Ness-essary innovation

Published:  31 August, 2006

The unique shopping patterns of people in the Highlands has helped ensure Eastgate shopping centre in Inverness has bucked the trend in the current tough retail climate.

While many retailers up and down the UK have found trading difficult over recent months, tenants at Eastgate are still thriving. So much so, in fact, that retailers have reported sales growth in June to be as high as 46 per cent.

Centre manager Jackie Cuddy, who joined the team nearly two years ago, says: "I think it's the area - the catchment and the tourists. It's a really, really different retail environment. Where everyone else dips we dip, but not as much. June was a strong month here.

"The way people shop up here is fascinating. Inverness is a city now but it's almost like a local shopping centre as much as a regional shopping centre. People who come here come to shop, so the quality of customers is very good. The number of shops they visit when they're here and the amount of money spent is very good. People come over from the islands two or three times a year to buy a whole season's shopping."

As a result, the centre is to trial a hugely innovative marketing strategy in October whereby, with about a dozen retailers, including the Early Learning Centre and Laura Ashley, they will go on the road for a fortnight with a huge stock to sell to Skye and Stornoway in the first week and Wick and Thurso in the second.

"In the past we've gone out and done fashion shows, but Debenhams and Marks & Spencer go out and hire out a community centre and sell," says Cuddy. "There's no glitz and glamour to it at all. We have to get as much out as we can and stock it high, but people love it. They use the toilets to try things on and Debenhams say they get a lot of cardholders out of it.

"We're learning the demographics of the area from Debenhams, so we'll know what to take."

Eastgate shopping centre, which was built in 1983 by Royal Sun Alliance on derelict land with M&S as the anchor store, was extended in 2003 in order to accommodate the rise in demand for larger units. The extension, which saw the number of units almost double from 34 to 64, meant the centre had to build a bridge link to the other side of the road where the extension was again built on derelict land. The listed building where Laura Ashley and Pizza Express are housed was taken down stone by stone, with each brick numbered, and rebuilt the other way around, and Falcon Square was developed as an outdoor public space. A variety of new retailers, including Zara, which Cuddy highlights as a key opening, joined the scheme, while Monsoon and Claire's Accessories moved to make use of the new larger units,

The bridge link, which caused endless problems for the developers, eventually won the Outstanding Performance and Quality in Development on the Ground award at the Scottish Awards for Quality and Planning.

Currently there are plans afoot to make more of Falcon Square and to even build a cafe.

"It's an area crying out to have some kind of siting to make people stay," says Cuddy, who is on the board of Inverness City Centre Management and the Chamber of Commerce. "At the moment people pass though it. On the other side is the Old Town with independent shops and at the moment Falcon Square is a barrier between the two, but we want to make it into a hub that joins things together. We're starting to look at that now.

"We're looking at the possibility of making it a vibrant area. Maybe we could achieve that by putting in a food offer or a cafe, because you do get a lot of tourists in Inverness."

Meanwhile, inside the centre, there are six vacant units though there is interest from various retailers wanting to come to the city. Recent lettings have included T-Mobile and O'Briens, which are assisting the centre in moving forward in the right direction.

Cuddy says: "It's been a very fashion-led scheme to start with so we're looking to complement what's there already.

"I think it would be good and it would work very well if we attracted a very good home retailer."

Ross Wilkie of Cushman & Wakefield added: "Demand remains strong for Eastgate shopping centre and Inverness in general, which has the largest shopping catchment area in Europe at 10,000 square miles."

Cuddy's other area of interest is to make more of the opportunities presented by commercialisation. The centre has identified seven or eight spots for RMUs, from which some retailers are already trading, and about the same number of sites for promotions.

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=== vital statistics ===

eastgate shopping centre

Owner: Grosvenor

Managing agent: CBRE

Footfall: 9m

Inverness population: 70,000

Total catchment: 525,700

GLA: 410,000 sq ft

Anchor stores: M&S and Debenhams

Car parking spaces: 1,350

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