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Jayne Dowle: A different mall game as the retail landscape shifts

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THE first time I went to Meadowhall, I thought I

had landed on another retail planet. I lived in London at the time, and I had never seen anything like this mega-mall next to the Tinsley viaduct in Sheffield.

Brimful of cynical metropolitan sophistication, and used to shopping on Oxford Street, I couldn’t see how this would work. Then my mother took me on my first visit when I came home for a weekend. I went back down South with bags laden with designer clothes and stylish things for the house. I was hooked.

As neighbouring towns and cities have improved their retail offer, people see less need to travel. No-one predicted this side effect of retail regeneration, and Meadowhall is having to think fast.

Scarily, this was 25 years ago. A lot has changed in retail – and my life – since then. When I go shopping to Meadowhall, these days it is invariably to fetch something for one of my children. Those designer clothes have been replaced by school shoes and sports gear, or we go to help my daughter spend her birthday money in Build-a-Bear. The only thing I ever seek out specifically for myself is a certain brand of lipstick I can’t buy from anywhere else except Debenhams. And when I’m pushed for time, I end up ordering this off the internet instead.

For me, Meadowhall is no longer a place of retail therapy. In fact, we call it ‘Meadowhell’ in this house. A place to be endured rather than embraced, it has become synonymous with milling crowds of teenagers stuffing their faces with pasties, long queues, and the eternal search for a parking space near the door.

I was interested then to read that the shopping centre is to undergo a £50m facelift. The refurbishment will bring in double-height shop fronts, new “way finding” and dramatic lighting artwork.

It’s a lot of money for the co-owners, British Land, to spend. However, although they are not saying as much, Meadowhall is clearly coming under stiff competition from the shiny new retail developments a few miles up the M1 in Leeds – especially the £350m Trinity Leeds development in the city centre, and the prospect of a new John Lewis at the £150m Victoria Gate development.

Then there’s Broadway, the new Westfield development finally coming out of the ground in Bradford. There’s thriving Frenchgate in Doncaster. And let’s not discount the retail regeneration of Sheffield city centre itself: the new market, the niche shops in the Devonshire Quarter and the success of public events in Millennium Square which brings in those who regard a shopping trip as a leisure excursion rather than a retail mission to be endured.

From this shopper’s point of view at least, I am afraid that Meadowhall is looking increasingly anachronistic. Until now, its success has had much to do with the fact that it has pulled in shoppers from a wide geographical area.

However, as neighbouring towns and cities have improved their own retail offer, local people see less need to travel. No-one predicted this side effect of retail regeneration, and I’d say that Meadowhall is having to think fast.

Also, let’s be honest. It needs to up its game in terms of the retailers it offers, re-think the food and drink outlets and generally find a way to always put the customer first. These days, weary shoppers demand more than a food court which on a bad day in the school holidays resembles feeding time at an unruly zoo.

Meadowhall’s range of retailers – which includes funky fashion outlets such as Hollister and Urban Outfitters – has improved in recent years.

However, it has some way to go on this score to keep ahead of customer demand and expectation. A quarter of a century, we were amazed if we could find a designer store anywhere in South Yorkshire at all to be frank.

Today, however, we’re far more well-travelled. How to attract those who have been on a mini-break to New York to pick up a few bargains in the sales on Fifth Avenue and know their Pretty Green from their Paul Smith? It’s a challenge which the original planners of Meadowhall never envisaged.

It’s going to take more than double-height shop fronts to woo back those who are voting with their feet and opting to take their money elsewhere. And this must demand serious consideration from those in charge at Meadowhall, and other shopping centres around the UK.

For so long now, the debate in retail has been all about the High Street and town centres. Whilst urban experts have been wringing their hands and Mary Portas has marched up and down the country dispensing expert advice, the fate of the out-of-town mega malls has been left behind.

What are they for? Are they still temples of consumerism, shrines to be worshipped at every weekend and late-night shopping session? Or will they gradually turn into dusty monoliths, tumble-weed blowing through their once-thronged walkways? Will future generations pass them on the motorway and wonder just what they stood for?

As any dedicated shopper knows, fashions change, tastes evolve and sometimes the next trend creeps up without anyone even imagining it. That’s the situation in retail right now, and that’s why the big question remains – has Meadowhall passed its sell-by date?