The best in mainstream retailing is presented in a slightly anonymous environment in the newer part of this landmark shopping centre.
A not very PC joke a few years back ran: “What did the 1996 IRA bombing give Manchester?” The answer was the rebuilding of the Arndale shopping centre, in the heart of the city.
Today the Manchester Arndale is a centre very much composed of two halves: one old, the other much newer.
There is little point in dwelling on the older part, other than to say it’s a relatively brutal example of shopping centre design from the 1970s, is extensive and, in spite of several facelifts, it looks its age.
At the end closest to what might be termed ‘new Arndale’, it also has many of the usual retail suspects, ranging from Republic to G-Star as well as a smattering of value-oriented indies for those wishing to keep the purse strings under control. Further into its substantial recesses, ‘old Arndale’ is about a ‘vintage’ Bhs, sundry phones shops and a fairly recently updated branch of JD Sports.
It is the newer part of the centre, with higher ceilings, more contemporary architecture and better-looking shops that contains the bulk of the scheme’s fashion offer. Opened in phases during the past decade, with the initial foray having been made in 2005, this part of the Arndale looks good and might perhaps be regarded as inner-city Manchester’s answer to Bluewater, Westfield London or Cabot Circus.
It faces onto Exchange Square, the large space with Selfridges on one of its corners, that also represents the city’s newer face - a bold, brassy and confident metropolis with an eye for luxury.
That said, the newer section of the Arndale is resolutely mid-market, with Topshop, River Island and the UK’s largest branch of Next all featuring. The fashion proposition is aimed at a relatively young crowd and is markedly busier than the adjacent, older section.
There is just one vacant shop (two units, including a forthcoming Guess store, have the hoardings up and are set to open this summer), a sight increasingly rare in shopping centres as an uncertain economy continues to prey on retail portfolios.
Key shops and merchandise mix
The ‘new’ Arndale is like any average, but well-to-do, high street. Here an Oasis, there a branch of Monsoon, and over there a bright and yellow-looking Dune store. The difference is that, as this is a new extension to an existing scheme, everything in it is also new, and so the overwhelming majority of the shopfits on view are close to being the best that retailers have in their armouries.
Most of them are aimed at the under-35 shopper, whether it’s Northwestern casualwear favourite Helly Hansen, or the two-floor branch of Topshop/Topman.
With a fair degree of prescience, there has been a branch of Apple here for some time, meaning that even on quieter days there is steady footfall from which the fashion retailers are likely to benefit.
This being Manchester, there is also a more than average representation of bling, particularly in the shape of a branch of Next-owned Lipsy, next door to its parent’s gargantuan outlet.
Also worth noting are the number of stores on Sale during Drapers visit on June 7 - substantial, indicating that, as elsewhere, summer really hasn’t arrived soon enough for Manchester, as it was raining and cool on the day of visiting. All in all, however, this is as fine a slice of UK mid-market fashion retailing as you are likely to encounter anywhere.
How do you visually merchandise a shopping centre? The answer would be that you look closely at the tenant mix and create a retail mass that will attract a particular type of customer. And given that the ‘new’ Arndale is aimed at those with rather more dash than cash, this is a fine effort at a time when many other schemes are looking a mite lacklustre.
Couple this with small touches that tell you you’re in Manchester - the portrait of Manchester United stars Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand standing either side of Winston
Churchill is the most obvious example - and you have a shopping centre that is at ease with its environs, albeit a little anonymous.
You don’t expect much service in a shopping centre, other than perhaps some navigational aids in the form of signage or maybe touchscreens. These may well have been in both parts of the Arndale, new and old, but in neither was this obvious. Equally, you might be forgiven for expecting an information desk to be in the thick of things, but this too proved elusive.
The shop staff were pleasant and helpful, with the possible exception of those at Helly Hansen, where they seemed more interested in talking with each other.
Architecturally, there is much to be said for ‘new’ Arndale. All of the stores have double-height windows and the long skylight overhead means this is a much brighter interior than the ‘old’ part of the centre. For fashion shoppers, the two elements make for an altogether more pleasing prospect, with the added benefit that stores such as Next and River Island can offer very much stronger window displays than you might find in more conventional centres or high streets. It’s also weather-proof - rather more than might be said for the luxury area that begins on the opposite side of Exchange Square.
Would I buy?
If shoppers are in the middle of Manchester and not solely value driven (there is a very large Primark opposite the Arndale), the ‘new’ Arndale would be what it is supposed to be: the default shopping choice where more or less everything that mid-market fashion has to offer is on show. And if price really were the be and end all, there are local indies such as Shout (which has a much bigger store just along the road from Piccadilly station) where you can pick up your fab gear for not a lot of money. Fashion shoppers should be able to visit the Arndale and find at least one thing to suit taste and budget, although the fortress-like quality of the older part of the scheme is off-putting.
Half a decade after the new part of the Arndale opened, it now looks a well-embedded part of Manchester’s fashion offer. Having said that, there is little to differentiate it from many other schemes and the proposition could only be described as mainstream.
Address: Manchester M4
Major fashion retailers: Next, River Island, Topshop/Topman, Oasis, Monsoon, Bank
Outstanding features: High levels of daylight and a massive Next
Low points: The adjoining ‘old’ Arndale which, in spite of some high-profile tenants and successive facelifts, is showing its age