“Is Bluewater’s expansion killing Kent’s High Streets?”

Tim Radley, CEO VM-unleashed, interviewed on Radio Kent as part of its debate on retail in the county.



Bluewater Shopping Centre has recently been given planning permission for a number of expansions including a leisure development around its lake complex and the arrival of a new Primark flagship. Already under pressure from the regional super-shopping centre local towns are bracing themselves for another blow to their high streets.

But is it really time to write off the high street as a shopping destination?

Tim Radley expands on his points made in the breakfast show on Radio Kent – 29th September.



So, can the UK high street be saved? Well the answer is a resounding yes, but not in its traditional guise as an area lined exclusively with rows of shops, many of which are passive independents.

In a head-to-head fight just on retail there will be only one loser as out of town shopping centres, retail parks and superstores will continue to attract the vast share of shopper footfall. So the high street must evolve into something which complements the shopping centre not competes with it, something which is built around retail but not exclusively retail and which is both beneficial and attractive to the modern shopper.


One thing the modern shopper is not short of is choice, and where we choose to go and why we buy there, is a question of the benefits of an outing outweighing the negatives.

Online, now accounting for around 15{9a7291a7292e83c5148384adada0c82317c2655f4bcb859b5345564a4c272287} of retail sales, is of course an important part of the modern retail equation where the benefits of convenience, flexibility and time efficiency are very attractive particularly for those for whom the lack of interaction, experience and social occasion are not important. However for physical retail everything in the online world is not bad news.

Firstly, there is a clear trend that younger millennials are discovering the joys of physical shopping for the first time. Brought up on the assumption that virtual is the natural choice, and to their own surprise, an adventure to the new breed of shops full of theatre and excitement is bringing these lucrative customers out of their closeted shells. And secondly there is now a mass of data showing that physical stores have a large impact on both online sales and sales in general for a retail business.


Omni-channel is literally alive and kicking with energy enough to be a stimulant to all aspects of the world of physical retail.

Shopping Centres, and the larger the better, have clear benefits. There is enough free parking for a county of cars, they are safe & secure, have services from crèches to concierges and often have cinemas and expansive food courts to supplement the shopping. In deed Bluewater was at the very forefront in the evolution of this template with its 3 aisles each focused on a different demographic each housing homogeneous retail, banking, beauty services, cafes and restaurants.

But whilst these gleaming domes of commercialism will remain the destination for many, for many more the formula is becoming predictable and sterile despite the further introduction of leisure entertainment and more shops. The extension at Bluewater is not an idle whim but one born from the necessity to increase its appeal and excitement in order to maintain its income. Modern physical retail success is not a foregone conclusion for anyone – even Bluewater. And in terms of its shopper loyalty don’t be fooled. The often sizeable journey times and the sitting in motorway tailbacks to get the large shopping centres are no joyride and are increasingly becoming the deciding factor in the decision of many families to look more locally for retail solutions.


The trend, as is often the case, is being seen in the US where out of town centres are becoming tumbleweed territory. Too many years of ordinary centres, full of ordinary shops, selling ordinary product to uninspired people has delivered the death knoll not to high streets but to their predicted nemesis.

And there lays the opportunity for high streets, to be the destinations of choice to supplement the big occasion shopping centre visits with an ongoing supply of convenient, enjoyable and different shopping experiences.


But how to deliver this salvation shopping for the high street?

Firstly the negatives need to be absolutely minimised. High streets need to be safe & secure, well-lit and patrolled so that customers feel protected and are able to develop a trust with town centres that is currently lacking. Access needs to be easier and the great bugbear of parking needs to be addressed front on. Though often and unjustly used as the scapegoat for low town centre footfall parking must be managed intelligently and imaginatively from absolute free parking, to timed parking, loyalty parking savings and any number of other initiatives to remove this ever-present obstacle from the customer mind-set.

In a battle of benefits over negative obstacles, all of the negatives must be removed to give the high street at least a fighting chance. This is the first area where town councils have their first critical part to play.

