved units and unloved product to find a bargain are gone. Both operators and retailers are having to switch on to this shift in shopper expectation.

This attitude has left brick-and-mortar retail having to work a lot harder to contend with its online competitors. With customers able to find products easily and cheaply online, the quality of a shopping experience has become essential to a scheme’s success. Shoppers expect a premium experience in both the products they buy and the retail schemes they buy them from – whether that is full-price or outlet.

The enhancement and refurbishment of retail scheme environments is essential, and nowhere is this being put into greater effect than in outlet schemes, which are performing well in contrast to the struggling full-price market. Across the portfolio of UK outlet centers that it manages, Realm has seen sales continue to grow, with a 4.9 per cent increase year on year despite factors such as weather conditions, consumer confidence, and the World Cup challenging footfall levels.

Through investment and strong management, we are striving to meet the growing needs and expectations of our customers through refurbishment strategies, which are repositioning the schemes that Realm manages. This refurbishment is taking the form of both physical investment into the infrastructure of the centers, to updating structures that were built sometimes 25 years ago, as well as an investment into the customer environment, both in terms of the facilities and the units themselves.

We recognize the exciting retail destinations that our shoppers expect and want and, as a result, store standards across the outlets Realm manages now exceed retailers’ high street stores, in some cases, both in the stock on offer as well as the quality of the unit. However, our focus is beyond the physical as we look to evolve the customer experience.

Recent trends across the outlet schemes that we manage have shown that it’s a combination of retail, leisure, and F&B that will drive the growth in popularity of outlets centers. This can be seen in action at Resorts World Birmingham and Dalton Park, where experiential elements of the schemes, such as cinema multiplexes, dining, and even casinos, increase not only the dwell time of customers, but their overall satisfaction of the outlet experience.

Livingston Designer Outlet is another example of how enhancing both the customer experience and quality of an outlet center can be put into good effect to increase footfall and spend. A £7 million injection will be used to lift the cosmetic environment of the center, as well as to introduce premium facilities, such as a concierge and “shop and drop” service. These services not only enhance the customer experience, but ensure that the center now has a notable point of difference from its competitors.

Similarly, at Lakeside, in Doncaster, a £1 million investment will be used to introduce landscaping throughout the scheme, alongside softer finishes and garden features. Enhancements to the quality feel of the scheme will help Lakeside to stand out from the crowd, repositioning the scheme to new tenants in a challenging leasing market, and creating an enjoyable retail destination for shoppers.

The step-change in the quality of outlets is also encouraging retailers to increase investment in their outlet shop fit-outs far more than we have seen in the past, and, in doing so, aligning the standards of outlet stores with those in full-price locations.

We deem the quality of the schemes that we manage to be so important that we have hired an independent shop-fit consultant to help redesign individual stores in our centers, ensuring that they meet the high standards that we expect. Not only does this allow shoppers to enjoy the standard of full-price retail, with an outlet price tag, but some occupiers who have invested in upgrading their shop fit-outs at our schemes have seen a 25 per cent rise in sales.

If they are going to succeed during these challenging time, landlords and retailers need to be aligned in providing a high-quality retail experience, across the products, services, and environment on offer. Shoppers deserve a good-quality shopping experience, and with the enhanced customer experience and quality of environment that can be seen in the outlet market, the retail sector as a whole has a standard that it can strive to emulate.


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