Have we seen the end of the big budget anchor store? Hopefully not – but they are having to change with the times and some are finding the process difficult.
Tn the pre-internet days of the 1990s, no shopping centre would be complete without a couple of anchor stores, the big shops at either end of the development that acted as both navigational beacons and a guarantee of the quality of the other stores within. When Bluewater opened in Kent it used its triangular shape to boast three anchors, a unique selling point at the time.
But as department stores have lost sales to online rivals many anchor sites have become a sad reflection of their former selves or closed altogether, with the collapse of Arcadia Group adding to the problem. The absence of anchors can reflect badly on an entire area, reducing its appeal and decimating footfall to other stores too.
Walking through shopping malls or town centres, it is impossible to ignore the gaping hole where a Debenhams used to be. The boarded-up former Topshop store is a sad reminder of happier times. Even John Lewis, once virtually the defining point of a prosperous retail location, has been closing stores.
As Retail Gazette has reported, these gaps have generated some creative thinking, with everything from homes and community spaces to student digs and ‘fun factories’ filling the disused anchor store spaces.
But there is also an evolutionary tale of newer retailers moving in or expanding. For example, a former Topshop site in Leeds is to become a large (46,000 sq ft) branch of Zara.
Walking round a typical UK shopping centre or high street shows how younger fashion chains such as Zara, H&M and Primark have increasingly taken space that was previously a department store or part of the Arcadia Group. These are the stores that drive human traffic to a shopping destination on a Saturday morning.
They are doing it by giving their customers an enjoyable experience at the right price, with a healthy dose of fun. Middle-aged parents might scoff, but their kids absolutely love the idea of there being a branch of Greggs inside the local Primark.
The shift away from buying useful things on these weekend shopping trips, towards discretionary purchases that are about the experience and the occasion as much as the item, could easily fill a dissertation.
It can sometimes feel that traditional retailers are locked into a downward spiral that they are making worse. On a recent mission to replace a kitchen mixer I decided to visit a department store to actually try out the range on offer – but the display was tiny.
“The full range is online,” said the assistant, with a grimace, as he waved goodbye to another customer. If the store doesn’t have a full range, there is no point visiting; if you’re buying online it will almost certainly be cheaper on Amazon. Nobody would invent the department store today.
If traditional anchor stores are to survive they must have a purpose. If they cannot match the internet for choice or price, they must beat it on experience. If not, people will stay away.