Their next role is in the creation of attractive and enjoyable places to visit using every possible local lever to extract the customer from the easy-chair of e-commerce and into the bustling streets below. It is also where the council’s relationship with retailers really needs to kick-in.


When are councils wasting tax payer’s money in trying to revive the commercial corpse of the high street? When they spend it in isolation!

Town centres are “in it together” and their only way out is to “pull together.”

The retail mentality must change from businesses competing amongst each other for a smaller piece of an ever-shrinking income, to one mind competing as a retail destination in competition against other town centres, shopping centres, superstores and any location where retail raises its unlikely head.

Councils must coordinate this potential force for change by not only investing in attractive roads, street furniture, parks and areas of enjoyment but also in galvanising the communal spirit of businesses and individuals.

Initiatives that work are free Wi-Fi across the town, town loyalty schemes and reward cards, town-wide e-commerce support including fulfilment and delivery coordination, business workshops, retail surgeries through to a whole range of financially supported events, festivals, fayres, theatre and entertainment, merriment and markets, pop-up initiatives, promotional extravaganzas and every dynamic means possible to instil life and excitement into every brick on the road to success.

However all worthwhile investment must be made within the realisation of the larger picture facing high streets and town centres in general.


There need to be less shops…a smaller retail offer as part of something bigger!

Improvements in safety, comfort, attraction, life & excitement must fit into a high street model of more variety of leisure, food & drink, services, support agencies, local facilities and housing.


Commerciality will depend on community, and bringing housing into the high street equation where catchment is created literally on the doorstep and every objection to access and parking become irrelevant, is an absolute essential for the regeneration of the high street.


And so finally to the great elephant in the front room of high street retail. The main reason why people don’t shop in high streets is because the shops aren’t good enough!!

A retail strategy developed by councils, BIDs, Chambers of Commerce for any location must define the realistic and sustainable number of shops, the mix of categories required, the balance of national names and local independents, and the quality of overall offer.

It has to be the councils responsibility to engineer this model, to market and attract the missing pieces and of utmost importance to help existing retailers to achieve a higher level of professional retail delivery.


A high street will only learn to live again when its array of disparate independents, surviving on the promise of converting captive traffic only through convenience of location, is marshalled into a legion of “local destination retailers” – shops that local people look forward to visiting and to buying from, not discarding to the distant blue hills of history.

We all know these retailers… grocers, butches, home shops, pet shops, patisseries, florists, pharmacies and a myriad of potentially fascinating and idiosyncratic specialists, who all need the support of council in everything from store front painting grants to financial advice, guidance and amnesties, from the communal use of window visual specialists to training workshops in assortment structure, store operations, customer service and promotional marketing.


Retail ultimately is about the retailers. Raise the retail bar or remain in limbo!


And so there we have it.

High streets can survive and indeed flourish, even in the face of threats such as Bluewater.

However it requires not only physical changes and financial investment but a sea-change in mentality for all those involved from retailers to local councils and a major realisation that the traditional make-up of the high street and indeed town centres cannot remain the same but must become an immersive cocktail of retail, services, leisure and housing.


Commercial success will only come through an investment in Community.



What is the correct commercial proposition for you as a retail location?

What combination of retail stores, sizes, categories, price-points and tastes do you need?

What level of professional retail skills do your retailers have?

What support do you provide to evolve traditional independents into local destination retailers?


“The right shops & the best shops”

VM-unleashed has developed 2 tried & tested deliverables to make any high street retail offer relevant,  competitive and commercially successful.

Venue Mapping ensures that any retail location has the right critical mass and mix of shops, cafes and leisure outlets, the correct market positioning and a hit-list of appropriate retailers.

Vendor management works with councils, BIDs and individual retailers to introduce best practice retail processes and awareness, and advise on the introduction of tools across a retail community such as façade restoration, visual merchandising, loyalty programmes and online fulfilment.

Find out more at…