A couple of weeks ago I spent the day at the Trafford Centre, the 3rd largest mall in the UK, welcoming 30 million visitors a year with over 280 retailers and outlets spread across 207,000 square metres. Built in 1998, it was impressive back then. But now, are the marble walkways and Greek statues all a little dated? The tick box fountain, the Thunderbirds car on display in the centre… does INTU need to update this shopping centre for the 21st century.

So let’s look at the retailers and see what they are bringing to the centre….

It was a wet and miserable Tuesday, mid January, and yes, it was kind of reassuring to see that the big retailers were quiet, the mall itself was extremely lonely from 10am until around 12.30, and then got a lunchtime bustle of shoppers. But many of the individual retailers, particularly the bigger units, were very, very quiet.

Homesense – the homewares arm of discounter TK Maxx, is situated over in Barton Square in the HOME section of the centre, which, unfortunately is also undergoing a huge renovation project so it was difficult to shop and navigate around…. But the good news for that section of the centre, is they are getting the mecca of all retailers, a Primark. Due to open in March, with 248,000 sq ft of retail space, this will draw people to the Barton Square end of the centre for sure.

Trafford Centre Interior

Very well displayed ranges of cushions on the ground floor, by colour and then by type, and the same VM principles were applied to throws, picture frames, trinkets. It was well shopped, plenty of staff and the sale section didn’t look like a jumble sale. My gripe here is the over inflated RRP prices which then reflect a huge saving on the Homesense price…. No way was that Easter bunny toy ever meant to have a £29.99 RRP!

Homesense had gone huge into Easter… 6 metres of Easter decs, plush toys and decorative eggs… a sign that the UK is buying more into Easter décor – this has been on the gradual rise for 3-4 years now.

Homesense Easter Displays

Over in the main mall, we have a new look NEW LOOK! New fascias, new clean modern shop fits and a large spacious (perhaps too spacious) store. I thought this window display with dual models wearing the dress was particularly effective at this time of year… great price point, large POS and mannequins showing various “looks” you can achieve with the dress.

The style and feel of the shop is very modern, aimed at a younger audience ( huge focus on the 9-15 teen range) and the store itself was impressive, tidy, and had the feel of a more quality retailer rather than a low / mid priced retaile store.

New Look

At one end of the mall we have John Lewis, at the other Debenhams. So let’s focus on the struggling Debenhams. It’s easy to see why… empty shelves, a jumble sale feel of rails and rails of sale… and I mean absolute rubbish… white linen shorts at £22.99 ( was £29.99 … that’s no bargain in January is it?!) , damaged goods, beaded dresses with just £5 off for the damage…. Yes the sale area was sad and messy, and no real deals in there.

The rest of the store was clean, tidy but very uninspiring. The Julien McDonald section has clothes on mannequins which weren’t on the shop floor, there were no staff around to ask, and lots of duplication across the brands and concessions…. All fighting for that occasional customer who wandered in.

The upper floor was equally quiet although I did see some staff remerchandising what looked to be a lovely new homeware range… priced at John Lewis price points, with the quality of Dunelm. Some mismatch there!

Displays here and they were eye-catching, the escalator display was probably the most inspiring thing in the store, so Debenhams, I wish you good luck but don’t hold out much hope unless you instil some serious changes in your business model.


Onto another retailer whom I feel has struggled to find it’s position and identity in the market, WH Smith. A huge space in the centre, WH Smith faces competition from Waterstones, Smiggle, John Lewis, Paperchase, Typo and even Next and New Look etc offering stationery gifts. How can they be unique?

They’ve been focusing heavily on social stationery as a big draw in, with most of the prime space at the front of store taken up with water bottles and fashion stationery.

However the pricing structure is very much out of touch… far too expensive and some of the products as just plain useless. I picked up this 70’s vibe notepad folio case… love the design and feel of it, but for a lined notepad (with printed cover) shoved inside a PVC zip wallet, at £19.99, that’s not going to sell.

W H Smith Notebooks

There were so many different themes and ranges, spread over 15 metres, the customer is spoilt for choice, but I suspect the prices aren’t converting to sales.

W H Smith Notebooks 2

1 bay given to an eco range… I feel they really could expand on this and create a much more impactful display and story around this.

W H Smith Eco Range

Spot the customer !

W H Smith Spot the Customer

Some VM going on and empty shelves… but I was always taught to remerch before or after closing, not during trading.

W H Smith Empty Shelves

And then there’s the diversifying into confectionery and chocolates… it’s distracting, clogs up the till areas and again isn’t competitively priced (particularly against the grocers).

W H Smith Confectionery

More of there social stationery notebooks…so much choice

W H Smith More Notebooks

And at the other end of the centre, we have John Lewis. Rapidly securing more and more of Debenhams customers, they are a retailer with values, yes have been a little old fashioned and reluctant to move with the times, but with an ageing population, they know exactly who their core customer is, and target those first and foremost (anyone else they pick up on the way is pretty much a bonus)

The main topic I am focus in on with JL is their Valentines display… (I’ll cover JL as a specific blog in weeks to come). They haven’t over ranged, they have gone high end with champagne, hand made chocolates, glasses and mugs. A simple but effective display – in fact there wasn’t even any POS (perhaps a little early and may be out now) but the displays were impactful enough to clearly show the customer they could buy Valentines gifts.

The rest of the store was pretty quiet, some areas of sale (but still exceptionally tidy) , a bustling beauty department and tech floor too. JL are moving in the right direction.

John Lewis

So let’s see if February brings these shoppers out in force and into our stores and online. There’s no doubting that retail is challenging for all ranges of retailer, the multiple and the independent.

If you are an independent retailer and would like to be part of a free Facebook community group, where you can ask for advice, share a win, even have a moan, then come on over to my Facebook group, The Retail Biz club  https://www.facebook.com/groups/RetailBizClub

If you are looking for more hands on support, take a look at my VIP Membership club, I’ll be talking in more detail in my membership group about my findings in Manchester , and throughout the year when I’m out and about… and how some of the good techniques and tricks that the big retailers use, can be used in your business. https://www.rbqconsultancy.co.uk/the-vip-retail-biz-club/

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