How ‘destinational experiences’ have helped buck retail trends

LESS than five years ago, Lotus Property couldn’t sell a house in affluent commuter town Banbridge for love nor money.

It had built a development of high-end semi- and detached homes on the site of a defunct shoe factor (once the town’s biggest employer) at what was known to locals as The Yellow Hill, right on the edge of the A1.

A mere stroll away was the Outlet shopping destination, which hadn’t ever really fulfilled its full potential (granted, the 2008 crash hit and controversy reigned over the building of the nearby Tesco).

Coming up to its 10th birthday, some 25 tenants at the Outlet had their leases about to expire and it had a paltry sales density of £155 per square foot. It was ignominiously referred to on TripAdvisor as “a wet and drafty wind tunnel”.

But according to Alastair Coulson, director of asset and property management at the Lotus Group, there then followed a stroke of genius in early 2016.

Along with real estate management firm Tristan Capital Partners, Lotus acquired both the 200,000 sq ft Outlet and Junction One in Antrim (it covers 500,000 sq ft) in an investment worth close to £50 million.

“We rebranded both retail parks, and things took off in a really quite exceptional way,” Coulson said.

“The Outlet became The Boulevard. We invested in roofing over the whole scheme, an extensive marketing and rebranding strategy, attracted more diverse brands, added lighting, introduced a food and film quarter and signed up an Omniplex multi-screen cinema.

“It completely reinvigorated the scheme to a mid-premium market position, and it has enjoyed an upwards trajectory ever since.

“Similarly, there had been no master plan vision at Junction One, which became simply the Junction, and since our acquisition we’ve pumped in more than £25 million,” he added.

This has included lettings to McDonalds (this along brought 100-plus full and part time jobs to the area), Nando’s and a 2,700 sq ft Starbucks drive thru.

And even in the midst of the calamitous trading conditions prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, both schemes are bucking the trend, according to Coulson.

“The most recent BDO tracker painted a pretty bleak picture of retail sales dropping across the UK after the initial spurt following the first week of reopening after the lockdown,” he said.

“But, in fact, we are seeing the exact opposite, which I believe points to perhaps a more confident consumer in Northern Ireland.

“Our big brand anchor tenants are performing particularly well. Indeed in the last fortnight, footfall was nearly 10 per cent higher than it was in the same fortnight last year, as we’ve major tenants consistently outperform many of the strongest UK schemes.

“We are constantly getting feedback that Northern Ireland is trading stronger than its UK counterparts,” he added.

And figures from Lotus’ prime schemes certainly back this up.

Two weeks ago, Beauty Outlet in Banbridge was fourth best in the UK, just behind Cheshire Oaks, Braintree and Castleford, with its weekly turnover up 45 per cent on last year.

The Works was up 47 per cent in sales versus last year and Nike’s nett weekly sales were 63 per cent better than the same week in 2019.

“Others like ProCook (up 232 per cent) and Julian Charles (up 211 per cent) have been knocking the ball out of the park while M&S sales last week were up 12 per cent on last year,” Coulson said.

Indeed figures released this morning by retail analysts Springboard reveal that, in the July 12-18 week, footfall at retail parks in Northern Ireland was down in every region of the UK but rose by 2.1 per cent in Northern Ireland.

“We’re seeing that the Northern Ireland consumer is more confident to come out and spend.

“People have been cooped up for so long and crave a destinational experience. And they know they can get that with us – on ambience, on price and on variety.

“During the lockdown we’ve also secured two exciting new brands for the Boulevard. We’re going through the legal processes with the tenants right now but will be in a position to make an announcement quite soon.

“A tremendous amount of work has gone in to make sure we remain an attractive proposition after 14 weeks closed at the Boulevard.

“But the public has voted with its feet, and we’re delighted to have bucked the trend with our bricks and mortar offer.”

And as for those Lotus properties that couldn’t be shifted? They’re all gone. What a difference five years has made.