x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Leeds leads European retail league

The northern English city is now home to the biggest new shopping centre to open in Europe this year as the developer Land Securities bucks a continent-wide trend.

Construction cranes stand at the Zorlu Center in Istanbul. Turkey has Europe's largest pipeline of shopping centers in development after Russia. Kerem Uzel / Bloomberg News
Construction cranes stand at the Zorlu Center in Istanbul. Turkey has Europe's largest pipeline of shopping centers in development after Russia. Kerem Uzel / Bloomberg News

If cold weather keeps people away from the shops - as so many British retailers have complained this winter - then the shoppers of Leeds in northern England are as indomitable as the toughest polar explorers.

In March in the Yorkshire city, the biggest shopping centre to open in Europe this year drew up the shutters and 130,000 people flooded in.

Known as Trinity Leeds, the centre owned by Land Securities, the United Kingdom's biggest property developer and owner, has bucked the European development trend. Construction started in a recession, stopped for 16 months while the financial crisis scared everyone, and then resumed, only to finish just as the UK narrowly avoided an unprecedented triple-dip recession.

Trinity Leeds has also opened as construction of shopping centres in western Europe and the UK is at a record low, according to research from CBRE, the international property consultant.

These are mature markets. European economies are on their knees, developers do not want to take the risk on untested locations and finance is very difficult to raise.

Meanwhile, most retailers, apart from a handful of international names, are reluctant to take new space.

"The thrust of shopping centre developments has shifted to emerging markets in eastern Europe and Asia, especially China, and also to fast-growing Latin American countries," says Neville Moss, the head of retail research for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at CBRE.

In Europe, Istanbul will remain the most active development market in coming years with 32 retail centres under construction. Development is also occurring in other cities, including Ankara where five are due to open over the next three years.

The next busiest market in Europe is Russia, which, like Turkey, is benefiting from strong economic growth and rising incomes. With some 815,000 square metres due to open over the next two to three years, the Russian capital Moscow leads the field.

Development has not completely dried up in the West. The region's largest urban shopping centre, Puerto Venecia in Zaragoza, Spain (123,000 sq metres) opened its doors in September. It was 93 per cent let on opening and proved a strong draw for international brands keen to expand from their own territories, including the British companies SuperDry, Primark and Sports Direct, Sweden's H&M and Apple of the United States.

Three new centres opened in Paris last year, and in Italy there were openings in Rome, Milan, Naples and Palermo.

These were the exceptions, however, with no new shopping centres in 73 out of the 93 European cities that CBRE surveyed as part of its global shopping centre development survey, which considered 180 cities around the world.

Cushman & Wakefield, another surveying firm, will publish research next week showing central and eastern Europe accounted for almost 65 per cent of all new shopping centre space added last year. This year, the proportions are expected to be even further skewed towards eastern Europe. Russia has the biggest pipeline for development due to be completed in this year and next.

"It is clear that an increasing number of mature western Europe markets are shifting focus towards refurbishing and extending existing schemes," says Neal Best, the associate director of the European research group at Cushman.

Of all new space delivered in western Europe last year, 35 per cent was provided by extensions to existing schemes - compared with just 8.5 per cent for central and eastern Europe.

Asset management has never been so important.

Ashley Blake, the director of retail portfolio management at Land Securities, says the company's next biggest retail developments will be an extension and redevelopment of Glasgow's Buchanan Galleries and an improvement to Oxford's Westgate centre, at the heart of the English university town. Intu, the owner of the Lakeside shopping centre in southern England and the Metro Centre in the north east, plans to spend more than £1 billion (Dh5.7bn) adding extensions to its 15 UK shopping centres.

Certain mid-market retailers, particularly in fashion, have been able to thrive, despite the economic doldrums, because of a new approach to achieving "national" coverage. According to James Ebel, the director at the retail property agency Harper Dennis Hobbs, not long ago a retailer needed to be in 300 locations around the UK to have national spread, now they need to be in 40 and to have a brilliant web site and distribution. Shoppers do not necessarily want to visit a small, diluted version of the shop they have heard about in London or New York - they want a similar eventful shopping experience - so shops are becoming bigger, more theatrical and more expensively fitted out, in fewer big-name locations, he says.

The Arcadia Group owner Sir Philip Green has said if a new retailer was starting up now, it would open a small number of flagship stores and create a strong internet business alongside.

Research from CBRE has found 40 per cent of international retailers want to increase their geographical coverage next year, up from 28 per cent last year.

Some 44 per cent plan to open 10 stores or less and a third of retailers plan to open between 11 and 30 stores. A fifth of retailers want to open more than 30 stores next year, slightly down from a quarter of retailers last year.

Peter Gold, the CBRE head of cross-border retail for Europe the Middle East and Africa, says research shows retailers believe store growth continues to be just as important as online expansion.

"It is seen as something that enhances, rather than replaces the idea of shopping as a social activity," he says.

Unfortunately, much of the development in eastern Europe has been in suburban shopping areas. This has been fine for domestic retailers and brands, but has not attracted international retailers and brands sufficiently.

"There is still a shortage of space in prime locations and retailers are very cautious about opening in locations, because of the considerable cost," Mr Moss says.

Hammerson, a UK property company that last year decided to focus solely on the development of shopping centres, insists there is still demand for space in the best locations. "While the difficult consumer environment makes it understandably tough for retailers to commit to new schemes, there is good demand for exciting new destination venues in cities and towns with a strong demographic which is not matched by appropriate retailer representation," it says.

Hammerson has started construction of a major retail and leisure scheme in Marseille, anchored by Printemps, which with a year to go before opening is more than 80 per cent let.

"We also intend to start on site with Victoria Gate, a 37,000 sq metres scheme anchored by John Lewis," a spokesman says.

And the location of this ambitious new centre? It is that under supplied market in a northern English city, Leeds.