Why do we need more shops in Chester?

Chester has been falling down the UK’s retail rankings for some time. What that means is that other towns and cities – notably Liverpool and Manchester – have been upping their game through investment in new shopping facilities and, as a result, Chester’s shoppers are simply being drawn to shop elsewhere to buy the things they want.

Chester’s decline will undoubtedly continue without any intervention, and the number of shop vacancies will increase. But this trend is reversible through major investment in Northgate – a cross-party ambition of the council for many years. As well as providing a strong new leisure attraction in the city centre, the new shopping in Northgate is set to take Chester back into the UK’s Top 50 retail attractions.

UK top 100 retail centres - Chester's ranking since 2006

UK top 100 retail centres – Chester’s ranking since 2006

Are new shops needed at all now that we can buy everything online?

vm-j-j-1-crop-u7927First and foremost, human beings are inherently social animals and the difference between online and city centre shopping is entirely experiential.

Despite its convenience, sitting at home shopping online is a lonely activity that’s often tinged by disappointment when a new garment arrives but doesn’t fit.

In contrast, city centre shopping is a very social habit. We like going out to go shopping and we often use it as an excuse to meet and keep up with family and friends at the same time.

When clothes shopping, we also like to see and touch fabrics, try clothes on and see how they fit. And then maybe buy something to wear out later that same day or evening.

We also like to combine shopping with a meal out or a coffee break. Take a look at any modern high street and you will see that it has changed dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years. Cafés and restaurants are now to be found on every street.

In the last decade, retailers have been rapidly evolving and, as the nature of online shopping begins to mature, they are finding that they need to adopt a strategy of “multi-channel retailing” – combining “bricks & mortar” stores in the high street with a strong online presence.

Indeed, some purely online retailers are now beginning to look for a high street presence to reinforce their brand.

There is also strong evidence that the online stores of well-established retailers actually perform significantly better in locations where they also have a physical store. Possibly that’s because people like seeing the product for real but ordering it online and then using the store’s “click & collect” service.

As a result, most major national retailers are finding that they can service their customer base well with larger stores in relatively fewer locations than before.

So they are focusing their property searches on finding the right locations in the top 50 to 100 most attractive towns and cities. That’s one of the major reasons why Chester does need investment in new shopping to help it enhance and sustain its position in both the regional and national retail hierarchy.

Why will having more shops help when we’ve already got empty ones?

Chester needs to have a critical mass of shopping in order to compete well with other centres and properly serve its catchment population of 276,000 residents living within 20 minutes of the city centre. It also needs to provide retailers with the size of units they need to sell their full product ranges and dissuade them from seeking out-of-town locations.

Research shows that Chester needs up to 38,000 sqm of additional shopping space. Northgate will provide an additional 37,000 sqm. It will stem the flow of retail expenditure leakage by increasing the city’s attractiveness and thereby bring in more shoppers.

Also, Chester Northgate will help to create a much stronger shopping circuit – a big “figure of 8” with M&S and Primark anchoring Eastgate Street, Debenhams anchoring the Grosvenor shopping centre and Bridge Street, and a new department store anchoring Northgate and Watergate Street. That will enhance shopper flows around the city and help to make currently vacant units more viable and attractive to retailers.

So would GAP come back to Chester?

GAP left their store in Northgate Street because it no longer suited their modern retail requirements.

They have since indicated to the Northgate development team that they would consider coming back to Chester if an appropriately sized store in the right location became available.

What’s to stop existing retailers from moving into Northgate and leaving empty shops behind?

This question is one that was raised by the elected members of the council at an early stage and it will continue to be closely scrutinised throughout the development.

A protocol based on an agreed target tenant mix strategy will focus the scheme’s marketing campaign on retailers and other potential occupiers who do not already have a presence in Chester.

Where retailers seek to relocate into Chester Northgate, any proposed move will need to be fully justified before a lease would be offered. For example, such a move might be justified by a retailer’s need for a considerably bigger store, which in turn would also entail a significant investment in the both the city and the creation of additional jobs.