As Brent Cross, the UK’s original regional shopping centre, turns 40, Drapers tracks how the concept has developed
Forty years ago Brent Cross shopping centre first opened its doors. The development not only changed shopping for the residents of north London, it spurred a new brand of regional shopping mall that took the UK by storm.
The 898,000 sq ft centre opened with established names such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Fenwick – all of which still have stores at Brent Cross – along with brands that have fallen by the wayside including Radio Rentals, C&A and fashion brands Lady M and Lord John. Stephen Springham, head of retail research at property agent Knight Frank says it broke new ground. “It was the UK’s first truly modern covered shopping mall. It may be hard to believe now, but back in 1976, the mainstay of the UK retail scene was still traditional high street shops,” he says.
“Shopping centres back then tended to be open air and precinct based – as exposed to the elements as a traditional high street. What covered malls there were couldn’t hold a candle to the modernity of Brent Cross – probably the best the UK had to offer back then was the horror that was the Old Bullring in Birmingham.” However, more significant, was Brent Cross’s location. “Rather than be attached to an existing major city centre, Brent Cross was effectively a free-standing shopping destination that relied on people coming from far and wide. It was what we now term the first of the regional shopping mall,” says Springham.
The regional shopping mall actually originated in the US. From the 1950s onwards, retail in America gravitated away from downtown areas as developers snapped up cheaper land outside the city and consumers started to drive rather than use public transport. The shopping centre’s tenants also took some Stateside inspiration.
“We based the model of our Fenwick store on the successful shopping malls in the US and worked with an American consultant to design the store both inside and out,” says Jenny O’Donoghue, regional director of department store Fenwick, one of Brent Cross’ original tenants. “It was one of the first open-plan stores in the UK, with brand new fixtures that allowed customers to see right across the store.”
Impressive stores aside, the success of the regional mall format in the UK was far from a foregone conclusion. Developer Hammerson’s general manager for Brent Cross Tom Nathan – who had his first Saturday job at the centre in the Peter Lord shoe shop when it opened in 1976 – says most people in the area thought it would be a white elephant. However, it was an instant hit.
“Brent Cross brought the world’s best brands to north London and gave people a place to shop that was undercover, where they didn’t have to battle the elements or dodge cars,” he says. He adds that Brent Cross’ accessibility was critical to its success. It is served by the North Circular, A1 and M1, a tube station and is home to the third busiest bus station in London. O’Donoghue says free parking was also a unique selling point for consumers and continues to be the case today.
The rise of regional centres
The success of Brent Cross inevitably led to more regional malls. Merry Hill in Dudley and Gateshead’s Metrocentre opened in 1986 followed by Lakeside in Essex and Sheffield’s Meadowhall in 1990. Nine years later in 1999 came Bluewater in Kent and, in recent years, Australian shopping centre owner Westfield has opened in White City and Stratford in London.
Intu Merry Hill
Regional malls make up some of the UK’s most premier shopping destinations and Nathan says they are “fundamental” to retailers’ growth strategies: “They’re convenient and shoppers want them. That means they’re incredibly important to retailers.”
Regional malls have evolved a lot over the past 40 years, including growing in scale. “All the schemes have been subject to regular refurbishment and most have been extended on multiple occasions,” says Springham. This includes Brent Cross. The centre was extended in 1996/97 by 100,000 sq ft to accommodate more dining and in 2018 work will begin on a 628,000 sq ft expansion.
Regional shopping centres are convenient and shoppers want them.
Tom Nathan, general manager for Brent Cross, Hammerson
Regional malls have not just got bigger, they have also changed to meet the needs of the modern consumer. One route is by growing food and beverage, as well as leisure, within these developments. Brent Cross opened its first food court in 1996, and Nathan says food and beverage now accounts for 20% of its space. He says the centre has also adapted to the multichannel world – it was the first shopping centre in Hammerson’s portfolio to launch Collect+ and it now processes 400 parcels a week through the service.
“People don’t just buy online, it’s more complex than that. Some people want to see in a store and will order online, others want to collect it in store. It benefits the retailer regardless,” says Nathan.
Despite the popularity of existing regional malls, Springham does not imagine too many more being built. “Even hypothetically given carte blanche on the planning side, where has sufficient capacity to support another large-scale, free-standing shopping mall?” he asks. That said, he believes existing regional malls are unlikely to fall out of favour, even as shopping patterns and channels change.
However, constant evolution is needed to ensure regional centres remain relevant. “We may be 40 years old but we’re still nimble and focused on giving the customer what they want,” says Nathan. Springham agrees and expects much change across the UK’s regional shopping centres, including the pioneer: “Brent Cross today looks radically different than it did 40 years ago; 40 years hence, it will look very different still,” he says.
Top 12 regional shopping centres by shopper spend
(Research provided by Knight Frank)
|Shopper spend (£m)*||Shopper population*||Floorspace (000 sq ft)||Zone A rent||Opened|
|Westfield Stratford City, London||£1,203||463,694||1,830||£400||2011|
|Intu Trafford Centre||£1,174||542,407||1,597||£425||1998|
|Intu Metrocentre, Gateshead||£654||342,484||2,034||£300||1986|
|Brent Cross, north London||£605||266,749||842||£445||1976|
|Intu Merry Hill, Dudley||£569||314,868||1,525||£180||1986|
|The Mall at Cribbs Causeway||£563||246,605||791||£305||1998|
|Intu Lakeside, Essex||£561||233,176||1,240||£350||1990|
|White Rose, Leeds||£362||150,976||742||£320||1997|
|Intu Braehead, Glasgow||£345||148,391||589||£250||1999|