August 2012 Archives
Marks and Spencer's 150,000 sq ft Cheshire Oaks outlet opens today, marking the culmination of a seven-year project for the retailer, and perhaps a new dawn in sustainable retail development.
The store is M&S' second-largest outlet in the U.K. behind the Oxford Street flagship, and opens during a troublesome year for the brand in which profits have dipped and heads have rolled.
From an environmental point of view, the store seems a success without even trading so much as a penny. Features such as the breathable walls, displacement ventilation, biomass boiler and the rainwater harvesting system will all contribute to the a reduction in the store's carbon usage, energy consumption and reliance on mains supply.
To see such a prominent retail brand follow through with an environmental project of this scale is indeed encouraging, and has drawn deserved acclaim even from those who criticised the project soon after its inception. But for CEO Mark Bolland and his fellow M&S executives, what will surely matter most is what level of commercial success the store achieves.
To this end, the retailer has chosen the Cheshire Oaks outlet as the first to feature free Wi-Fi - soon to be rolled out nationwide - to complement other innovations such as QR codes, dotted around the store in order to supply customers with more information about products and the shop itself.
Staff will be armed with iPads to help navigate patrons around the various elements of the store, including an 18,000 sq ft 'Home' department - larger than that of Oxford Street - and the new skincare section. There are also deli counters and bakeries located around the store, in addition to two cafes.
Being, as it is, an unprecedented venture in terms of both product range and store design, the shop will undoubtedly provide the 'unique customer experience' mentioned by M&S director of retail, Steve Rowe. The challenge for Marks and Spencer is to ensure that the shop's performance doesn't suffer once the novelty factor disappears, as with an ambitious and revolutionary project such as this, the key to long-term success is sustainability.
Environmentally, Marks and Spencer have ensured that the store is possibly more sustainable than any other in the country - but they have to remain ahead of the curve in terms of technological innovation and product selection to ensure longevity for the store's commercial success.
In four weeks time, Sunday trading hours will revert back to normal after the exceptions made during the Olympic period.
Unsurprisingly, it has emerged that several big-name retailers have been in consultation with the government over a permanent relaxation of the trading restrictions; citing the benefits that the market has enjoyed over the last few weeks as a reason to pursue the possibility of wider reform. Equally unsurprisingly, smaller retailers and certain trade organisations are vehemently opposed to the move.
When the legislation was proposed earlier this year, there were concerns rumbling through the House of Lords that it would be a precursor to abandoning trading restrictions altogether, as the Bishop of Chichester observed:
"It sounds suspiciously like a stalking horse for wider deregulation for which some retailers have been campaigning for some time."
Similar concerns were also put forward by various members of the opposition, including Tessa Jowell and Ann Coffey - but these appeared to be allayed by leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, who replied:
"It will apply only to the Sundays during the Olympics and Paralympics, so it will be strictly confined to that period. It is not our intention at this stage to go for the wider reform."
The key quote perhaps comes from Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs Norman Lamb, who gave a written answer alongside that given by Sir George Young, stating:
"Should the government ever decide that a more permanent suspension of the Sunday trading rules is necessary, legislation and a full consultation will be required."
The concern for those opposed to the permanent relaxation of the trading laws is that the government's current discussions with major retailers is the beginning of that "full consultation", and that once the Olympic Games' total benefit to the country's retailers is calculated, those figures will be extrapolated over a twelve month period to give a picture of what permanent reform can achieve.
The reality is that to allow supermarkets and larger out-of-town stores to open for up to and including 168 hours a week will undoubtedly deepen the existing high street and town centre crises which the government appears to be attempting to remedy. In addition, we shouldn't take the last few weeks' trading as being a typical reflection of what can be assumed as regular, were the trading laws to be fully relaxed.
Corner-shops and other sub-3,000 sq ft stores will get their competitive weekend edge back on September 16th. If the government is seriously looking at potential ways to remove it through Sunday trading reforms, then they are actively diluting the effectiveness of previous legislations aimed at reinvigorating town centres and high streets.
I would therefore ask that they resist the temptation to give a figures-massaging boost to footfall and total spend with this potential reform, and instead continue to examine the root causes underpinning the UK's troubled retail scene.
For Bradford residents, last month's announcement that Marks & Spencer and Next had agreed deals to anchor Westfield's proposed mega-mall in their city might have given them a sense of deja-vu.
The news would have sounded strikingly similar to something they may also have heard in May 2008, since which time the project has suffered almost irreversible damage at the hands of the recession, leading many in the town to abandon hope that the proposed scheme will ever get built.
Construction on the development was abandoned in February 2009, and the 12-acre site has lain vacant ever since. The 'hole-in-the-ground' is encircled by graffiti-plastered hoardings which illustrate in no uncertain terms the level of resentment felt in the town towards Westfield - initially latent, now vociferous - and exacerbated in no small part by the Australian developer's financial commitments to their schemes in the south.
The battle to redevelop Croydon's Whitgift Centre now appears to be at the forefront of Westfield's plans for the U.K. - with the developer claiming it is ready to spend £1 billion on the project. It emerged yesterday that the company wants to treble that investment across the UK - but with an expressed focus on London-based developments.
A parody Westfield Bradford twitter account commented: "Westfield's £3bn commitment includes Bradford...to the tune of £12.70...including VAT", before adding: "...there is actually no evidence Westfield wants to spend £12.70 in Bradford - sorry if I got your hopes up."
This rather accurately summarises the sentiment in Bradford surrounding Westfield. They have had to stand by whilst the company plunged around £1,743m into Westfield Stratford City, simultaneously scaling down the Bradford project from a £350m scheme into a £275m scheme - all against the backdrop of a big, empty patch of land in their city centre. Now, with Westfield claiming to be looking at a £3bn investment in the UK, there remains no real indication that we won't be back here again in four years, with retailers once again re-affirming their commitment to a mall which only exists on paper, in a city exasperated by endless setbacks.
I've no doubt that Westfield are doing all they can to deliver the Bradford scheme, and they will point to the fact that the anchor deals are for the revised development given permission last October, indicating that the scheme remains deliverable. However; until the mall is open and thriving, the Yorkshire city's level of contempt, frustration and despair will remain ardent - and even then, it might not fully disappear.