Shopping centre dining report finds room for improvement

22 September 2005
Shopping centre dining report finds room for improvement

For the nostalgic among us, the Atlantic Village shopping centre near Bideford in Devon is well worth a visit. Its grim sandwich bar is a throwback to how shoppers were forced to eat 20 years ago.

But such an approach to catering is symptomatic of a short-sighted attitude that has been taken by shopping centre developers in more recent years.

A study earlier this month by property consultant CB Richard Ellis accused malls of relying too much on "cheap and cheerful" fast-food catering, thus alienating an increasing number of customers.

According to the study, young people (18-24 years old) were more likely to choose fast food, but a shopping centre that offered little else risked putting off older shoppers.

It found that while 40% of people now bought meals or snacks when shopping (double the level in the 1980s), 65% of adults who ate fast food did so only because they were accompanied by a child.

"Food offers that only meet the requirements of a small proportion of younger shoppers, inevitably reduce shopping centre dwell time and, ultimately, centre retail spend," says CB Richard Ellis senior director Catherine Lambert.

More diverse Although developers are grasping the fact that offering more diverse catering outlets equals more profit, it's a slow process, according to David Abramson, director of property agent Davis Coffer Lyons.

"It's becoming clear that shoppers are more likely to stay for an extended period when there are good catering outlets. Increasingly, the retail experience has to be combined with, and can be driven by, a more enhanced dining experience," he says.

Certainly, if you visit many of the big UK shopping centres, there is evidence of a changing attitude. While centres were once seen as a slightly alien environment for "proper" restaurants, it's now common to find big sites with mainstream names such as Pizza Express, Wagamama, and Tootsies.

The upmarket Carluccio's chain has cafs in shopping centres such as Dartford's Bluewater and north London's Brent Cross, points out Jonathan Doughty of catering consultancy Coverpoint.

"Bluewater and the Trafford Centre in Manchester are integrating their food with their leisure experience - for instance, their cinema. It has gone very much from fast food to quality restaurants," he says.

Sheffield's Meadowhall centre has also adapted to changing demand. "There has been a glut of new coffee shops in the past five years," says the centre's Kit Harris. "We've increased the size of the foodcourt substantially, adding a mezzanine level and a much wider range of restaurants."

The focus at Bluewater has been very much on creating "zones" where the food offer is matched to the retail, says head of marketing for lend-lease, Linsey Wooldridge.

"We have one area with more upmarket shops, and the restaurants there will mirror that environment," she says.

There has also been a growing demand for more healthy options and variety. Bluewater now has a Cantina Mariachi Tex-Mex restaurant and a Champagne and caviar bar.

Changing mind-set As a result of this changing mind-set, restaurant chains are beginning to target the shopping centre market. Ma Potter's has 15 restaurants, all but two of which are located in shopping centres. Another five are set to open next year, including one in Manchester's new Arndale Centre extension.

"People are eating out more, and the aesthetics, the quality of food and service have all had to change dramatically," agrees Ma Potter's chief executive John Gater. "Operations like Est Est Est and La Tasca would never go into shopping centres before, but people now want recognised, well-known brands," he adds.

What's also clear, argues Abramson, is that the trend is not being driven by one particular kind of shopper, although shoppers with families, because children want to sit down, are more likely to stop for a restaurant-style meal during the day.

Ladies who lunch "It's everything from young families to ladies who lunch to young men wanting a break from going around the shops," he says.

"It's very consistent with the fact that more and more of us are eating out. People don't want to go shopping these days if there isn't a casual dining offer attached with it."

But some believe that shopping centres need to go further still. Tony Horton, managing director of food consultant Tricon, argues that centres could be much more imaginative in how they think about food. Foodcourts serve a purpose, and many have got better, but they're often sterile and formulaic, he suggests.

"If you go to Camden market at the weekend you'll see an array of real quality operations using a wide range of ingredients, flavours and tastes," he says.

"Shopping centres could use this model to develop more exotic, authentic food offerings. Operators such as Chopsticks and Wasabi, who were already pioneering such food offerings and putting them in a retail setting, could well be the next obvious step," he predicts. Just don't expect to see it in Atlantic Village any time soon.

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