Retail opinion: Is Nottingham Queen of the East Midlands?

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WHEN it comes to retailing, numbers tell their own story. And the fact is that Nottingham is the Queen of the East Midlands when it comes to shopping, with a dominant market position ranked between 4-6th in the UK outside London.

The analysts at CACI calculate the annual retail spend in the city at £1.73billion with Leicester as the nearest competitor – 12th in the UK spending rankings at £1.1billion.

Yet while the facts highlight a strong centre I think the average shopper does not currently feel that Nottingham is a ‘top ten shopping experience’, and we must not fall into the trap of basing the future of the city centre on nostalgia.

Undoubtedly the retail environment is extremely challenging with retail failures up 15 per cent in the first quarter of 2012, but this should be no excuse to sit back and hope the return to better times will solve all the issues.

Currently the focus is on the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre which has been under consideration for redevelopment for at least the last ten years. The £500 million scheme to provide 1.2m sq ft of accommodation, proposed by Westfield before it sold out to Capital Shopping Centres, is unlikely to ever be on the table again.

Currently, we are being shown pictures of buckets catching the rain in the Broadmarsh malls, a graphic illustration of the malaise of the centre, and the lack of contribution the scheme is making to the shopping environment at the southern end of the city.

While Broadmarsh is predominantly owned by CSC, Nottingham City Council has always retained a financial interest in the property, and will need to engage with CSC as both planning authority and commercial partner. The Victoria Centre, which CSC also owns, has a number of strong brands led by John Lewis, House of Fraser, and Boots but the shopping environment here is also looking dated.

Add in the concerns over the city council’s car parking charges, which do not appear to encourage short shopping trips, and the general vacancy rates the city centre is experiencing, and it’s no wonder shoppers don’t get the “top ten” feeling that the numbers suggest.

How do we bridge this apparent gap between statistics and experience? Understanding what modern-day shoppers are looking for is a start. Shopping is a leisure activity with consumers telling us over 70 per cent of their trips are for leisure, not for essentials.

The industry and government acknowledge that retailing in the 21st Century needs to react to the changing consumer habits, and The Portas Review is helpful in focusing everyone’s attention on how to move forward. There has been quite a debate about the Review’s findings but what Mary Portas can definitely contribute is turning the attention onto the customer, which is absolutely key.

Why do shoppers come to Nottingham? What would make them stay in the centre for longer? What attractions, events, or brands would encourage more shoppers to visit and spend their hard earned and dwindling leisure time with us?

These are the key questions, which if Nottingham can understand and respond to will ensure a positive future for the Queen of the East Midlands.

Thankfully, Nottingham City Council has realised we need to engage with the Nottingham shopper and have formed a steering group with The Nottingham Retail and Leisure BIDs, and Invest in Nottingham to produce a city centre retail strategy.

The first piece of work has been to commission research to measure accurately how the centre is performing and most importantly quantify the leakage of trade and destinations that threaten Nottingham together with the spend penetration.

If we understand the customer better and identify the gaps in the city centre mix, then the long term commercial success of the city will be assured.

This in turn will ensure investment continues in the physical fabric of the city which is a high priority, both for CSC, Nottingham City Council, and the consumer.